Photo: Mais Salman/DRC

Mitigating the effects of the global health crisis in the Saharawi refugee camps

The COVID-19 health crisis is exacerbating an already dire situation for the Saharawi refugees in south western Algeria. Long-term needs must be addressed to mitigate ramifications of the crisis.


The Saharawi refugee situation is one of the most protracted conflicts in the world. Saharawi refugees have remained displaced in southwestern Algeria for more than four decades. Pending a political resolution of the Western Sahara conflict, the refugee population of more than 170.000 people[1] remains dependent on international assistance for its basic needs and remains extremely vulnerable in a hostile desert environment, with little access to outside resources, and limited opportunities for self-reliance.

To date 14 COVID-19 cases have been detected in the Tindouf province of south western Algeria, near to which the refugee camps are situated. No cases have yet been reported in the Saharawi refugee camps, likely as a result of the early precautionary measures implemented within and between camps. While an outbreak of the virus in the Saharawi refugee camps would have severe consequences, ramifications of the global health crisis are however already being felt.

As a precautionary measure, all non-life saving humanitarian services have been indefinitely suspended.  Restrictions of both humanitarian services and movements to and from the camps as well as broader country-wide restrictions has detrimentally affected the economy of the camps and are anticipated to continue to negatively impact livelihoods within the camps and mine action operations in Western Sahara East of the Berm. A business owner in the Dakhla Refugee Camp describes how the crisis has impacted her business: “We live in the most remote refugee camp of Dakhla and COVID-19 has seriously affected our newly-created small family Couscous business. Prices of basic foodstuffs and raw materials have rocketed due to the movement restriction measures, and we have been forced to temporarily close our business.”

Similarly, another business owner in the Boujdour Refugee Camp says: “By the first week of the lockdown introduced by the local authorities, our traditional bakery business was significantly impacted. Our monthly sales of bread decreased by 70% due to the sharp fall in customer demand. We also faced a significant shortage of essential raw materials - such as flour and oil - due to our inability to access our suppliers in the nearest Algerian city of Tindouf."

The Saharawi Ministry for Youth and Sports anticipates that the crisis will have long-term impacts, in particularly in regards to loss of livelihoods, and will exacerbate the needs of the Saharawi refugees: “Due to the movement restrictions between camps and with surrounding cities and the temporary suspension of field activities supporting the livelihood programs, small businesses and service owners have lost their incomes, and many families have been pushed into debt to cover their basic needs and provide for themselves. We appeal to donors to take this increase in need into account”. 

DRC calls for support to the joint appeal by humanitarian actors present in the camps to address the public health needs and immediate humanitarian consequences of the pandemic in the Saharawi refugee camps. DRC plans to contribute to current prevention efforts by integrating awareness raising on how to avoid contamination and spread of the virus in its mine risk education (MRE) activities to be deployed in the Western Sahara, East of the Berm, as part of its mine action program, as soon as restriction measures are lifted.

While DRC’s livelihoods programming and mine action field activities were suspended on March 17th due to movement restrictions, DRC has implemented alternative remote-working modalities for activity implementation to be able to resume field activities and contribute to mitigating the longer-term negative effects of the crisis when restrictions are eased. As movement restriction measures within the camps and between the camps and Tindouf were lifted on June 11th, DRC is currently planning for the resumption of its activities. Long-term needs of vulnerable communities must be addressed as part of the crisis response to mitigate ramifications of the Covid-19 crisis.

DRC has worked in Algeria since 2016. See here for more on our work in Algeria.

See also the Danish Refugee Council's global appeal: Protecting the Displaced during the Covid-19 crisis.

[1] 173,600 refugees, according to the last UNHCR estimate from 2017