THE BLOG

Tents Further Than the Eye Can See

13/06/2013 12:00 BST | Updated 10/08/2013 10:12 BST

Some 280 kilometres North West from Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou lies Goudebo camp in the Sahel region, home to over 10,000 refugees who fled the conflict over the border in Mali last year.

With little rain so far this year; it is windswept, a dusty sprawl of hand-made tents further than the eye can see. But even in more fertile parts of the year, I doubt it is that pleasant living here - especially for the mainly Tuareg people, who are used to the freedom of pastoralist living, with their cattle and goats.

This is a big camp - it has a fifth of all the Malian refugees in Burkina Faso - and one where child rights and humanitarian organisation Plan is taking the lead in education and protection of children, as well as supporting refugees with water and sanitation facilities.

The camp management is being co-ordinated by the UN Refugee Agency - UNHCR and I am met by a fascinating cross section of staff from different agencies and nationalities, mostly from Africa - both west and east.

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Children inside a classroom in Goudebo camp. Plan / Françoise Kaboré

Sturdy classrooms

The camp is less than a year old but already Plan's contribution is very evident. There are sturdy class rooms for some 650 pupils, including around 20 Burkina-born children from the locality. This is important as it sends out a signal that in a society where many kids are still not in school, there is not one set of opportunities for refugee children and a different attitude towards locals.

There is a good gender balance in classrooms with many girls enrolled in education. All the children are supported by some 30 teachers who cover a six and half hour school day split into two parts to avoid the worst of the heat. Many of these children have never been to school before. The teachers I talk with are a well-motivated and lively lot; some are refugees themselves working alongside Burkina trained staff.

Sanitation concerns

We meet the newly elected Refugee Council and the Council for Women at the camp site. All of them are full of praise for Plan's work in the schools and protection areas - but the big issue is the scarcity of working latrines, especially with the rains about to come and with them, high winds which can blow temporary structures away in minutes.

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Sanitation is one of the major challenges in refugee camps. Plan / Françoise Kaboré

Plan is only a supporting player in this area. The non-governmental organisations taking the lead say they have few resources to build more - a point reinforced by UNHCR.

I wander around the camp briefly. The women are engaged in the usual chores: washing, cleaning, and cooking. I am struck by the number of men I see hanging around and with time on their hands.

And when we meet the refugee council led by proud men, articulate and adept at forming social and political structures, we ask about when they might return to Mali. Many are from Timbuktu and Gao. They do not know - they remain concerned about their safety.

Living with uncertainty

The reasons why people leave a conflict like Mali are not the same; each is an individual story so there is no universal answer as to when safe is safe enough.

Living with this open-ended uncertainty in a foreign land must be very hard, however well provided people are with the basics of food, water and shelter. Being a refugee in this camp is not really living - more a matter of survival when time can hang heavy.

One of the dilemmas for governments like the one in Burkina Faso and agencies like ourselves is how long should we be planning for this camp to operate. The longer it is there, the more permanent it becomes with the appropriate investment needed to build better infrastructure.

But at least now, after the recent meeting in Brussels of all the interested parties, the issue of aid for the thousands of Malian refugees in Niger and Burkina Faso is back on the agenda.