Bassikounou — M'bera, a refugee camp in scrubland on the border with Mali, came into being just five months ago; it is now Mauritania's fourth largest town, prompting (at least superficial) comparisons with the huge Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya.
Set up to provide refuge to people fleeing conflict in northern Mali, the camp is causing security concerns for Mauritania and piling pressure on the fragile environment around Bassikounou town, 18km away.
M'bera, like the world's largest refugee camp Dadaab, has seen local residents forced to compete for scarce resources with the rapidly growing number of camp residents (over 400 people are arriving every day). There are also fears that M'bera, like Dadaab, could be targeted by militants.
M'bera has 80,000 residents, according to government estimates, while the second and third largest towns in Mauritania - Nouadhibou (formerly Port-Étienne) and Kiffa - each have a population of 100,000. "M'bera will probably get to 100,000 if the conflict in Mali does not end soon," said Mohamed Abdallah Ould Zeidane, president of the national commission in charge of Malian refugees in Mauritania.
Bassikounou's population, by contrast, is less than 8,000.
Mauritania is the only country in the Sahel to have openly confronted Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and has carried out strikes against it in Mali; as a result, its army and frontiers have become targets over the past six years.
"With so many people coming in and with so many aid workers near the border, security is our biggest concern," said Zeidane. The Mauritanian government is providing free-of-charge military escorts to aid workers heading to the camp from Bassikounou, where all aid agencies have set up offices. Mauritanian soldiers also escort aid workers on a gruelling five-hour journey across the desert from the nearest air strip in Nema, capital of Hodh el Chargui region, where M'bera is also located.
"We are afraid of another Dadaab-like situation from developing," said a security official with an aid agency, alluding to the kidnapping of aid workers in Dadaab by Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based militant Islamist group.
Samba Thiam, president of the African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM), an outlawed paramilitary group championing the rights of black Mauritanians against the Arabo-Berber ruling elite, was quoted on a website supported bythe US Africa Command as saying Mauritania's preventive strategy had saved the country from an imminent "terrorist" threat.
Thiam said the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel, which has left so many people vulnerable materially and financially, "provides fertile ground for the terrorists in the country". The current drought in the Sahel has affected 20 percent of Mauritania's population and the people of Hodh el Chargui - mostly pastoralists - are among the most vulnerable. The Malians coming into the region share the same ethnic origins.
Apart from the security aspect, Dadaab and M'bera share similar problems in terms of pressure on local resources and the environment, with intense competition for firewood, water and pasture.
"The refugees outnumber the local population in harvesting the very limited wood for cooking," said Cheikh Ould Baba, the prefect of Bassikonou. Income from wild plant products and firewood is down by up to 5 percent, according to USAID's Famine Early Warning Systems Networks (FEWS NET). Food prices are also rising though the government provides subsidized cereals through government-run outlets called "solidarity shops".
Water is scarce and most refugees are not receiving the emergency standard of 10 litres per person per day, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The usual humanitarian standard per person is 20 litres of water per day. UNHCR and its partners have been trucking water to remote refugee sites, a costly undertaking given high fuel prices, long distances and the absence of paved roads.
"Also, we have been digging wells, but because of several years of drought in the Sahel, some of these dry up within three months," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told reporters in Geneva two weeks ago.
Cheikh Ould Baba said aid agencies must help find sustainable solutions to host the refugee population without straining the environment, as the conflict in Mali could go on for a long time.
UNHCR said it had set up local structures comprising representatives of the camp and the local population to address the possibility of conflict over resources. Zeidane said UN agencies were conducting a survey on the impact of the refugees on the environment. "We hope they will find us some solutions."
Some 150,000 people fled Mali in the 1990s due to a combination of famine and unrest. "We were actively involved in brokering peace between the rebels and the government then, and we are doing our bit again now by hosting talks here," said Zeidane.
Many of the Malian refugees at the time stayed in Mauritania and have integrated into the local population.
"Big camps have not succeeded anywhere," said Jean-François Durieux of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, who has served UNHCR in many crises and developed its research policy and service.
"The Mauritanian government, the UNHCR and other aid agencies should have learnt lessons from the last influx of refugees in the 1990s. We have learnt from our experiences not only in Dadaab but elsewhere that these types of structure are very difficult to dismantle. It is time to think outside the box and some countries are doing that already. We have to think about people's livelihoods, their quality of life besides security."
He said it was too early to talk about integration in the Mauritanian context - they were still in an emergency mode. "But there is the other option of dispersing the people using local hospitality. This has happened recently in the case of Liberia, where local communities opened up their homes to refugees from Côte d'Ivoire fleeing the violence after the elections in 2011." There had been a precedent for this sort of arrangement between the two countries, Durieux explained. During the First Liberian Civil war (1989-1996) villages in Côte d'Ivoire hosted fleeing Liberians. But in that instance it had been deemed government policy and the government provided support to the villages.
Yet another "outside the box" strategy was devised by the Tanzanian government in its response to the mass displacement of Burundians following the 1972 genocide. Refugees were allocated five hectares of land per family and by 1985 were largely self-sufficient. They were then given the option to stay, return or resettle elsewhere.
"People within UNHCR are also thinking along these lines and beyond big camps and they should have been planning a long-term strategy in the case of Mauritania already," said Durieux.
UNHCR has received only 13 percent of the US$153.7 million needed to assist displaced Malians in the Sahel.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]