A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Tindouf airport, Southern Algeria, 1h30 a.m. Our flight from Algiers just landed. The air is cool at this hour, about 25 degrees Celsius. Most passengers are locals, or foreigners whose work is linked to humanitarian aid to the Sahrawi refugees, people from United Nations High Commission for Refugees, World Food Programme or International nongovernmental organizations.
We don’t know each other yet but will soon get to, as we all stay in the few guest houses available to us, or will cross each other’s paths in the next day or so. I already spot a delegation of Spanish MPs and exchange a few words with them, some are Catalan, or Basque, all have come to see for themselves the living conditions of the refugees, and hope to return and influence their government to push to a fair solution to the conflict. A Sahrawi woman asks me if I saw “the Norwegian girls” who have come to visit her. Three blond heads soon emerge and they fall into each other’s arms, a reminder of solidarity links established between Sahrawi refugees and people from different countries.
Mahfoudh, the Oxfam driver, is here to pick me up with a big smile and he, as all the other drivers in the already occupied cars, shows a long-tested patience despite the late hour and the fatigue as we all wait quietly in a convoy for the Algerian army escort to accompany us until the border of the part of the territory under control of the Frente Polisario, where we are bid farewell until we return to the airport a few days later.
Three generations of Sahrawis have only known life in the camps
The purpose of my visit is the inauguration of the Food Supply Center in Rabouni, built by Oxfam with its partner the Sahrawi Red Crescent and with the support of the European Commission's Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). The Center should greatly improve the quality of aid in the camps, one of the main objectives of Oxfam’s humanitarian program. This is not my first visit here but it always strikes me to see this such inhospitable landscape, dry and monotonous, where Sahrawi refugees have been living in extremely harsh conditions for decades. Next year will be the 40th anniversary of the conflict that drew tens of thousands of Sahrawis to come to this land and establish camps that they hoped would be temporary. But there is now a third generation of Sahrawis, born and raised in the camps, and who don’t have many prospects for a better life. At most –and less so now because of the economic crisis affecting several countries in Europe– children go annually abroad for summer stays in host families. Otherwise, the youth are clearly frustrated and see little perspective ahead, with some even starting to question the peaceful approach of their representatives.
Food supply center to provide seasonal fresh food
The inauguration of the Center is a nice opportunity to unite all local and humanitarian actors, celebrating more frequent opportunities for the refugees to receive seasonal fresh food. It can now be stored in cooling rooms, and distribution is organized twice a month. Previously, when the food arrived in the camps, after a nearly 2,000 km drive, it was distributed immediately to the refugees on a monthly basis. Few families have a refrigerator, which makes the conservation of fresh products difficult for them, and food losing much of it nutritional value. Temperatures can rise to 50 degrees Celsius in the camps.
“Beyond the numerous advantages of the Food Supply Center in terms of quality and control of products, I believe the most important aspect is proximity. Being able to deliver food directly from a food center located in the middle of the camps shortens the distance between the beneficiaries and the delivery teams. Being closer to the populations improves greatly our work. From one end to the other of the supply chain we stay in contact with the Sahrawi population. Thanks to this link with the population we will be able to improve the efficiency of our action by taking into account directly the positive and negative feedbacks of the population.” says Djawad Boukheddami, Oxfam Project Officer in the camps.
The Sahrawi Red Crescent representative guides us through the building, where proud staff shows us around in their new uniforms; the center has generated 25 local jobs. We are accompanied by the Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, who takes the opportunity to congratulate Stefaan Declerq, Oxfam Belgium’s Executive Director, for his organization’s 50th anniversary (he is well informed). They joke about the world cup match opposing Algeria and Belgium. A ribbon is cut and speeches are given, a meal is served for all, then we meet again in a local house around a delicious couscous, where discussions abound on its recipe as compared to others from elsewhere in the region. The host women paint my hands with local designs and high quality henne that will last weeks.
Oxfam's long term commitment to the Sahrawi refugees
When talking to people in the camps and to our staff members who work with them on a daily basis, it is striking and comforting to note that Oxfam is seen by all actors there as a much valued partner who has been aside the refugees since the beginning of the crisis in 1975. People and officials express their appreciation for our longstanding effort to improve the resilience of the Sahrawi refugees and for doing more than just providing aid. Ahmed, assistant log officer, tells me how he can see the positive effect of empowering the local population and of building their capacity to take control over their lives, despite the harsh environmental and bleak political contexts. Though the refugees continue to long for a just and sustainable solution, they foremost want to take care of their families and live a life in dignity.
However it is also clear that this situation can simply not continue, as the youth are becoming both frustrated and impatient to “do something”. A project of “peace houses” is in the pipeline, hoping to channel and address some of these frustrations.
The afternoon comes to an end. It is quite hot but the worst months of heat are yet to come, with Ramadan and the fasting just ahead. Another hard summer for the refugees, as we head back to the airport.
Our work in Southern Algeria
Oxfam has been operating in the refugee camps in Southern Algeria since 1975. Our humanitarian program, which is implemented through local partners, focuses on food security. We provide refugees with fresh food products, as a supplement to the basic diet provided by the World Food Programme. This is complemented with the distribution of specific food items (such as eggs and Moringa plants) to those people that have been identified as most vulnerable among the refugees. A sensibilization program then promotes a better use and conservation of these fresh products through various means of outreach. Oxfam also conducts advocacy work towards the international community in order to further improve the quality of aid and to draw attention to the devastating effects of the conflict on the communities concerned and address the root causes of the conflict.
Find out more about Oxfam's work the Western Sahara
Read more about the supply center (in French only)