top of page
  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

The Sahrawi Refugee Crisis: ‘A lifetime in Exile’



Introducing the Sahrawi People

The Sahrawi people inhabit the Western part of the Sahara Desert. Comprised of the Western Sahara, Mauritania, South Morocco and South West Algeria, the homeland of the Sahrawi people has been host to one of the most protracted humanitarian crises of recent history. While the Sahrawi culture is something of a mixed one, features typically associated with the Arab-Berber ethnic minority are fairly easily identifiable.


History of the Conflict

Conflict in the area developed in the aftermath of Spain, the former colonial power, relinquishing the region in 1975. Being a region rich in minerals it was perhaps unsurprising that the Western Sahara attracted interest from the neighbouring states in the shape of Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. Indeed, following Spanish relinquishment Morocco and Mauritania claimed control of the area until conflict with the National Liberation Movement – the Polisario Front – saw Mauritania follow in Spain’s footsteps withdrawing their influence from the region. Continued conflict with the Polisario Front, who have consistently fought for the independence of the Western Sahara since 1973, eventually led to the construction of a wall intending to prevent liberation fighters entering the country from Algeria.


This ongoing conflict escalated throughout the 1970s. A UN brokered cease-fire was agreed in 1991 and plans for a National Referendum giving the people the chance to vote on the prospect of independence from Morocco followed, this however failed to come to fruition due to disagreements over who was entitled to vote. The failure of this proposed independence vote seemingly shattered any hope of an immediate resolution to the issue and instead merely added to the uncertainty of the estimated 100,000[1] Sahrawi people living in refugee camps in Algeria. Furthermore, this negotiated cease-fire has been said to give rise to ‘fractious peace’[2] only, and described as something of a hindrance to the Sahrawi people, creating ‘global obscurity’[3] and ‘vanquishing … their plight from the public consciousness’.


The Situation Now

To date, this conflict and its implications rumbles on, indeed the five main camps in south-west Algeria still occupy significant numbers of refugees. The situation is something of a desperate one for the Sahrawi people seeking refuge in the camps around Tindouf. Conditions there are terrible with water delivered just monthly, electricity rarely available and few cattle able to survive in the harsh, dry climate. An average temperature of 43[4] degrees in July of 2018 serves to illustrate just how unforgiving the environment is.

Beyond the immediate concerns regarding living conditions, issues of sustainability and corruption threaten the Sahrawi people still further. According to the World Food Programme’s estimations around 77%[5] of the refugee’s food comes from international donations, this considered alongside the $3 million reduction in donor revenue[6] over the past few years paints an even more precarious picture for the inhabitants of the refugee camps found in Algeria. Accusations of all kinds of Human Rights abuses are common-place, both the Moroccan forces and the Polisario Front have been implicated in alleged ‘arbitrary detention’[7] and restriction of the freedom of expression of the Sahrawi people, though it is the former who are on record (by Amnesty[8]) as engaging in such activities. Independent media and outlets and aid agencies that occupy an almost permanent position in the area have thus far failed to corroborate accusations of wrong-doing on the part of the Polisario Front.


Future Prospects for the Sahrawi People

The future of the Sahrawi people appears to be a rather bleak one, sparks of optimism were again ejected into situation late last year as representative from each side met with the intention of concluding ‘one of the world’s longest-running and most overlooked humanitarian tragedies’[9]. The complexity and depth of the issues made expectations of such talks low, and sure enough relatively little progress has seemingly been made. The agreement to meet and negotiate in the first place, alongside the fact that further talks have been scheduled, perhaps serves as a cause for optimism but the ‘irreconcilable’[10] ‘objectives of the Polisario Front and Morocco’[11] again dampen the prospects of the Sahrawi people. All the while ‘the refugees [stand] in their thousands, forgotten by the world, growing up and growing old in exile’[12].



Ben Tanner

Human Rights Section Feature Writer

6th April 2019


 

[1] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[2] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[3] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[4] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[5] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[6] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[7] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[8] I Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[9] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[10] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[11] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


[12] Simon Speakman Cordall, ‘The Sahrawi refugee crisis is one of the longest running humanitarian issues – so why do so few know about it?’ (The Independent, 16 December 2018) < https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sahrawi-refugee-humanitarian-crisis-polisario-front-morocco-unhcr-a8685791.html> accessed 5 March 2019


Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

39 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page