Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Saharawis' Life in a Refugee Camp under Lockdown

Annabelle: If you had one message for the international community, what would it be?

Sidahmed: I hope that, after they experienced the taste of the blockade and the lack of freedom and movement, people become more understanding of us in Western Sahara, either in the occupied territory or the refugee camps, because for many years this was our normal life, especially for those living in the occupied territories.

I first spoke to Sidahmed (pictured) in late March, during that unforgettable week where what felt like half the world went into lockdown and closed its borders indefinitely. Sidahmed is Saharawi and lives in Smara, the largest of five refugee camps set up in Algeria in the mid-1970’s to house refugees from the Western Sahara conflict. The ca. 173,000 refugees[1] who live in these camps are now in their 45th year of displacement, in what has become one of the most protracted and internationally neglected conflicts in the world.

The Western Sahara region was colonised by the Spanish in 1884, an area then populated by Arab-Berber merchants and nomads. Spain withdrew in 1975 and Morocco and Mauritania invaded, prompting the Saharawi independence movement, led by the Polisario Front, to fight for 16 years for its independence. The conflict was halted by an UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

Today, the Polisario Front governs roughly 20% of the land they claim sovereignty over, as well as the refugee camps in Algeria, and Morocco occupies the remaining 80% of the disputed territory. Despite the ceasefire, living in this region remains treacherous: Morocco has scattered millions of landmines across the dunes, specifically targeting areas of vegetation to make the Saharawis nomadic lifestyle harder. With access to their lands reduced and full of risks, Saharawis are increasingly forced to adopt a sedentary lifestyle. Yet life in the camp where Sidahmed lives is hardly a long-term solution: highly isolated and with few work opportunities, the community is entirely dependent on humanitarian aid.

To compound this already vulnerable and marginalised existence, the harsh environment of the Western Sahara is getting even harsher. Climate change, here, means that the annual average rainfall, instead of being spread throughout the year, now falls all at once in great storms that flood the camps. The houses, primarily made of mud, are not built to withstand torrential rain, and rapidly collapse. 

Now add to that a global pandemic.

Algeria locked down on Monday, March 23, the same day as we did in the UK (although Algeria, at the time, had comparatively far fewer cases). This proactive approach has kept numbers of cases low and appears to have prevented the virus reaching the refugee camps so far. This is fortunate, as the poor infrastructure in the camps make social distancing very challenging. Currently, the lockdown itself poses the bigger threat, as it has caused the lifelines which the communities depend upon, to fray. Back in late March, I asked Sidahmed if he thought his community was more vulnerable to coronavirus and the living conditions it has created, than others.   

S: Yes, it’s true [we are] and moreover the departure of the NGO workers from the camps made the situation even worse as we are totally dependent on the humanitarian aid in the food as well as in the health sector. They were asked to leave from the host country Algeria, so they didn’t have any other options. Now almost all the humanitarian work done by international NGO’s in the camps is on hold due to these new measures.

A: Would you say the halting of aid is the biggest impact COVID-19 is currently having on your community?

S: Yes. And also, the new imposed measures which include the limit of movement between the camps and the main supply city Tindouf. This has made the community helpless. Many prices went so high especially those of necessary commodities, such as fuel and food. The price of fuel doubled in the last two days.

A: How is the community coping in these conditions with no NGO workers and movement restrictions?

S: They understand these measures, but it is very hard for them to continue like this for too long. For instance, today we have no oil to cook. We had to ask our neighbours to give us some… for more than a week I think it will be a struggle to survive on the little that we have.

During our conversation Sidahmed said that he feared the international community would forget the Saharawis, as everyone was busy dealing with the crisis at home. I checked back in with him in May: whilst overall Algeria was slowly easing its lockdown, COVID-19 cases had been recorded in Tindouf, the city closest to the camps, meaning restrictions locally have been increased. Nonetheless, the worst-case scenario which could have played out over the last few months seems to have been averted, or at least delayed. Sidahmed was closely monitoring the outcomes of an appeal by the UN World Food Programme for $15 million USD for a joint COVID-19 response for Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. And according to Sidahmed, ‘Algeria has built an emergency hospital near the camps and sent hundreds of tons of the humanitarian aid recently’. Furthermore, Cuban doctors, present in the camps since before coronavirus, have stayed and are ‘making tremendous efforts in the hospitals along with the Saharawis’. And still more Saharawis are ‘volunteering in awareness raising campaigns and so on’. 

S: The positive thing that I hope will benefit from this experience is to know how to manage our problems by ourselves, learn how to become creative and resilient in the harsh times and also to come back to our values, ideas and our sense of creativity that we got lost during our dependency on the humanitarian aid. It’s going to be painful in the beginning but hopefully will overcome in the end.

The situation remains difficult, yet there is hope that the worst will be averted. The pandemic has shone a light on the cost of marginalisation, inequality, and injustice, and has strengthened the call to address it. As Sidahmed says, ‘Saharawis need not only aid to keep them alive but attention to end their plight’.

*Some quotes have been edited for clarity with approval from Sidahmed

This article was written by Annabelle von Moltke, TGP’s Communications Coordinator, with the indispensable collaboration of Saharawi, Sidahmed Jouly.


[1] Exact population numbers are unknown; it remains a politically sensitive issue. This number is sourced from the Danish Refugee Council.