Saharan solidarity: the North African refugees keeping corruption at bay

Unlike many refugee settlements, where food supplies often end up on the black market or in the hands of politicians, the Bojador camp in Algeria is self-governed by its Sahrawi inhabitants. For ten years the solidarity system has managed to keep corruption largely at bay, Kenza Yousfi investigates how

At eight o’clock on a dusty morning, a rumbling supply truck arrives in the Lamsid district of the Bojador refugee camp. Sinia H’med emerges from a field of clay huts and pitched tents, making her way to the barbed wire-enclosed circle where sealed bags are stacked high. She is wrapped in a traditional melhfa and carries a mechanical scale.

This is where food aid is distributed to Sahrawi refugees twice a month. Today’s shipment is for fresh fruits and vegetables; the next will be for grains.

If this were a United Nations-run camp, guards would be out monitoring the goods as official aid workers collect ration cards and diligently pass out bags of food. But Bojador is different. The Sahrawis’ food system is based on solidarity and is part of an informal law of the land that refugees say gives them autonomy and dignity. They appoint local coordinators like Sinia via voice vote, though no formal leadership council exists.

“Our model is based on our own perception of justice: decentralised and participatory,” Sinia explains. She argues that the ration cards used in UN camps are “just a modern technique of humiliation, to make you feel that you are in need”.

Our model is based on our own perception of justice: decentralised and participatory

In the late 1970s, many Sahrawis were forced to flee their native Western Sahara after Mauritania and Morocco invaded the country. The refugees formed self-run communities in Algeria’s south-western Tindouf province. Around 117,000 people live in five camps in Tindouf, and 40 years later, they still refuse to leave until the UN finalises a referendum that allows them to choose independence, or integration into Morocco.

The Sahrawi Red Crescent, a humanitarian group, supplies food to Bojador, but its mission is limited to just that. “We are refugees of justice and not of bread,” Nosra Salek, the Sahrawis’ liaison with the group, says about the arrangement. The Red Crescent also teaches refugees how to avoid malnutrition, a problem that acutely afflicts pregnant women and about nine percent of children in the five camps.

Camp members alone are responsible for rationing out the sacks of grain and produce. In Lamsid district, the task falls to Sinia. She keeps tabs on the community, stays in touch with other refugee leaders, and alerts the Red Crescent if a family moves, so that the supplies are sent to the new quarters. “We know how many members there are in every family by socialising,” she says of the informal community.

That morning, she lingers a while at the food site but eventually wanders away, dropping off her scale and leaving the vegetables boxes unguarded. Around midday, women arrive alone or in groups with empty crates to carry home their hauls. No one checks to make sure they only take their ration of one kilogram for each person in the family.

“If a family is not here at time of delivery, a neighbour will save their rations,” says Darifa, a refugee at the camp. “And if the family stays away for long, their fresh food will be given to anaemic individuals or pregnant women.”

If a family is not here at time of delivery, a neighbour will save their rations

Nguia, a mother of nine, says she doesn’t care “if my neighbour takes 200 grams more than me”. She is more concerned that the food supplies don’t end up on the black market for resale or in the hands of politicians. While that’s common in other refugee camps, the solidarity system has so far managed to keep corruption largely at bay among Sahrawis.

By sunset, Lamsid’s food site is mostly bare, save for a few scattered sack cloths. Darifa calls on children playing nearby with punctured tires to gather the woven bags for future use. A young girl strides quickly toward the clay huts, returning the scale to Sinia. The site will remain empty until the next shipment of bags of grains.

First published by Makeshift.

Photo: European Commission