Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mauritania: Majority Of Locals Worse Off Than Refugees

Since April, when the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) started biometric registration of the Malian refugees in Mauritania's Mbera camp, 8,000 of the 68,000 registered refugees have been de-activated from the system - almost all of them Mauritanians from nearby towns and villages hoping to access aid handouts. In September, a small group of camp residents tried to destroy the registration centre in protest of the new system, raising a key question: when and how should aid agencies helping refugees also try to assist vulnerable host populations?

The situation in Mauritania is by no means unique; many refugee camp populations are swollen with locals trying to access aid. Locals have even outstripped refugee populations in some crises, said a UNHCR source.

UNHCR and other aid agencies often assist host populations to allay potential tensions between refugees and locals, but doing so is typically not a first priority. Some agencies do it from the get-go, while UNHCR usually does so after the emergency phase of protracted refugee situations.

Loubna Benhayoune, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Mauritania, urges early aid, telling IRIN: "The locals are just as vulnerable [as the refugees], if not worse." OCHA is currently mapping out who is doing what, and where, for local populations.

UNHCR said its initial priority is to respond to the immediate refugee crisis. Just getting the basics - food, water, shelter and healthcare - in place for tens of thousands of refugees, in a situation where the agency had no staff, and no office within 1,000km "was quite a challenge," said Hovig Etyemezian, who runs the camp at Mbera for UNHCR. "Now we're focusing more on quality issues, including how to better assist host populations."

Locals impoverished

Mbera camp is situated in Hodh el Chargui, Mauritania's most food-insecure region, where 37 percent of inhabitants are at risk of hunger, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). The region received very little rain in 2011, and this year fared little better. In October, when pasture should appear in even the Sahel's northern desert zone, there was little in Hodh el Chargui.

A Joint Assessment Mission by WFP and UNHCR earlier this year revealed while 80 percent of refugee households were eating three meals a day, just 14 percent of nearby families were doing the same.

Mauritanians near the camp whom IRIN spoke to were gracious about the refugee presence. Bassikounou resident Fatouma Mint Lhessen told IRIN, "These people are our people. They are like our brothers and sisters, and we are here to help them."

But her family is struggling, too. She lives in a one-room house with her three children as her husband searches for work in the bush. Had she lived nearer the camp, she would have tried to access food aid, she said. "Prices are too high. I cannot afford to make sauce many days. In some ways, we are more refugees than the refugees!"

She continued: "We live. We survive. Sometimes we eat well, sometimes we eat nothing - rice, no sauce. I'm used to living on the edge. It's my routine."

Read the full article here 

Developed world, developing world: the haves and have nots, the rich and the poor, the well fed and the hungry, the wealthy and the destitute. It matters not where in the world you find yourself, this is the situation. The capitalist system exacerbates any difficult situation and increases tensions between groups which are fundamentally all in the same boat. Free access to the common wealth? Not when money is part of the equation.

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