Slaves, fake refugees and lentils: the Mbera camp in Mauritania

by Misha Hussain | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 9 October 2013 13:34 GMT

A UNHCR official talks about the problems involved in running a refugee camp in the desert of southeast Mauritania, ranging from master-and-slave ties between two groups, to inappropriate food rations, to the presence of thousands of locals posing as refugees

DAKAR  (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Fake refugees, unsuitable food rations and a tradition of slavery that lives on in all but name are among the problems facing aid workers running a Malian refugee camp in southeastern Mauritania, where the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has come in for sharp criticism.

Some 75,000 refugees from north Mali have sought safety and support in the Mbera camp, near the small town of Bassikounou, since fleeing their homes in March 2012 after Tuareg and Islamist separatists seized control of their home region.

The UNHCR country representative in Mauritania left abruptly earlier this year. An interim representative, Anne Maymann, took over in July, and told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Nouakchott why this post has been particularly demanding.


The unusually large number of local Mauritanians claiming to be refugees in the Mbera camp has caused alarm among donors who are hesitant about spending extra money at a time of economic crisis when there are other humanitarian priorities, like Syria.    

Around one fifth of the refugees registered in Mbera camp are actually locals, according to a recent joint assessment mission (JAM) conducted by the UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP).

ECHO, the European Union’s humanitarian arm, has decided to withdraw funding from the UNHCR until the genuine refugees are identified. But donors are part of the problem, Maymann said.  

“One of the biggest mistakes humanitarian agencies make when dealing with refugees is helping the refugees while neglecting the local population,” she said. “Donors naturally focus on the refugees, but what we need is a more subtle area-based approach.” 

The JAM found that 80 percent of refugee households in the camp ate three balanced meals a day, compared with only 14 percent of local people living nearby.

“We cannot have small islands of aid in the middle of developing countries where there are few services available,” she said. “Of course the food assistance, distribution of domestic articles and so on will attract the local population and inevitably this will lead to tensions.”  

Attempts to use a new, biometric registration system to remove opportunist local people, who often re-sell food aid on nearby markets, have run up against government delays and violence in the camp.

Despite repeated requests by the international community, Nouakchott has still not crosschecked registered refugees with Mauritanians on the national database, a foolproof way to determine who are real refugees, Maymann said.  

In Mbera, a score of camp residents protesting against the biometric system tried to destroy the registration centre last month. “They destroyed the plastic sheeting, the plastic chairs and equipment, but thankfully they didn’t manage to get into the heart of the centre, where the computers were kept,” she said.

The angry mob, by now about 100 “refugees,” then looted three of the five WFP food distribution centres. “We lost around 16 tonnes of food, enough to feed around 7,000 people for a month. We also had soap stolen for around 8,000 persons,” Maymann said.


A lack of understanding of the ties between the region’s ethnic groups has also been a problem at Mbera camp, which has Tuaregs and Arabs as well as Bella, an indigenous group from northern Mali, Maymann said. 

According to the JAM, the traditional caste hierarchy linking the ‘nobles’ (usually Tuaregs or Arabs) and ‘ex-slaves’ (usually the Bella) makes it difficult to ensure that aid is shared equitably. The Bella areas of the camp have significantly less food than those where Arabs and Tuaregs live.  

Slavery lives on in northern Mali, where the Bella are forced to work without salary or education and are inherited from generation to generation, according to Temedt, a group that campaigns against slavery in Mali.

“The behaviour displayed towards the Bella is not particular to the camp, but has existed in the region for centuries,” Maymann said. “Among those most at risk are the children of the Bella, who work as domestic workers [for the Arabs and Tuaregs],” she said, stopping short of describing them as slaves.  

“We need to work within the social structure to ensure a human rights approach so the most vulnerable are taken care of,” Maymann said. “We’ve started blanket feeding all children under 25 months and we will do the same for all children up to five years.”


Standard food rations provided by the WFP do not cater for local tastes, and fail to take into account the equipment and resources available, and this has contributed to the high malnutrition rates in the camp, many of whose residents are normally nomads, living on meat and milk.

“We were distributing lentils, rice and millet; food that takes time and equipment to cook. Many of the refugees didn’t have the right kitchen tools, or stoves. They didn’t have fuel,” said Maymann. “It wasn’t the food they were used to eating, and they didn’t know how to prepare the food.”

The JAM found that some of the food ended up on local markets where it was exchanged for milk and meat, which is not part of the food ration.

One third of all households did not have the water required to cook the food. The cost of charcoal had increased almost 10-fold in two years, making it very difficult to prepare the pulses and blended foods provided, as they required long cooking times, the report said.

Despite problems with the rations, the malnutrition rates have decreased since then as a result of better food distribution, improved water and sanitation as well as more health facilities.

“The malnutrition [global] rate has dropped from 20 percent in July 2012 to 13.2 percent in January 2013 and we expect that number to be lower now,” Maymann said.

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