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Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria's arid south

TINDOUF, Algeria (Reuters) - In refugee camps near the town of Tindouf in the arid south-west Algeria conditions are hard for indigenous Sahrawi residents.

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The five camps there are home to an estimated 165,000 Sahrawi refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency, citing government figures.

“Income-generating activities are scarce” for the refugees, the UNHCR says. The camps’ residents are “mainly dependent on humanitarian assistance with little prospect for self-reliance.”

The UNCHR classifies 90,000 of these refugees as vulnerable. NGOs, including Oxfam, run language and computer courses for women.

The flag of Western Sahara flutters in the school playground. A mural painted on a wall of the National Union of Sahrawi Women headquarters in Boudjdour camp reads in Spanish, “If the present is a struggle, the future is ours.”

Over and over the refugees are heard saying they want to go back home to Western Sahara, a region mired in a four-decade deadlock.

In two of the camps, Boudjdour and Al Smara, there are no streetlights. The refugees cannot afford to buy fuel for generators so they depend on car batteries to power lights when night falls. Tankers deliver water once a month. (Images of the camps can be seen in

Many residents are using mud to make bricks and rebuild their homes after floods damaged the area last year.

Children make the best of things, playing with a ball outside the tents they call home, or using a makeshift seesaw made from a wooden plank and an oil barrel.

At the local school and nursery, where teachers are indigenous Sahrawi, refugees try to get ahead through education. Older students set their sights on university in Algeria or Spain.

Morocco has controlled most of Western Sahara since 1975 and claims sovereignty over the sparsely populated stretch of desert to its south, which has offshore fishing, phosphate reserves and oilfield potential.

Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara prompted a rebellion by the Polisario Front backed by Morocco’s neighbor Algeria. The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991, but talks have since failed to find a lasting settlement in Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon plans to visit the camps on March 5.

Reporting by Zohra Bensemra, writing by Brian McGee; Editing by Richard Balmforth