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An uneasy coexistence in the Mauritanian desert

An uneasy coexistence in the Mauritanian desert
From Al Jazeera - September 17, 2017

Mbera refugee camp, Mauritania - It is often difficult to know where the sprawling Mbera refugee camp ends, and the desolate, desert communities of southeastern Mauritania begin.

Both spring up almost unexpectedlyfrom the mounds of orange sand and shrubs: tents made from tarps fastened to curved tree branches, animal pens, and the odd mud-brick, tin or aluminium structure.

In this hard-to-reach and isolated corner of the Sahel, tens of thousands of refugees from Mali, displaced over the last five years by armed conflict at home, live alongside traditional Mauritanian herding and agricultural communities.

Together, the camp and the local district of Bassikounou, which comprises the town of the same name and several small villages, would amount to the fourth-most populous locale in the country.

But though the two populations share a great deal in common, living together is not without its problems.

"They get everything and us, we get nothing at all," Varajou Ould Karata, 65, a Mauritanian farmer from the village of Limkais, about 10km from the refugee camp, told Al Jazeera as he took a break from working in a field.

Karata quickly rattled off a series of common complaints among locals: The refugees steal livestock, cut down trees and drain natural resources, especially water.

"Since the refugees arrived, the farmland does not have enough to feed us," Karata said.

The refugee influx

Mbera camp is home to nearly 52,000 registered refugees, according to July data from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

The refugees began arriving at the peak of the crisis in Mali in 2012, as armed violence broke out in the country's tumultuous north and the area was gripped by insecurity.

But as hordes of Malian families crossed the border to seek refuge in the camp, so did Mauritanians who had either been living in Mali or saw an opportunity to gain access to services in the camp that they could not find in their own communities nearby.

The Hodh Ech-Chargui region where Mbera is located is one of the poorest and most neglected parts of Mauritania, which suffers as a whole from extreme poverty, malnutrition, poor infrastructure and a lack of economic opportunities.

Mauritania imports about 70 percent of its food, and almost 27 percent of citizens are food insecure at one point every year, according to the World Food Programme. The UN also estimated that just over 52 percent of Mauritanians lived in poverty in 2011.

Of the country's population of fewer than four million inhabitants, more than 450,000 people are in need of humanitarian aid, according to INTERSOS, an Italian humanitarian organisation that supports refugees in Mbera.

"We discovered that among these refugees, there [were] Mauritanians," confirmed Nabil Othman, head of the UNHCR office in Mauritania, which put the number of Mauritanians who were registered as refugees in the camp at 8,300.

While the Mauritanians were officially deregistered from UNHCR's refugee list in 2015 and 2016, Othman said between 40 and 60 percent still live in the camp.

They do not receive food rations or other direct support, but they can still access water, schools and healthcare. Othman said the Mauritanians were allowed to stay in the camp to avoid inflaming tensions between the refugees and host communities.

"I cannot give you assistance [as a refugee], whereas the local community, they are lacking such assistance,"Othman told Al Jazeera from his office in Nouakchott, the capital, about 1,100km from Bassikounou.

"Moving these people from the camp, it will create problems."

Handling conflicts together

But the UN's decision to deregister Mauritanians has created problems regardless, said Aliou Amadou Ba, the supervisor of community-based protection with INTERSOS.

Local Mauritanians were frustrated by what they perceived as their communities being ignored by international aid organisations, who were there to support the refugees - and only the refugees - while they languished.

Over the years, Mauritanians in the area, most of whom are herders or farmers, have accused the refugees of stealing their livestock and over-using the sparse local resources, especially wood and water.

Ba said relations between the two groups have vastly improved in recent years, especially since humanitarian groups have funded projects in Mauritanian villages, but tensions can still flare up.

"It's a bit difficult, especially if the aid does not equally cover both [groups'] needs," he told Al Jazeera in an interview from a community centre in the camp."The host community says they are the ones who accepted to welcome the refugees, and these refugees are the ones exploiting the natural resources in their village.

"They are asking the question: 'How is it that these refugees, whom we welcomed with open arms, have become the main cause of our poverty?'"

Seeking to quash the tensions, INTERSOS created a special committee - composed of refugees in Mbera camp and residents of local Mauritanian communities - to handle conflicts.The main complaints include allegations, mostly unproven, of refugees stealing livestock and cutting down trees, which villagers have traditionally used to build their homes and as a source of income.

Baba Ould Baba Ahmed is among 11 Malian refugees who make up the Mixed Committee for Conflict Resolution.Like Ba, he said problems between refugees and locals are compounded by a lack of resources to support both communities.

For instance, refugees would not need to cut down trees - which they use primarily as firewood, Ahmed said - if they could have access to gas or charcoal stoves to cook with.

Building ties in the market

'Only here for the refugees'

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