The Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony previously known as the Spanish Desert. Since 1975, the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, led by the Polisario Front, has been locked in a devastating war with Morocco over that territory. The conflict has led to a significant influx of refugees to Algeria who settled in five camps in the province of Tindouf. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office has consistently delivered aid to Sahrawis placed in these camps.
Due to lack of cooperation from Algeria, however, the European Union (EU) has not been able to conduct a census and identify the exact number of refugees in the camps. Although the Joint Research Center of Ispra estimated the population of those camps to be 90,000 in 2004 (similar to UNHCR’s findings), the Algerian government claimed the number is closer to 158,000 in that same year.
The EU Aid Office, accepting the Algerian government’s figures, sent the equivalent of EUR 105 million in humanitarian aid to the camps in Tindouf between 1994 and 2004. An investigation conducted by the European Anti-Fraud Office in 2007 discovered that medical equipment, part of the aid package, was being sold to Algerian citizens living in Tindouf and Algiers. The investigation also revealed that health workers were filling crates of medications and medical supplies to sell outside the camps.
The camps’ healthcare system is dependent on foreign funding. Unfortunately, the UNHCR has reported that the situation remains dire. Fraud and embezzlement have only exacerbated existing challenges like shortages in medicine, a need for new ambulances, lack of medical equipment, and poor infrastructure.
The Sahrawi refugees trapped in the Tindouf camps remain the most affected by embezzlement and the poor infrastructure of the health sector. The diversion of medical aid entitled to the camps’ population limits refugees’ access to vital treatment. By embezzling medicine and medical supplies meant for Sahrawi refugees, the Government of Algeria is limiting refugees’ access to medical care, and thereby breaching the non-interference principle of medical impartiality.