Saharawi and Palestinian organisations warn, however, that if lockdown continues, the solidarity and international volunteering networks may be weakened.
The southern shore of the Mediterranean is a priority zone for the International Civil Service of Catalonia and it organises international volunteering projects with local entities on the ground. Many Catalans have travelled to the southern shores of the Mediterranean and may youths from these territories have visited Catalonia to share tools, lessons and strategies for mobilisation and defending human rights.
Work camps, trainings and international seminar and other forms of international activism have taken place in recent years on both shores of the Mediterranean, until 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
As this report by ODHE explains, Palestine and Western Sahara are two occupied territories that have carried a double burden because of the Covid crisis (a health crisis, and political repression and blockade). In both cases, the arrival of international volunteers was the only way of publicly denouncing their situation internationally.
Digital activist residency
Since 2018,during one month, in summertime, the SCI Catalonia has welcomed young activists from Mediterranean countries to give visibility to the situation of their peoples, to create spaces for learning together with young Catalans and to share strategies and best practices in youth activism.
2020 wasn’t going to be any different. In July they were expecting three youths from Palestine and Western Sahara, but due to the pandemic this was not possible. “The youth residency is a very important activity for SCI Catalonia and the whole organisation gets involved. The essence of this organisation is precisely to welcome activists here in Catalonia during a month, and this depends on them being able to travel” says Max Carbonell, the projects technician of SCI Catalonia.
Initially they thought of delaying this residency to the autumn, hoping the situation would have improved, but they finally decided to adapt it to a cycle of online webinars.
Lockdown and the Saharan conflict worsens the situation
New Western Sahara is a youth organisation working in occupied territories, in refugee camps in Algeria and with the diaspora, to end the Moroccan occupation and the plundering of resources and to promote human, civil and political rights. For some years, SCI has been working together with them and in 2020 they were going to organise their first international work camp.
"The incidence of Covid here dropped quite soon, but lockdown continues, and this is what is hampering our work and our projects the most”, says Maglaha Hamma, a member of New Western Sahara.
International volunteering is very important for them. Maglaha says that “these exchanges help us to communicate and spread the message of our peoples’ struggle, it gives visibility to the situation in refugee camps”; he warns that not being able to welcome international volunteers will have a big impact on the situation of the Sahrawi people.
On top of the lockdown and the consequences of the pandemic there is the political instability that came with the end of the ceasefire by Morocco last November. This has brought all their projects to a standstill.
The dangers of demobilisation and disconnection with Palestine
In Palestine, and despite the different incidence that Covid is having in the West Bank, the occupied territories or Gaza, the latter living under a permanent political confinement, the situation is similar to that in Sahara.
The Baladna youth association continues to work to raise awareness and mobilise young Palestinians living on Israeli territory, a country that denies them their identity and culture. Covid, however, has had a severe impact on their work.
“Our main task is to build community with youths, getting together, organising workshops, seminars, and working together; covid is making this very difficult,” says Nidaa Nasser, the coordinator of Baladna Youth Association. She explains that youths aged 16 to 18 are having to go through schooling virtually and asking them to stay in front of their computers for a meeting after all day isn’t working.
Nasser also explains that all of their international volunteering and exchange projects have been stopped. At Baladna they consider international volunteering is important to build solidarity among peoples living in similar situations. “When you share a space with people from different contexts who share your values and flight for similar causes, this is extremely empowering. The struggle takes on an international dimension”, she adds.
Volunteering as a tool for international community advocacy is another of their goals. “We believe it is very important to do advocacy work for the rights of Palestinians by sharing information on our reality and communicating with communities on the other shore of the Mediterranean, and this has now stopped because of Covid”, Nidaa Nasser explains.
Nasser concludes by warning that is this situation continues, it may create fragmentation among the population because of lost connections: “When we stop mobilising and advocacy, we are stopping change from happening, and this is the real threat we face with covid”.