The Sahrawi Forgotten Refugees

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

Sahrawi Refugee Camp in South West Algeria. (©European Union)
Sahrawi Refugee Camp in South West Algeria. (©European Union)

In times of the emergence of many large scale humanitarian emergencies, the situation of the Sahrawi refugees in South West Algeria has become increasingly forgotten by the international community. As one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world, Sahrawi refugees represent one of the oldest refugee groups in the world but receive insufficient international aid despite significant humanitarian needs.

Most of the Sahrawis fled their homes in 1975 as the conflict in Western Sahara escalated when Moroccan troops arrived to the area to claim the former Spanish colony as Spain relinquished control. From then on, the sprawling swathe of desert on Africa’s Atlantic coast, was meant to be shared between Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritania consequently withdrew its claims to the territory in 1979, with only Morocco remaining as an occupying power. However, the indigenous people of that strip of land refused to be colonised again and created an independence movement, the Polisario Front in 1973, which since then has been determined to fight for the independence of the Western Sahara from Rabat. Morocco seized most of the 260’000 square kilometres of territory, forcing the Sahrawis and the Polisario Front to flee just over the border to Algeria. Since 1975, tens of thousands of refugees live in one string of refugee camps, scattered around 5 main camps just 50km away from their homeland, unable to return home for the last 43 years.

Since the 1980s, Morocco has erected a 2700 km barrier from the north to the south of the Western Sahara, dividing the territory into 80% controlled by Morocco and 20% controlled by the Algerian backed Polisario Front.

As of December 2017, the UN counts 173’600 Sahrawi refugees residing in 5 camps in Tindouf, Algeria.[1] Due to the pending political solution and the harsh conditions in this desert and the remote location of these camps, the refugee population remains extremely vulnerable and almost entirely dependent on international assistance for basic needs. However, funding levels have greatly decreased in recent years and the delivery of life saving assistance has been affected very severely. Temperatures go up to 50 degrees Celsius in the summer and below zero in the winter, there is intermittent electricity, no running water and limited healthcare, which lead to high rates of child and maternal mortality rates and widespread cases of anaemia. Furthermore, livelihood and economic activities and opportunities are extremely limited and thus make it very challenging for refugees to improve their socio-economic situation.

Although, the Polisario Front declared the birth of its state based in exile in the camps in 1976, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (or SADR) and has developed its own institutions, such as a camp based police force and prisons as well as an actual legal state with a constitution, most survival and job provisions come from international aid programmes and the Algerian government. Humanitarian aid provides the general distribution of food every month, most of the medicine is provided by the EU, as well as water, primary and secondary education. Some Sahrawis manage to go to universities in Algeria through grants from the Algerian government and other friendly countries, but in most cases go abroad to work. Thus, Sahrawi refugees in Algeria live mostly on funds from exiled relatives in Europe and on international aid.

Despite 43 years in exile, life under very harsh conditions, isolated for decades and largely forgotten by the world, many Sahrawi refugees still believe that one day they will return to their homeland.

The 5 main Sahrawi refugee camps established in South West Algeria in the mid-1970s.
The 5 main Sahrawi refugee camps established in South West Algeria in the mid-1970s. (©PBS, 2013)

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