Tens of thousands of refugees homeless after rains wipe out shelters

Aid agencies are rushing to help some 60,000 Western Sahara refugees after freak rains late last week wiped out houses and schools and damaged hospitals in camps in eastern Algeria.

Because the rains - reportedly the worst seen in the area since 1994 - came on the heels of the UN World Food Programme’s February distribution, refugees have lost an entire month’s food supply, a WFP official told IRIN on Wednesday.

“Heavy, concentrated rains [at the end of last week] basically melted houses, administration buildings, the Red Cross building and schools,” said Michelle Iseminger, head of WFP’s office in Tindouf, Algeria. Aid workers say flooding also severely damaged hospitals and markets.

“[Refugees] had just received their monthly distribution,” she said.

It is estimated that more than 150,000 Sahrawis - people from the disputed territory of Western Sahara - have lived in five refugee settlements near Tindouf since 1975; it is not clear exactly how many are currently in the camps. UN humanitarian agencies are assisting some 90,000 of the most vulnerable refugees.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said the rains destroyed up to 50 percent of the mud brick houses in Awserd, Laayoune and Smara camps, leaving another 25 percent of shelters “seriously damaged and on the verge of collapse.” A fourth settlement was also severely damaged.

Using its own emergency funds, WFP will begin a one-month distribution to replace the food destroyed by the rains. But the agency says the refugees’ new plight will put a burden on already strained food aid resources for the Sahrawi refugees.

“This makes WFP’s needs tremendously more urgent,” Iseminger said.

In a statement on Thursday, WFP said it needs about US $3.6 million to cover food needs for the refugees over the next six months. “WFP intends to continue helping the refugees but it can only do so with the help of the international community,” WFP regional director Amir Abdulla said after a visit to the camps. “That help is needed more than ever.”

He added, “These people are already facing hardship. Now many are homeless and in urgent need of emergency assistance.”

WFP says 35 percent of children under five in the camps suffer chronic malnutrition.

UNHCR is preparing an airlift of tents, blankets, jerry cans, mattresses and plastic sheeting from the agency’s regional warehouse in Jordan, a UNHCR statement said. A UNHCR official at headquarters in Geneva said the airlift is expected “in the coming days.” The agency will also send an emergency team - including a water and sanitation specialist and a site planner - to the area to work with UN officials already on the ground.

The Algerian government has provided tents and other supplies in recent days, humanitarian officials said.

Western Sahara - a 266,000-kilometre area of desert lying between Mauritania and Morocco - has been at the centre of a sovereignty dispute since Spain let go its colonial grip in 1975.

The following years saw sporadic fighting between Morocco and the Polisario Front - the group seeking independence for Western Sahara - until the parties signed a ceasefire in 1991.