18 Nov, 2017
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The Saharawi Stuggle

Tindouf Refugee Camps

The Polisario has benefited from the strong support of the Algerian government since its inception decades ago, most importantly through the welcoming of the Saharawis as refugees and the provision of a safe haven for the Polisario leadership. The Saharawi camps outside of Tindouf, Algeria, defy the western vision of refugee camps. Rather than disorganized rows of haphazard tents and long lines for food and medical treatment, Tindouf is home to six well-organized camps – Ausserd, Dakhla, February 27th, Laayoune, Rabuni, and Smara – inhabited by well-organized people. The camps are run entirely by the SADR government, the Polisario Front, and a number of Saharawi civil society organizations. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] and the World Food Program [WFP] provide tents – which most Saharawis set up next to their more permanent homes of sand bricks – and food, but have little presence in the camps.

Upon visiting the camps, international visitors are surprised to find taxis, buses, satellite television, DVD players, barber shops, grocers, electronics stores, gas stations, restaurants, Internet cafes, hospitals, clinics, schools, a Turkish bath, day care centers, farms, gardens, and local radio and television stations. Some argue that life in the camps is becoming too normal – thus creating the appearance of acceptability for the status quo – and that the international community is thus at risk of abandoning the case altogether.

Refugee Camp


Since 1975, when the first Saharawi refugees crossed over into Algeria, the Polisario and the SADR have been modernizing and developing the camps with two goals in mind. First, a degree of livability is necessary to sustain the independence movement in such inhospitable conditions in the Saharan Desert, where summer temperatures reach up to 130°. Secondly, the Saharawis have developed and administered the camps to such a degree to prove that they are ready for self-rule – a practice-run for statehood.

For administrative purposes, each camp [called a wilaya in Hassaniya] is divided into five to six regions [or dairas], which are further broken down into neighborhoods. These divisions are used for electoral and health processes, as food and vaccines are distributed on the local level by the Saharawis themselves. Each daira has at least one primary school. Because of the primacy given to education by the Polisario’s leaders, even before houses were built in the refugee camps, Saharawi teachers set up outdoor “classrooms” to ensure that the children were well-educated. Today, primary school is mandatory for all refugee children.

As in the Polisario Front organization, women play a very important role in administering the refugee camps. Partly out of necessity - as the men were off fighting in the Saharawi army - women were the first directors of the camps, and they maintain their important positions today. The Saharawis boast that they are one example in the Arab world of a population that truly promotes women’s equality.


The camps are not without their problems, however. While crime has been largely absent over the decades, the continuation of a situation of “neither war nor peace” has increased frustration among the refugee population. This frustration, combined with the flow of new commodities and the birth of an independent economy in the camps, has increased illegal activity.

Finally, health risks created by adverse conditions lower the Saharawi refugees’ quality of life in Algeria. Because of the Saharawi Ministry of Health’s intensive campaign to monitor the health of both humans and animals in the camps, the Saharawis have survived for 35 years in exile without a serious pandemic spreading through the close quarters. Nonetheless, malnutrition, diarrhea, and high blood pressure are prevalent throughout the camps, and water shortages are frequent. In the winter, isolated thunderstorms wash away houses and threaten to destroy entire camps. In summer, the heat and sun are so intense that many children are temporarily “adopted” by families in Spain and other European countries to spend the season abroad. While the Saharawis are a strong people, and have proven their ability to withstand great hardship, the status quo is not sustainable indefinitely.

The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)

To prove their readiness for independence and statehood, the Saharawis have created an impressive government and state, both of which operate largely in exile from the refugee camps. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was declared on February 27th, 1976, when Spain abdicated its legal responsibilities and relinquished its control over the Western Sahara without organizing a referendum. In 1982, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) admitted the SADR as a member, acknowledging its status as the sovereign government of the Western Sahara. Over the years, more than 80 countries have recognized the SADR’s sovereignty – including Mexico and South Africa – although some suspended that recognition in the late 1990s and early 21st century.

Since the signing of the ceasefire in 1991, the Polisario has increasingly handed over the administration of the refugee camps and the independence movement to the SADR. It initially did so after MINURSO’s deployment to the Western Sahara, expecting a referendum to be forthcoming and thus recognizing the need to have a fully-functioning government in place. As they continue their diplomatic efforts to gain international support, the Polisario points to the SADR to prove the Saharawis’ ability for self-rule.

The SADR – enshrined in the Saharawi Constitution, which was most recently updated and ratified in 2007 – consists of three branches of government: an executive branch with a president and 18 government ministries, a legislative branch consisting of a parliament of 53 members, and a judicial branch that applies a mixture of western and Islamic law. While elections for the Parliament are universal for Saharawis over the age of 18, the Secretary General of the Polisario Front – currently Mohammed Abdelaziz – is automatically named the President of the SADR.

“We are not just building a democracy; we are building a state. We are educating a people who have never had this type of government before.”
-Malainin Lakhal, Secretary General of Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union

The Saharawis pride themselves on the level of democracy in the SADR. For them, operating under a democracy is based both in historical roots of Saharawi tribal councils and in strategic concerns in combating a monarchy. Greatly outnumbered by Moroccans, the Polisario recognizes the need for support from all Saharawis, so it enlists their participation through democratic involvement in the SADR. The Saharawi Parliament is home to fierce debate among members, many of whom are younger and newer political participants.

The 18 Saharawi executive ministries include: Professional Development and Employment, Economic Development, Equipment, Commerce, Cooperation, Environment, Transportation, Rehabilitation of the Liberated Zones, Interior, Justice and Religious Affairs, Public Heath, Culture, Education and Teaching, Youth and Sport, Defense, Information, and Foreign Relations. Perhaps the most important SADR ministry today is the Ministry of Information, which runs a TV station and several radio stations in the camps. It also maintains a Web site that publishes information on the conflict for a worldwide community. Finally, it manages an extensive National Archive in the camps, where documents, photos, recordings, and videos taken since the founding of the Polisario are stored and digitized. The National Archives serves both to cement the idea of a true independent state and to educate the youth born in the refugee camps on the history of the Saharawis’ struggle for statehood and freedom.

Despite the SADR’s high levels of participation and organization, many question whether the Western Sahara would be a viable state. Arguments against the SADR’s readiness include its unproven abilities at taxation and the large territory it would have to administer, relative to a small population and limited resources. Nonetheless, the Saharawis have proven their capacity to administer three branches of government, an army, and five refugee camps, and have been perfecting their parliamentary democracy over the past three and a half decades. The Saharawis insist that if given the chance, they would create the first fully-democratic country in North Africa.

Polisario Defections

Even after 37 years of failed efforts to realize a referendum on self-determination in the Western Sahara, the Polisario Front remains the unified voice of the Saharawi people. Nonetheless, certain high-level leaders have defected over the years, citing a variety of reasons. Most recently, Ahmadou Souilem, who was a personal advisor to Polisario Secretary General Mohammed Abdelaziz, left the Tindouf camps in July 2009, citing disillusionment with the Polisario leadership and unbearable conditions in the camps. The Polisario’s willingness to abide by the UN’s terms – despite the organization’s unwillingness to impose a solution on Morocco – have caused several former supporters to lose patience with the movement’s leadership.

As Morocco itself admits, the Kingdom offers safe haven and incentives – both economic and political – for Saharawis who defect from the Polisario. Saharawis who support Morocco’s autonomy plan are given positions in Moroccan-based organizations, as well as in the Moroccan parliament itself. The Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS) was founded by King Mohammed VI in 2006 to increase royal influence in the Western Sahara. Khalli Hanna Ould Errachid, a Saharawi who assisted Morocco in organizing the Green March in 1975, was named President, and a number of Polisario defectors have become members.

Despite occasional defections from the Polisario Front, every year dozens of Saharawis make the inverse journey from the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara to the refugee camps. Such journeys are made to reunite with family, flee oppression by Moroccan security forces, and show support for the Polisario Front. Even after three decades of disappointments, the Saharawis remain largely united.

Polisario Human Rights Abuses

The Polisario Front has also been accused of human rights violations, though recent alleged abuses are not as well-documented by independent groups as those committed by the Moroccans. Some of those who have spoken out include Moroccans attacked or detained by Polisario supporters, as well as Polisario defectors who have fled the refugee camps, fearing for their safety and security. Such defectors have alleged that the Polisario Front stifles dissent and has restricted the free movement of people in the camps.

The Polisario leadership, in a sign of openness and accountability, has taken responsibility for certain human rights violations that occurred in the camps in the 1980s and 1990s, many of which were directed against Moroccan prisoners of war, who were imprisoned in difficult conditions that violated the Geneva Conventions and other international norms. The leadership has also recognized abuses committed against some dissident Saharawis that opposed the Polisario Front. Such abuses are largely in the past, however. Today the refugee camps are home to an incredibly open, inclusive, and tolerant society. The Polisario has focused on improving the plight of its people and burnishing its international image as well as its democratic credentials, and has taken steps to ensure human rights in the camps are guaranteed. These steps have included efforts towards the eradication of racism, the provision of human rights training for military and police officers, and the welcoming of international reporters and observers to the camps.

As pointed out by Morocco, Saharawi refugees continue to be restricted in their movements. However, the Polisario Front has counters that this is largely due to logistical and economic factors. Most fundamentally, without internationally recognized passports, it is extremely difficult for the Saharawis to travel to foreign countries. The 1,600-mile-long Moroccan military wall, which is surrounded by a minefield, makes travel to the cities of the Western Sahara nearly impossible. Finally, as refugees, the Saharawis lack the financial resources to move outside the camps.

Nonetheless, the Saharawis move freely among the five separate refugee camps, easily passing through checkpoints at each entrance. Many Saharawis also take day trips to nearby Tindouf, spend weeks visiting family in Mauritania, travel to Spain or Italy to study or spend the grueling summer months abroad, and pass weeks or even months in the grazing lands outside of Tindouf to escape the heat of summer in the camps. Critics, however, continue to allege that the Saharawis are prisoners in the camps, restricted by both the Polisario Front and their Algerian sponsors from leaving in large numbers. While considering these allegations, however, it is important to note that Morocco, through the construction of its military wall and the mining of the de facto border between occupied Western Sahara and that controlled by the Polisario, has erected the single most significant obstacle to the free movement of people in the area.

Finally, although not directly related to human rights, along with accusations of limitations on freedom of movement, the Polisario is accused of preventing a census in the camps to determine the number of refugees actually residing there. Estimates range from 40,000 to over 200,000, while many international observers studying the conflict believe the true population is probably closer to 160,000. The prevention of a census is a strategic decision by the Polisario, as the number of both voters and soldiers at the disposal of the Saharawis’ independence movement is considered a matter of national security.