When I first learned that I would be visiting the World Food Program (WFP) operation assisting Sahrawi refugees in Algeria, I was filled with excitement. Since I had not been in the field for a while, I jumped at the opportunity to visit a place that only a few of my colleagues had visited before. I was excited for the opportunity to see first-hand and bring to light challenges facing some of the longest-standing refugee camps in Africa; the site of five small communities of Sahrawi that left their homeland of Western Sahara many years ago.

Traveling to Layoune camp I was struck by the remoteness and extremeness of the region.  Very few people know that the Southwest region of Algeria is home to a small population of Sahrawi refugees from the neighboring territory of Western Sahara. Fleeing conflict over the disputed territory, the refugees crossed the small 26 mile border separating Algeria and Western Sahara in 1975. Located in such relative isolation between 30 and 180 km from the Southwest Algerian town of Tindouf, the Sahrawi from the five camps of Awserd, Boujdour, Dakhla, Layoune and Smara still reside in the barren deserts of Southwest Algeria with limited access to livelihood opportunities; families are largely dependent on humanitarian assistance for survival.

Women are often responsible for food distribution within the Saharawi camps. Photo courtesy of WFP

Women are often responsible for food distribution within the Saharawi camps.
Photo courtesy of WFP

At the Government of Algeria’s request in 1986, the international community began supporting camp operations through the provision of humanitarian assistance. The refugees living in the camps receive aid in the form of food assistance, healthcare and education provided by humanitarian agencies including the UN World Food Program (WFP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 1998, USAID made its first contribution of food and today USAID remains the largest contributor of food assistance to Sahrawi refugees. In FY 2013, USAID contributed $6.6 million of food to WFP for the distribution of 5,110 MT to the Sahrawi refugees.

Considered to be some of the most well managed camps in Africa, many of the services are administered by the Sahrawi themselves through the established Popular Front for the Liberation of Seguia. However, despite best efforts by humanitarian organizations, a Joint Assessment Mission conducted by WFP and UNHCR in 2011 determined that the population, between 90,000 and 165,000 people, largely remains food insecure and many of the refugees still require humanitarian assistance to support their everyday lives.

Boreholes are a common site in the Layoune camp. A lack of water has required the Sahrawi to dig deeper and deeper underground to access water sources. Photo by: Rachel Grant

Yet even in such difficult situations I witnessed an opportunity for a return to normalcy. A small number of households are involved in income-generating activities such as carpentry and sewing; about half own an average of three animals including goats, sheep and/or chicken. Even in the extreme climate I could see small gardens visible in household plots. A group of young men shared their ideas for increasing resilience by increasing their efforts in camel milk cheese and meat production.

Most strikingly, I noticed that nearly all the people present in our meeting with the Wali, or community leader, of Layoune were women.  I came to find out that a strong emphasis on education, especially for women and girls, has created a generation of female societal leaders.  The Wali reported that over 80 percent of the leadership positions in Layoune are held by women.

I was encouraged to learn that unlike leaders in other camps, camp leaders in Layoune are working alongside WFP and UNHCR to showcase new assistance approaches that focus on increasing livelihood opportunities and promote self-reliance. Food vouchers, a planned WFP pilot, will allow the Sahrawi to address dietary diversity concerns and access functioning local markets in Tindouf, paving a path toward greater self-reliance. The situation, like the environment, is difficult. Still, having visited the camps first-hand I remain hopeful that a better future awaits.