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VOICES FROM THE DESERT
THE SAHRAWI REFUGEE CAMPSDecember 2015

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Flooding in the Sahrawi camps

Timeline and consequences

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Children on the frontline 

118 classrooms destroyed by the floods

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Urgent restoration of health centres

All the dispensaries and the central pharmacy have been affected.

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17.841

Number of Sahrawi family homes destroyed by flooding.

100%

Percentage of families affected in the Dakhla camp alone.

17.000

Number of families whose food stocks were destroyed.

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Salma, age 12, Bujdur


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Bulahi, age 30, Bujdur/Dakhla


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Galuha Bahia, age 66, Laâyoune


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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

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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

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Flooding in the Sahrawi camps

Timeline and consequences

Between 16 and 24 October this year, exceptionally heavy downpours caused unprecedented destruction in the Sahrawi refugee camps. While heavy rain is a common occurrence in the camps at this time of year, floods had never been seen on such a massive scale before.

On the 20th of October, when the prime minister of the Sahrawi government officially announced a state of natural disaster, it was estimated that the flooding had affected 11,440 families (according to the Sahrawi Red Crescent), or 25,000 people (according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR). The final assessments of the material damage caused conducted by the UNHCR, with the help of NGOs, revealed a much more severe situation. While no deaths were recorded, precisely 17,841 Sahrawi refugee family homes – either houses built of adobe (sand bricks) or traditional tents – were damaged, of which 50% were completely destroyed.

According to the World Food Programme, 17,000 families, or around 85,000 people, saw their food stocks completely destroyed. The Dakhla camp was ravaged, with 100% of families affected by the destruction. Public institutions were also affected: 118 classrooms were destroyed in 62 schools, while hospitals and dispensaries were also badly hit.

The severity of the situation required a strong response from all humanitarian aid actors. To facilitate coordination with the Sahrawi authorities and transport the first emergency supplies, UN agencies and NGOs set up a series of groups dedicated to each area: housing, food aid, health, water and sanitation, education, and protection. A large solidarity movement also spontaneously sprang up among the Sahrawis themselves, providing assistance to the Dakhla camp in particular. All the humanitarian actors also launched an urgent appeal for donations, with the UN seeking some $20 million. To date, the emergency response has reached around €7 million, not including the significant aid in kind provided by the Algerian Red Crescent and Algerian associations made aware of the disaster.

Two months after the floods, the top priority remains the reconstruction and restoration of homes and institutions. It is still an emergency situation: a great many families are beginning to rebuild with the same fragile materials: “The families don’t have time to wait, because they need a roof over their heads. The vast majority of them can’t afford to buy cement”, says Fadel Mohamed, construction project manager for Oxfam.
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Children on the frontline 

118 classrooms destroyed by the floods

When a natural disaster strikes, children are among the most vulnerable people, and they have been particularly affected by the floods at the Sahrawi camps.

Between 16 and 24 October, almost all schools – nursery, primary and secondary – had to suspend their lessons. The inventory of damage caused by the disaster in the education sector speaks of unprecedented destruction. Unlike individual houses, public buildings are constructed using solid materials – such as cement – designed to resist this type of disaster. “Despite this, infrastructure that had existed for 40 years, particularly schools, have been ravaged”, says Fadel Mohammed, who lives in the Dakhla camp.

In total, 62 schools were destroyed or damaged, the equivalent of 118 classrooms. Of these schools, three were totally demolished, 26 require major and urgent restoration, 18 need minor restoration, and 15 were slightly damaged and will have to undergo minor repairs. In these 15 schools, cracks threaten to destabilise the buildings, representing a long-term risk to the children’s safety.

In the most urgent cases, the rain has damaged the underlying structure of the school buildings. The zinc roofs are threatening to collapse. The poor state of the wooden beams, most of which are very old, has considerably worsened. The walls, though made of cement, are crumbling under the effects of the rain, the weight of the roofing and the deteriorating beams.

According to Lyes Kesri, project leader at NGO CISP, “20% of schools have been destroyed or severely damaged, including 90% at the Dakhla camp alone. The school canteen programme had to be suspended in Dakhla for a fortnight, which resulted in an additional cost for families whose food stocks had already been destroyed.”

“According to our estimates”, he continues “it will take around $1.5 million to rebuild and restore the nursery schools and crèches, and the primary and secondary schools”. In response to the emergency, UNICEF has sent 58 tents measuring 72m2, each capable of holding two classes at the same time.
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Urgent restoration of health centres

All the dispensaries and the central pharmacy have been affected.

As well as immediate needs, such as housing and food, the health sector has also been severely affected by the recent floods.

The Sahrawi refugee camps have seven hospitals, including one national, one mixed and five regional hospitals, as well as 26 dispensaries and several additional centres (central pharmacy, tuberculosis centre, etc.). According to Bruno Abarca, project leader for Doctors of the World Spain at the Sahrawi refugee camps: “All the dispensaries have been affected. Several documents used for monitoring pregnant women and child health programmes have been lost”.

Health infrastructure has been severely affected by the water and the deterioration of buildings and healthcare equipment, but also by the power cuts during and after the floods, which particularly disrupted the activities of the operating theatre: “It took about two or three weeks after the flooding had stopped for the centres to get back to running as normal. It took two weeks to restore the right level of electricity at the national hospital”, continues Mr Abarca.

Since the onset of the rain on 16 October, the Sahrawi “Ministry” of Health has been coordinating with NGOs and UN agencies working in the health sector. There was a continuous risk of contamination from the many pools of stagnant water, especially for children.

One priority has been to reinforce coordination with the Sahrawi “Ministry” of Water and the Environment, mainly in order to keep the water and infected areas under control. Thanks to civil protection measures from Algeria, some of the standing water has been pumped away. For children under five, daily monitoring of the number of diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases has been put in place in order to prevent any risk of an epidemic. Thanks to this good coordination, this risk has been minimised in the camps.

The rapid implementation of the national programme to promote healthcare also made it possible, at the height of the disaster, to facilitate the identification of vulnerable families. As the central pharmacy was affected, 500 kg of additional medicines have been transported by Doctors of the World Spain.

The initial estimate made by health sector actors on site puts the cost of restoring the health centres and replacing the metal roofs at more than €250,000.
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Salma, age 12

On the 27th of October, three days after the floods had ended, Salma started to walk to school again with her sister, her two plaits adorned with new red ribbons.  She had to celebrate her twelfth birthday in unusual conditions for her and her family, who had seen half their house collapse on October 22nd.

“Certainly the worst flooding in the history of the camps”, says her father, shovel in hand in front of the ruins. While her family busy themselves trying to rebuild their house, whose remaining walls are full of cracks, Salma describes “her” floods: “My school In Boujdour, Lal Andala school that is, didn’t suffer much damage from the rain.” While these events were unfolding, Salma’s school was a safe haven for her. “But during the heaviest downpours, we had no classes for a week”.

“Between 20 and 23 October, the children hardly got any sleep at all”, says her mother. “At night time, the deafening sound of the rain terrified Salma”. With families taking refuge in traditional tents, Salma’s family put theirs on a nearby hill, so as to avoid the torrent of water that had formed throughout their neighbourhood. They stayed there for two weeks with another family, making eight people in total. “Humanitarian aid reached Boujdour fairly quickly. The first meals that the families shared felt like moments of real solidarity”, says Salma’s father.

“For children like Salma, the days felt like party time. They all wanted to play together outside in the rain”, explains her mother. “But with the stagnant water, we were afraid of contamination, not to mention the walls that kept collapsing everywhere”. Forced, like many children, to play inside the tent (since the surroundings were flooded), Salma has gradually started to get back into her daily routine. “I’m just happy to be back at school”, she smiles, but she points out, with slight concern, the many cracks that have appeared in her classroom walls.
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Bulahi Brahim Esmlali, age 30

“When my father called me from the Dakhla camp, that was when I realised something serious was happening to us”, recalls Bulahi. “On 19 October, the rain began to ravage Dakhla and my father’s neighbourhood”.

Built of adobe (dry sand bricks), Bulahi’s father’s house gradually crumbled: “First the kitchen, then the toilets. The next day, the walls and the roof of the entire house fell down. In 24 hours, the house had been destroyed”. His father then took refuge in his traditional tent, a safe haven for many Sahrawis, especially older people.

“I had only just come back from Dakhla, where I had taken bread and water to my father, who lives alone, when the rain hit Boujdour and my own house, where I live with my wife”. On instinct, his mother-in-law sent Bulahi to find some large plastic tarpaulins, which they used to cover their traditional tent on the morning of 20 October: “That was what saved our tent”, explains Bulahi. That same night, part of the house collapsed: “We welcomed a neighbouring family into our tent. There were eight of us, with the clothes and food we had been able to carry.”

For three days and two nights, Bulahi could not sleep. “At night, we were afraid that the weight of the water would cause our tent to collapse. During the daytime, we went to work like everyone else”. During the floods, Bulahi, a driver for an NGO, took part in the distribution of emergency supplies in the camps at Aousserd, Laâyoune and Dakhla. Bulahi tries to keep things in perspective. “That’s the mentality here. Everyone carried on working. All the families were affected; the only thing to do was to help the community”.

“All the same, my wife would have liked me to stay at home a bit more”, he smiles. One month later, Bulahi is still living in his tent. He is getting ready to rebuild his house with the same fragile materials that the Sahrawis use, such as dry sand bricks: “A house made of cement costs three times more. What can we do? We haven’t got time to wait”.
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Galuha Bahia, age 66

In the last few days, Galuha turned 66, a month after the worst floods to have ever hit the Sahrawi refugee camps. Galuha makes no bones of it: “This is the first time in 40 years that I have seen so many houses destroyed. Almost every family has been affected”.

She and her family have not been spared. Inside her house, there are multiple cracks and the building threatens to collapse at any moment. As a result, since the beginning of the flooding, Galuha and her family have been living in their traditional tent: “We were in a situation where everyone was panicking. My children, grandchildren and neighbours came into our tent. There were 15 of us living there, with what food we were able to save. Our belongings and clothes were either damaged or destroyed altogether”.

“It rained for several days, but it only took 20 minutes of heavy rain to create a real-life river between our neighbourhood and the next one”. At that moment, she says, her family’s tent was threatening to collapse under the weight of the rain. In desperation, they put up another small makeshift tent for the children: “It was a matter of life or death”. She describes how, even before any humanitarian aid arrived, the solidarity among the families meant that they were organising shared meals together from the moment the floods started.

Galuha remembers all the disasters that the Sahrawi refugees have had to face. The floods of 1994, she recalls, ravaged her neighbourhood, leaving seven people dead in the camps. Today, she hates seeing her family and friends rebuilding their homes with the same fragile materials. Galuha quietly seethes: “But what choice do we have? Where can we go? What money can we use to rebuild? As long as this conflict exists and we can’t vote for self-determination, we will continue to suffer these same disasters, year after year”.

For Galuha, the “top priority” for the humanitarian response is reconstruction. The scale of the destruction has changed the way people think, she says. She concludes with a laugh: “A lot of people are even prepared to live in shipping containers!”.
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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.

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