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Algeria's forgotten refugees: After 35 years, conditions in Sahrawi camps remain harsh

© UNICEF Algeria/2010/Oulmi
Maimouna, 10 (right), listens attentively in class. She has lived in a Sahrawi refugee camp 1,600 km south-west of Algiers, Algeria, all her life.

By Abdel-Rahman Ghandour

UNICEF’s Regional Communication Chief for the Middle East and North Africa sends the following firsthand account of conditions facing refugee children of the Sahrawi people, who fled the Western Sahara 35 years ago.

TINDOUF, Algeria, 24 June 2010 – “I want to become a teacher,” says Maimouna, 10. Yet in her fifth-grade math class, she is struggling to sum the three parts of her triangle. She finally does, with a little help from a classmate.

Maimouna and her older sister are in the same primary school in the Smara refugee camp, close to the town of Tindouf, about 1,600 km south-west of Algiers. She does not know anything or anywhere else. Smara camp has been her whole life.

And so it is for all Sahrawi refugees below the age of 35. In 1975, the Sahrawi people fled a conflict across the Algerian border. The conflict was sparked by competing claims to their ancestral homeland, a piece of the Sahara formerly controlled by Spain.

Although no exact count exists, the Sahrawi refugee population is estimated at more than 150,000, about 80 per cent of whom are women and children. The overwhelming majority know only the sight of the camps – vast, flat wastelands with the harshness of one of the hottest deserts in the world. On a spring day, the temperature is 37 degrees Celsius at 7 p.m.

“Wait until July and August,” a Sahrawi refugee told our delegation during a recent visit to the Samra camp.

Austere conditions

Prior to the visit, we kept hearing that the Sahrawis were not used to complaining or asking for charity. This proved to be true, as we visited family after family in their tents, or in the mud houses many have ended up building because they see no end to their exile.

© UNICEF Algeria/2010/Oulmi
Refugee children attend classes in a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria.

“We do not need anything more, by the grace of God,” we heard from the heads of many refugee families.

But when you see the austere conditions, however, you wonder how that could be. There is no electricity in the camps – barring a few hours per day – and no latrines, and very few goods or food available in the market. As a result, people live almost exclusively from humanitarian aid.

Call for greater support

Since 2004, UNICEF has reinforced and diversified its support for the refugees around Tindouf, bolstered by financial support from the European Union and the Spanish Government. The support has focused on consolidating vaccination coverage, establishing family centres where fresh food items are provided to mothers and children, distributing school kits, supporting the printing of text books and improving teacher training.

© UNICEF Algeria/2010/Oulmi
Maimouna, 10, at school in the Sahrawi refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria, says she wants to become a teacher.

Despite these efforts, one out of three Sahrawi children in the camps is not fully immunized. Anaemia affects 1 in 10 women because of the lack of fresh food and a diversified diet. And about half of primary school-aged children drop out, while the quality of education leaves much to be desired.

It’s clear that more support from partners is needed if UNICEF is to address such gaps.

The head of the local Red Crescent in the camps, Bouhabini Yihya, is well placed to understand the needs of the refugee population. He called for more international aid to help these forgotten refugees.

Pride in status of girls

While acknowledging the challenges facing the Sahrawi people, Mr. Yihya told us he always comes back to his source of pride: the status of girls in this community.

Harmful social practices, such as female genital cutting – which can be found in other areas of the sub-region – are non-existent here.

“This is alien to our society. We value women and girls in their full physical and mental integrity,” says Mr. Yihya. “Here, we have more girls than boys in schools. It’s only natural, since girls are more numerous. And all our schools are mixed.”

The benches in Maimouna’s school are filled with both girls and boys, happily blended and actively participating in the math class.

Finally overcoming her shyness, Maimouna, with her big hazelnut eyes and her wide smile, speaks to us as she prepares for her next lesson, Spanish. “My favorite subject is really Arabic, but I also like volleyball,” she says, as several girls around her nod enthusiastically.



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