Refugee camps and services managed by refugees

Refugees, host communities & diaspora

Refugee camps and services managed by refugees

Contact details 

Submitted by: UNHCR Algeria

Introduction to the project






Refugees from Western Sahara have been residing in the refugee camps near Tindouf since 1975. The host country of Algeria has recognized Sahrawis as refugees on a prima facie basis under the 1969 African Union Convention. While UNHCR and other partners have been present to support the host country and the refugees residing in the 5 camps near Tindouf, a unique feature of this protracted situation is the level of community-managed activities. The refugee community plays a major role in the provision of humanitarian services and leading the camp management.

Refugee communities should, wherever possible, be empowered to design, implement and manage projects for the people that concern them the most – their own community. While each displacement has its own dynamics, both humanitarian and political, the Sahrawi refugee experience can still showcase the ability of a refugee community to effectively manage the delivery of humanitarian services and camp management over a long period of time.

The structure of the camp management is divided from a “wilaya” (regional) or camp level, to a ‘daira’ or suburb/zone level within each camp, and then down to a cluster of houses at the ‘hy’ or neighbourhood level. Each level is organised into structures which allow for feedback at the ground level to quickly be received at higher levels and efforts mobilised swiftly to meet needs. In addition to these structures, there are also a number of civil society associations such as the Women’s Union, Workers’ Union, Youth Union and the Student Union, as further examples of the high level of refugee involvement. These community structures are utilised by the humanitarian agencies across the programming cycle, including for assessing the needs of the refugee community, to joint planning with the refugee leadership bodies, to implementation via the camp management structure who lead distributions and manage most basic services, as well as evaluation stages. 

Additionally, in the context of solutions, this community-based structure of camp management provides an important opportunity to develop the communities’ leadership, advocacy, human rights, peace education and project management skills that are not only useful in coping with their present situation, but may also prove helpful in any future acceptable durable solution.

As the participation of persons of concern in decisions that affect them is long established as a right, a refugee community managing refugee camps and services should be considered a good practice. In Tindouf, the community managed system has allowed for effective and efficient use of resources through volunteerism, promoting AGD goals of participation and gender equality, all of which are in the spirit of building an equal partnership with the refugee community. This participatory approach is reiterated throughout the Global Compact for Refugees, and the refugee-managed camps near Tindouf should be researched, replicated and adapted to other contexts where the situation allows. 

This is an example of community-based protection taken to its zenith.

Project aims

Increase the participation of refugees in camp management and delivery of humanitarian aid for their own refugee community.

Resources used

The system is organic and formed by the Sahrawi refugee community prior to most traditional humanitarian agencies being on the ground with the support of the host government. Since then however, all humanitarian agencies and other bilateral support have contributed to the continuing success of the refugee-managed system.


Around 18 NGOs and three UN agencies (UNHCR, WFP and UNICEF) work with the Sahrawi refugee leadership in the camps.

How challenges were overcome 

Generally some of the following could be considered challenges in some situations where camps and services are managed by the refugee community, however they should not detract from the advantages of the community managed system:

  • Concerns over lack of control over the humanitarian activities managed by community;
  • Perceived risk of politicization of humanitarian activities;
  • Relative strength of refugee community in negotiations;
  • Occasional changes of leadership within the refugee community and elections;
  • Significant turnover of highly skilled community workforce who are vital in delivering basic services (e.g. doctors, nurses, teachers, judges and other skilled professionals);
  • Concern over conflicting interests as leaders are also beneficiaries;
  • Inability to contract directly with the refugee representation/bodies.

Although working with the refugee community as equal partners can bring such challenges, members of the community are held as a responsible actors in delivering services and managing the camps for their own population. Over the years, the humanitarian and refugee community have gained experience working together. This has allowed for the different interests, processes and relative strengths and weaknesses of each stakeholder to be better understood by the other. Both communities work together to promote humanitarian objectives.

Results of the Good Practice

  • Empowerment and Participation: Participation is a right. It is encapsulated in the spirit of the Global Compact for Refugees to promote refugees as equal partners, placing them at the center of decision-making while encouraging the “whole of society approach”. The Saharwi refugee leadership groups manage a total of five camps near Tindouf, Algeria and have an established seat at the table. Refugees implement their own activities, manage their own partnerships and advocate for resources domestically and internationally.
  • Efficient, Equitable and Sustainable: The refugee leadership has managed the camps since their establishment in the mid-1970s. They promote solidarity, equality and volunteerism. This allows the camps to be run in an efficient and sustainable manner with refugees leading implementation and management of all basic services in the camps. Gender equality is also promoted within some sectors. For example, in education and social services, women may exceed 80% of the workforce, and currently constitute 2 out of the 5 camp representatives (‘Walis’).
  • Responding to Needs: The grass-roots structure of the camp management, divided from camp level down to neighbourhood level, allows for feedback at the ground level to quickly be received at the higher levels and efforts mobilised swiftly. This community structure is relied on by the humanitarian agencies across the programme cycle, from assessment, planning, implementation to evaluation. 
  • Long-Term Impact and Facilitating Solutions: This community-based structure of camp management provides an important opportunity to develop the communities’ leadership, advocacy, human rights, peace, education and project management skills that are useful in coping with their present situation and may also prove helpful in any future acceptable durable solution.

Next steps

  • Strengthen Existing System: Continue to work closely with the refugee community and strive to improve the system throughout the programme cycle as well as ensure that the community participate in humanitarian inter-agency planning processes;
  • Research and Document Impact: Conduct further research and better document the specific community-based practices, their impact, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the existing system, as well as how the general community participate and are empowered in decision making;
  • Contribute to Best Practice Guidelines: Produce, or contribute to, a detailed best practice guideline promoting proven elements of the community-based system as a potential best practice for other refugee and displacement situations to review and adapt to their context where possible.