MADRID, Spain — “The toughest part is not being in your homeland. Not being where you belong.” These are the words of Abidin Mohamed Hamudi in an interview with The Borgen Project. He is a 24-year-old Sahrawi born and raised in the refugee camp of Boujdour. Like him, thousands of Saharawis live across five refugee camps in the Algerian region of Tindouf. Their exact number is uncertain due to geopolitical conflict.
Still, for aid administration purposes, the UNHCR uses 90,000 as the “most vulnerable Sahrawi refugees in the five camps near Tindouf” despite recognizing the total number of refugees is far higher. ACAPS estimates 173,000 refugees as of 2018, which is probably understated too. Nevertheless, the fact remains that thousands of Sahrawis continue to live in Tindouf for almost half a century after leaving their homes behind due to armed conflict.
A Day in a Sahrawi Refugee Camp
As Abidin described, life in the camps is tough. The lack of food and water and the lack of solid infrastructure are the main challenges the Sahrawis face. According to the last analysis of the World Food Program of the area in 2018, 30% of the population suffers from food insecurity, and a further 58% is at risk of being food insecure. Furthermore, there are indices of things having turned for the worse. 10.7% of children under the age of 5 suffered from acute malnutrition as of February 2022, a significant increase from 7.6% in 2019.
Regarding water, the most recent data from 2016 indicates that Sahrawi refugees consume, on average, between 14 and 17 liters of water per person per day. This is below international humanitarian agencies’ recommended levels and the Sahrawi government goal of 15 to 20 liters per person daily. In this regard, there is, however, potential for improvement. Studies show that underground water reserves have the potential for an 80% increase in water production, reaching a consumption level of 35 liters per person per day. It is key to improve extraction and distribution infrastructure in the area for said potential to be realized.
On this note, infrastructure in the camps has improved significantly since their establishment in 1975, thanks to aid from the Algerian government and international organizations. Nevertheless, the camps remain vulnerable to climate events like sand storms or floods. Education, energy and health-related infrastructure are, in fact, one of the main areas needing improvements, as Abidin identified.
What Is the Role of International Aid?
As Abidin described, “[Sahrawis] depend on international aid, so […] whenever there are cuts because of some geopolitical interests we suffer from that, […] it is very difficult, very tough.”
Indeed, in 2018, the UNHCR found that 94% of households in Sahrawi refugee camps reported external assistance as their primary source of income, which went up to 99.9% when measuring the number of households receiving food assistance during the month before the survey. This heavy dependence on aid highlights the lack of opportunities the Sahrawis face in Tindouf. As such, if aid is reduced due to geopolitical conflicts, people suffer.
This aid has several sources. For example, Doctors of the World is one of the most important international NGOs providing aid for the Sahrawi refugee camps in the Tindouf region. They run several regional programs to help solve the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the camps. Their main goals are to provide the Sahrawi health system with medical supplies, for which they have a budget of €1.2 million, and build better medical infrastructure, for which the budget rises to €3 million. The Cuban Doctors Brigade is also working to provide aid to the Sahrawis. Their primary purpose is to provide medical services to the Sahrawi population, but they also collaborate in a training program to educate local Sahrawis to produce capable doctors.
Other initiatives include many regional organizations throughout Spain, including projects such as SOGAPS and ANARASD. The actions of these organizations tend to involve supporting Sahrawi refugee camps by performing cooperation projects and providing political support for the Sahrawi cause.
There are signs that the humanitarian situation in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf has worsened in recent years, which constitutes a roadblock to eradicating poverty among the Sahrawi people. However, many international organizations are still willing to fight to improve their living conditions. As Abidin mentioned, life in the camps is challenging due to scarcity, but it also taught him the values of resilience, perseverance and self-sufficiency. With this, he has managed to study internationally and make a living. His example is one of hope for his people still living in the camps in Tindouf.
– Daniel Pereda