Click here to view the newsletter online
Oxfam

VOICES FROM THE DESERT
THE SAHRAWI REFUGEE CAMPS February 2015, 2

Background Oxfam Archives Contact Share es | fr
Read article 1

Humanitarian aid can be a true revolution

A description of where Sahrawi refugees live

Read more

Read article 2

Channelling the energy of youth

The role of youth centres in the camps

Read more

Read article 3

Coordinating humanitarian actors

The humanitarian response for 2015

Read more

$37 million

Estimate of needs for 2015 by humanitarian actors (excluding "basic food basket").

$37 million

This is what Warren Buffet earned in 2013… per day.

75%

In November 2014, 75% of the needs identified (i.e. $28 million) had not yet been covered for 2015.

Read testimony

Bulahi Brahim Esmlali, age 28

"Acquiring and passing on expertise"

Read more

Read testimony

Salma, age 11

When school becomes one of life's few leisure activities

Read more

Read testimony

Galuha Bahia, age 64

Humanitarian aid can be a true revolution

Read more

Share on Facebook Facebook
Twitter Twitter

Background

A forgotten refugee crisis in the heart of the Sahara desert

The Sahrawi refugee situation is considered a forgotten crisis, as defined by the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department ECHO : a severe, protracted humanitarian crisis situation where affected populations are receiving no or insufficient international aid and where there is no political commitment to solve the crisis, due in part to a lack of media interest.

When Spain withdrew from its Western Sahara colony in 1975, it handed over control to Morocco and Mauritania. The division and the expanding control of Morocco and Mauritania over the Territory triggered the armed conflict with the Frente POLISARIO, who represented the interests of the indigenous populations of Western Sahara. The Frente POLISARIO proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976. Morocco and the SADR were left face-to-face when Mauritania withdrew from the Territory. Although the two parties accepted mediation from the United Nations in 1991, up to the present date the conflict remains unresolved.

Caught in the crossfire, the Sahrawi refugees installed themselves in Algeria - in the region of Tindouf - in 1975, hoping to return home. The climate in this region is extremely harsh. Access to basic resources such as food, water, healthcare, housing and education is very limited. The largely isolated camps offer almost no employment opportunities, creating a dependency of the refugees on remittances and international aid.

Map

More about the location

Back to top

Oxfam

Merging humanitarian aid with partner capacity-building

Oxfam works in more than 90 countries around the world, striving for a just world without poverty. Our humanitarian program in the Sahrawi refugee camps, where Oxfam has been active since 1975, focuses on food security. It is implemented in cooperation with local partners and funded by the European Union.

However, humanitarian assistance is not sufficient: it is vital that the decolonization process of the non-self-governing territory of Western Sahara be completed in line with international law.

In the Maghreb region, Oxfam's efforts cover Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and the Western Sahara territory, focusing on four sectors: promoting gender equality, bolstering the ability of citizens to make their voices heard, ensuring that they have equitable access to opportunities and economic resources, and providing humanitarian assistance to the populations affected by the Western Sahara conflict.

More about Oxfam and Western Sahara

Back to top

The Tindouf camps

A description of where Sahrawi refugees live

Sahrawi refugees are spread out across five camps. Aousserd, Boujdour, Dakhla, Laâyoune and Smara are located in south-western Algeria and cover around 6,000 km2, the size of a French department or a Spanish province. Each camp bears the name of a major town or city in Western Sahara.

In addition to these five camps there is Rabouni, the "administrative and political capital", which houses the various “ministries” of the refugee authorities in place in the refugee camps, as well as some small shops. Each camp is broken down for administrative purposes into wilayas (provinces), daïras (municipalities) and barrios (districts). In total, there are five wilayas – the official name for a camp – 29 daïras and 116 barrios.

When the first refugees were exiled in October 1975, Dakhla, Laâyoune and Smara (currently the most populated camps) were the first to be set up. While Aousserd was founded in 1986, the history of Boujdour – formerly known as the "27 February Camp" - is unlike any other camp: "Since the end of the 1970s, women settled there in order to organise training activities specifically for Sahrawi women. It was only gradually over the years that a true camp was set up there", explains Dahi Abdelaziz, a leader of the Sahrawi Red Crescent.

Boujdour, the only camp with electricity, also acts as a "cultural centre": a number of civil-society organisations are set up here, as well as schools of art, music and audiovisual media. Boujdour remains the most populated camp.

The geographic location of Dakhla – the furthest camp from Rabouni, at 150 km away – makes it the most expensive camp in terms of food supplies. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), white meat, eggs and fruit are, respectively, five, four and three times more expensive. In addition to prices, the availability of products varies between the different camps, with Laâyoune offering the fewest varieties of fruits and vegetables on its market.

According to the WFP and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Aousserd and Laâyoune have the poorest quality of water. Overall, 62% of people living in the camps drink water at risk of contamination due to the poor condition of the water tanks.

View the geographic location of the camps

Back to top

Channelling the energy of youth

The role of youth centres in the camps

While humanitarian aid is indispensable in the Sahrawi camps, it is no longer sufficient to meet refugees' needs. The Sahrawi Youth Union (UJSARIO), the main youth organisation in the camps, seeks to complement this aid through initiatives that aim to respond to the growing frustration among young people.

Since the early 2000s, signs of frustration have been appearing in Sahrawi young people's discourse, caused by the stalling of the UN process and the absence of job prospects. "Young Sahrawis are educated and aware of the world around them. They have been exposed to television, the internet, travel and study", states Zein Sidahmed, secretary general of UJSARIO.

This young population, “among which individualist ideas grow” according to K. Mohsen-Finan, an associate researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris, finds itself, at the same time, deprived of the deepest aspirations, whether social, material or political.

UJSARIO has several different departments (including those dedicated to young women, workers, international affairs, etc.), 700 "active members" and 20 volunteer branches. Ten years ago, it launched a plan to build "youth houses", with a view to helping adolescents and young adults who are unable to continue their studies or find a job to regain some direction: "Until then, there had been no space dedicated to young people and managed entirely by them".

Today, there is one regional centre for each wilaya, which in turn oversees the local centres (20 centres for 29 daïras). In Smara, for example, several educational activities are carried out simultaneously: IT, sports, conferences or debates, French or Spanish courses, support for disabled people, micro-finance projects, and even a sewing workshop, with the items produced being sold to help the group to be self-sufficient.

"We have a network of 15 permanent staff and around 150 volunteers across the entire wilaya", says Mohamed Mohamed Lamin, head of the Smara regional branch, who is concerned: "For me, the most important thing is to make the most of their skills. Thanks to politics and social engagement, we have managed to protect these young people from violence for 23 years. But I know that we cannot do that forever".

Back to top

Coordinating humanitarian actors

The humanitarian response for 2015

From one year to the next, improving the quality of humanitarian aid becomes increasingly difficult due to the fragile situation of the refugees and the growing lack of resources with which to meet their humanitarian and social needs. Coordinating and improving aid therefore becomes a logistical and human challenge.

Every year, between October and November, NGOs, the UN and refugee authorities – health and social affairs "ministries", among others – come together and attempt to define the refugees' humanitarian needs and draw up a framework for a joint cross-sector response.

In order to best define these needs, sectoral meetings - in the areas of food security, health, education, housing, protection, etc. - are organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), together with the main local and international NGOs and agencies concerned. A subsequent plenary meeting is held to centralise the information and present it on a sector-by-sector basis. The budget is drawn up based on this analysis of needs. For 2015, the total needs were estimated at $37 million, excluding $25 million relating to the "basic food basket". At the time of the November 2014 meeting, only 25%, or $9 million, had been secured.

The actors in the various sectors meet throughout the year to assess how the humanitarian and social situation is progressing in their sector. For example, the organisations that are active in the area of food procurement (namely the Sahrawi Red Crescent, the Spanish Red Cross, the World Food Programme (WFP), the Paris International Accommodation Centre (Centre International de Séjour de Paris, or CISP) and Oxfam organise an "annual round table for food cooperation", which is supplemented by monthly meetings that shape strategic and operational food aid measures on the ground.

Finally, the needs-analysis set out in annual or biannual documents such as the Inter-Agency Participatory Assessment and the Joint Assessment Mission, published jointly by the UNHCR and the WFP, allow the different coordination meetings to take into account the beneficiaries' points of view, as obtained through focus groups or individual interviews.

Back to top

Bulahi Brahim Esmlali, 28

"Acquiring and passing on expertise"

At 28 years old, Bulahi is a working man and his free time is scarce. His situation is unusual, since the vast majority of young people in the camps do not have a job:

"Working for a humanitarian organisation is a privilege for me. Few people work for an organisation like mine. On a personal level, I identify with its values and appreciate the confidence it gives me".

He says: "My family is proud of me. They tell me I should use this job to develop as a person. My close friends are the same, even though the scarce job opportunities for my generation make me realise how privileged and fortunate I am".

Within the refugee camps, the Sahrawis who are able to get a job in the humanitarian community take their role extremely seriously. For Bulahi, it is first and foremost a personal accomplishment: "I'm learning things that few people get the chance to know here. That's what counts - education - at both ends of the chain. In my organisation, I learn about preserving fresh produce, nutrition and the logistics of food distribution, just by having daily contact with my colleagues. ".

For Bulahi, the most important thing about working for a humanitarian organisation is not just acquiring expertise, but passing it on and sharing it: "In an environment like ours, where opportunities are limited, that is the most important thing".

He goes on: "Personally, I am learning how to earn a salary and manage it. As a driver, I am responsible for a number of people, including both Sahrawis and foreigners. "

Bulahi cites the example of one of his Sahrawi colleagues, who is also a driver and became a project leader. With a smile, he says a "new approach [is] needed" when speaking about the growing number of graduates while job opportunities remain almost non-existent: "Perhaps if there were more Sahrawis within each NGO, particularly in positions of responsibility, this acquisition of expertise would have a more positive impact on the community".

Back to top

Salma, 11

When school becomes one of life's few leisure activities

In September, Salma went back to school. Her smile remains the same, despite the additional little challenges that arise when winter sets in.

When she comes back from school to eat at midday, her mother and older sister are preparing the tea. The cold inside the house is the same as at school, says Salma: "It gets very cold, especially in the morning ", she murmurs. The dilapidated condition of the schools makes the pupils' everyday lives relatively difficult during this season.

Despite everything, her enthusiasm remains the same. "She still likes school as much as ever. She often gets up before me in the morning to prepare the breakfast so she can be early", laughs her mother. Her sister goes further: "One night, she folded her things for the next day right next to her bed, so as not to lose any time getting to school! ".

Since the beginning of the year, Salma has been obtaining a series of good marks in her various subjects, be it learning Arabic or Spanish. Nearby, the camps offer few leisure or non-school related activities for children of her age. Salma says: "Most often, I play with my friends, either at traditional games or games using what we find outside, such as dodgeball".

With a timid air, Salma continues: "I have a friend who has a television. She sometimes invites me to watch it with her". In winter, which lasts from November to March in the Algerian Sahara desert, the routine changes slightly for children. They try to occupy themselves as much as possible inside small rooms or traditional tents, despite the fact that leisure options are very limited.

In this context, school becomes a place of leisure for children as much as anything else. For Salma, school represents both a means of escape and a daily pleasure: "I have always dreamed of becoming a nurse and going to study medicine abroad like my older brother, who was fortunate enough to be able to study in Venezuela".

Back to top

Galuha Bahia, 65

Humanitarian aid can be a true revolution

Last November, terrible floods ravaged a number of houses in the Laâyoune wilaya. Galuha points out the many effects - mainly in the form of long cracks - on the walls of her house: "It's at times like those that you remember that it is only made of sand", she sighs.

While water can have a devastating effect in the desert, it has also long been the main source of concern for the Sahrawis, as Galuha says: "When we arrived here at Laâyoune, finding water was a permanent challenge: people spontaneously got organised to build wells in each daïra. After the exile, this was yet another fight to deal with ".

She goes on: "We continued with this system until 1994, when an epidemic linked to water contamination forced us to have tanks.  I remember some terrible winters". Galuha says that her first memories of water and sanitation aid come from that year.

Humanitarian aid has evolved over the years: "Thanks to humanitarian aid, the situation has gradually improved". With a big smile, she gives a detailed description of the arrival of meat in the early 1980s, and the return of milk and fruit. "As a Sahrawi, meat and milk are part of my culture. Milk is also essential for our children".

Galuha also mentions the recent arrival of electricity in her home thanks to solar panels (Bujdur being the only camp with electricity): "Along with several other families, we all chipped in to buy one here in 1994. Our first lamps ran on tins! ", she smiles, talking about a "true revolution" when mentioning the slow arrival of the first small gas bottles, then of the first solar panels.

Thinking about one of her grandchildren, Galuha finds it normal for young people to be more inflexible when it comes to aid quality."In order to make the most of their future, each generation must gradually improve their living conditions". She lists the challenges still to be tackled: water quality (through the replacement of dilapidated tanks), the continued diversification of the food basket, and nutrition programmes for children.

Back to top

This newsletter is compiled by Oxfam from the best available information and drawn from reliable international sources as well as our experience in the refugee camps. This newsletter intends to give factual information and share impressions from the men and women who are themselves affected by the prolonged refugee crisis. Opinions expressed in this newsletter are from the persons interviewed alone, and do not necessarily represent Oxfam's position.

UnsubscribeECHOOxfam