Refugees bemoan lack of jobs

2010-05-17 10:12

Dakhla Refugee Camp - In the sprawling Dakhla camp for Western Sahara refugees, Abdala, a 35-year-old father, spends most of his days just lying in his tent.

The reason is not the heat, which can reach 50 degrees celsius in summer in the desert region of Algeria, but because he cannot find regular work.

He has lived in Dakhla since he was 12, when he stopped school. Since then, he said he has only worked occasionally, as a car mechanic.

For many others in the camp in Algeria the biggest source of misery is not a lack of food or health care, but the soul-destroying inability to earn their own living.

"The biggest problem is the lack of work. Most people here don't work," said Abdala.

Dakhla is one of four camps for Western Sahara refugees near the town of Tindouf, the base of the Polisario Front, which is seeking independence for the region from Morocco.

Morocco's 1975 annexation of the territory, a former Spanish colony, sparked a war between its forces and Algerian-backed Polisario guerrillas. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire in 1991 but UN-sponsored talks on Western Sahara's future have since made no headway.

Rabat has pledged to grant Western Sahara widespread autonomy but rules out independence. The Polisario Front wants a referendum on self-determination, with independence as one of the options.

More than 165 000 Western Saharan, or Saharawi, refugees live in the camps, according to the Polisario; 90 000 according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). They exist mainly on international aid.

The Western Sahara police patrol the camps, which have hospitals, schools, small shops and even cyber cafes.

Pregnant women

The UNHCR distributes rations for 125 000 people and believes that the nutrition for the refugees is improving.

But for Diego Fernandez, a Spanish doctor who works in the camps, the refugees are not really getting a balanced diet.

He has noted several cases of malnutrition in children, and pregnant women suffering from anemia, which can cause serious problems during labour.

Often, the food rots while it is transported to the camps, or in the camps themselves due to the lack of refrigerators, he said.

But residents of Dakhla have access to a 12-hectare fruit and vegetable garden, where each family has its own patch.

And each summer, some 9 000 Western Sahara children stay with families in Spain, the United States or France.

"They leave for two months and come back with new clothes and school supplies, which helps us a lot," said Abdala, whose two oldest sons go to Spain each year.

Abdala now plans to leave Dakhla, the most isolated camp and near Mauritania, in November with his wife and three children for the Asmara camp, which is closer to Tindouf.

"Over there, we live better and it's easier to find work," he said in Spanish with a slight Cuban accent, a result of seven years spent in the Caribbean island as a child.

But asked what would be his dream, he replied: "Go back to Western Sahara and recover my land."

Read more on:    western sahara  |  western africa
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