Deep in the hammada deserts of southwestern Algeria, one of the world’s oldest displacement crises sits largely forgotten, far from the eyes of the press, and low on the agendas of the international community.
But DRC is there.
There in the Saharawi refugee camps, which have been hosting displaced people since 1975, when the conflict over the Western Sahara began.
The conflict here pits the indigenous Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, who want independence for the territory, against the Kingdom of Morocco, which claims it as their own and wishes to annex it to the kingdom.
During the conflict, thousands of residents fled the fighting and settled in refugee camps across the border in a remote and barren corner of Algeria – but few imagined they would still be there nearly 50 years later.
Today, the territory is effectively split in two by an enormous Moroccan-built sand ‘berm’, and the conflict is often considered a stalemate. The five Saharawi-administered camps in Algeria still host some 173,600 refugees, profoundly isolated from – but increasingly connected to – the outside world.
According to Laurence Desvignes, Area Manager for DRC's Saharawi Response, camp residents “are mainly dependent on humanitarian assistance, and have been dependent for all this time.” In response to this context of protracted displacement and joblessness, DRC has been delivering livelihoods programming in the camps since 2016.
The dependence on aid has little to do with personal motivation, however: access to education in the camps are high, but opportunities remain few and far between.
“[Refugees] have access to education up to the end of high school…for [university] they are going to Algiers, Cuba, or Spain, because there is no university in the camps. And after that, they come back to the camps to find almost no jobs. The only jobs you can get, if you’re lucky, are with an NGO or with the UN, or small businesses,” says Laurence Desvignes.
These highly educated young people lack outlets for their skills, leading to great frustration in the camps, perhaps today more than ever thanks to improved communications: “As with all young people, you want to work, you want to do something with your life, you want to have opportunities, and they don’t have that…When you have access to the internet, you can see what’s going on outside…so the [livelihoods] program is meant to help in reducing frustrations, in creating employment, and in giving [refugees] the necessary tools and skills to be self-reliant,” says Laurence Desvignes.
As a means of supporting these ambitions towards self-sufficiency, DRC’s livelihoods support program trains residents in writing and defending business proposals, and then organizes a panel of experts – including local authorities, NGOs, donors, and other relevant parties – to evaluate each proposal and allocate funding to the selected grantees.
“There has been an increase in demand – this year we had almost 3,700 youth interested in submitting a proposal, the year before it was 3,000, the year before that it was less than 3,000. So the demand has been increasing, [reflecting] the interest of the youth and the success of the program,” says Laurence Desvignes.
As in the rest of the world, and despite their isolated location, Saharawi refugees have also been affected by COVID-19 and related restrictions. Movement between the Saharawi-administered Western Sahara and the camps in Algeria and between Tindouf (the main and closest Algerian town) and the camps was sharply curtailed.
As Saharawi refugees also experienced confinement during restrictions, the limited access to the camps (and reduced movements between camps) also had an impact in some of the businesses supported by DRC livelihood programme, as some of them had to close or scale down their business. In 2022, those businesses will be closely monitored and additional support, coaching and training will be given by DRC according to specific needs to strengthen them and help them resume their activities.
Other limitations presented themselves when a breakdown in the ceasefire between the Polisario Front and Morocco saw armed conflict return to the Western Sahara in November 2020. Movement between the Saharawi-administered Western Sahara and the camps in Algeria was restricted, and approximately 5,000 residents of Saharawi-controlled Western Sahara were relocated to the camps.
This presented unexpected opportunities. According to Laurence Desvignes, “It was a very good opportunity for us to target [residents of Saharawi-administered Western Sahara] with mine risk education and explosive ordinance risk education, before they go back…because they are a nomadic population…[and] are much harder to reach [there] than when they are in the camps.”
DRC had developed a program of non-technical surveying works in mine- and unexploded ordnance-affected areas of Saharawi-controlled Western Sahara, but “due to these resumed hostilities, all the mine action interventions were stopped for security reasons,” says Laurence Desvignes. However, DRC adapted its program strategy and shifted its activities to an alternative intervention regarding mines and unexploded ordnance in the refugee camps instead. Covid-19 prevention messages were also included as part of the activities and materials.
Regardless of the many setbacks experienced in the Saharawi camps (and around the world) over the last two years, DRC is there, and will remain there, to work alongside Saharawi refugees and enable them, despite their long-term displacement, to live dignified, secure, self-sufficient lives of their own choosing – a right that belongs to all of us, no matter how long we’ve been away from home.