It is December 2014, and on a chilly desert night in a refugee camp, a family sits in a circle inside their tent. Each family member wraps as much of his or her person as possible in a shared blanket. The mother, Almuadala, is making tea on a charcoal furnace. All are listening to Mohamad Fadel, the father, who is telling the story of how he identified the body of his father, who was killed in the conflict that caused thousands of families like this one to become refugees forty years ago. Mohamad Fadel was taken to an unmarked collective grave, just discovered in 2013. There he was able to recognize his father from the clothes he had been wearing the last time that Mohamad Fadel saw him alive.

At a time of great public attention to refugees displaced by violent conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, refugees like Mohamad Fadel, Almuadala and their family know that the window of visibility will not be open indefinitely—nor to all. They are Sahrawis, from the disputed territory of Western Sahara in North Africa. Moroccan forces killed Mohamad Fadel’s father when Morocco partially annexed Western Sahara in 1976. Thousands of Sahrawi families fled to Algeria, where they have lived in camps governed by the liberation movement for Western Sahara, the POLISARIO Front. For over three decades, the sands obscured the two graves that contained Mohamad Fadel’s father and seven companions. Over the course of four decades in exile, as the Western Sahara conflict has become synonymous with stalemate, political-economic factors arguably even harder to dislodge than the desert have tended to obscure Sahrawis as refugees in the international arena.

Many Sahrawis are exasperated at the seeming invisibility of Western Sahara in international political and media circles. They bemoan the lack of progress toward self-determination for the people of Western Sahara (as mandated in long-standing UN calls for the decolonization of this former Spanish colony), as well as the perceived neglect of developments on the ground. Events such as Sahrawis’ protests on the cusp of the 2011 Arab uprisings, [1. Jacob Mundy, “Western Sahara’s 48 Hours of Rage,” Middle East Report 257 (Winter 2010).] and the October 2015 destruction by flooding of some 17,000 refugee homes and the food stocks of some 85,000 people, remain little known outside specialist circles. The exception to date is the 2009 hunger strike of Sahrawi human rights activist Aminetou Haidar, which led to the intervention of the United States in favor of Haidar’s readmission to the Moroccan-controlled zone of Western Sahara by the Moroccan authorities who had expelled her.

A Visit from the UN Secretary-General

Amid the frustration of Sahrawi appetites for international visibility, the March 5, 2016 visit of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to the Sahrawi refugee camps sparked both hopes for Sahrawis and controversy in diplomatic circles. In a subsequent address, Moon spoke of the overwhelming turnout of Sahrawi refugees to greet him: “Simply because of the crowd, my convoy was not able to move.” But what most excited Sahrawis is that Moon also traveled to the part of Western Sahara that is governed by POLISARIO—the first time a UN secretary-general has done so.

While Morocco and POLISARIO were at war, from 1976 to 1991, Morocco built a defensive wall—a winding sand berm punctuated by forts—that divides Western Sahara between a larger, westerly portion, ruled by Morocco, and an easterly portion administered by the liberation front. The latter has long stationed its army in these parts of Western Sahara. Since the 1991 ceasefire, POLISARIO has hosted demining programs to make the territory safer for civilian Sahrawis to raise herds there. In response to Moroccan insistence that these areas were an uninhabited “no man’s land,” from 2007 the independence movement also pursued new urban development. NGOs have funded the digging of wells, and schools and health care facilities have expanded in several towns.

According to the vicissitudes of resources, rains and grasses, some refugee families tack back and forth between the camps in Algeria and POLISARIO-controlled Western Sahara. In other cases, families have moved to become residents of the new towns. While this move suits some families’ preference for raising animals as a livelihood, households that officially relocate can no longer register to receive rations in the refugee camps (since they would no longer be living across an international border, and therefore would no longer conform to current definitions of refugeehood). The absence of rations for those resident in POLISARIO-controlled Western Sahara has kept the numbers of families willing to relocate there relatively low. Notoriously, there is no public access to accurate counts (if such figures exist) of the Sahrawis living in the refugee camps or the portions of Western Sahara on either side of the berm (or indeed of the Moroccan population that has moved into the Moroccan-controlled area). In the early 2000s, the World Food Program and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated the refugee population at 100,000 and 165,000, respectively; POLISARIO sources mention a few hundred families relocating to the new towns late in the decade.

Moon visited Bir Lehlou, one of the centers for the peacekeeping troops of the UN’s Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara, and also one of the newly expanding towns of POLISARIO-controlled Western Sahara. The liberation front made the most of the opportunity, inviting Moon into a traditional-style tent made of black goat hair. Such a shelter contrasts with the cloth tents supplied by relief organizations, such as that belonging to Almuadala. Sahrawi television cameras captured the moment when, “just like any other guest,” Moon was welcomed with a cup of the sweet green tea that marks hospitality, sociability and esteem. [2. Footage of the visit is accessible here.]

A Diplomatic Chessboard

Moon’s unprecedented visit to the POLISARIO-controlled zone did not please officials in Rabat. Moroccan authorities quickly criticized what they interpreted as Moon’s deviation from neutrality in having referred to the “occupation” of Western Sahara. [3. Reuters, March 10, 2016.] Following demonstrations in Morocco against Moon’s choice of words, the Moroccan government asked the UN to withdraw civilian staffers and to close a military liaison office for the UN mission in Western Sahara. [4. Reuters, March 13, 2016; Reuters, March 23, 2016.] Since the end of wartime hostilities in 1991, Morocco and POLISARIO have taken up positions on a virtual battlefield of international diplomacy. The rivals vie over the legality of the exploitation of natural resources in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara [5. European Parliament News, December 10, 2013.] and the introduction of UN human rights monitoring in the territory (Morocco is opposed). [6. USA Today, April 16, 2013.] In a recent episode, Sweden undertook to review whether to recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the state authority that the liberation front founded in 1976. POLISARIO seemed a step closer to adding a Western European nation to the fluctuating number of mostly post-colonial states that, alongside the African Union, acknowledge SADR as legitimate. Sweden’s review is widely perceived to have been a factor in Morocco withholding a permit in September 2015 for the opening of Morocco’s first Ikea store. After Sweden announced in January 2016 that it would not recognize SADR, the permit was granted. [7. BBC, January 19, 2016.]

Moon’s visit may have raised Sahrawis’ hopes of renewed interest in resolving the conflict. But with little indication of effective international pressure on either party to modify its position—Morocco is staunchly against the inclusion of independence as an option in a referendum on self-determination, and POLISARIO insists it be included—Sahrawi refugees, and their counterparts in Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara, can expect more of the status quo.

Life in Exile

In the refugee camps, built in a part of the desert infamous among Sahrawis for burning summers and harsh winters, life goes on. Almuadala and Mohamad Fadel arrived as teenagers, grew to adulthood, married and brought up their children. Now their grandchildren have become the third generation in the camps that, despite hosting tens of thousands of people in a scarcely populated region, are ordinarily invisible on maps of Algeria (unless the map purports to represent the Western Sahara conflict). Algeria has delegated authority over the camps to POLISARIO, which acts in administrative fusion with SADR. Over time the governing authorities have faced the urgent questions of how to keep the refugees alive and safe, and how to give them access to education and health services. They have also addressed issues that arise when refugee camps become long-term homes.

Refugees and their leadership need to agree on a form of governing authority, and make decisions about how scarce resources—food rations, replacement tents, opportunities for training and education abroad, jobs with international and national NGOs—are to be distributed. For Sahrawi refugees, there is a cycle of local elections and participatory meetings, SADR parliamentary elections and the POLISARIO General Congress for discussing and deciding on policy. These events can also be made into strategies of international visibility, as legislators from countries that recognize SADR are invited to sessions of the SADR parliament or the opening of a General Congress.

Longevity might seem to strengthen such institutions: Elections have been running in exile for some 40 years. In practice, the longer displacement continues, along with the paucity of resources, the harder it may be for people to dedicate time and energy to posts. In 2014, SADR MPs were paid 4,000 Algerian dinars (a little short of $40) every three months. As one female MP explained, “I do this from conviction, not for the money.” She then burst into laughter, as if the idea of representing the refugee camps for material gain was absurd.

Some aspects of the nuts and bolts of running the camps are shielded from the view of external audiences. The refugees need to deal with marital disputes, divorce settlements and compensation claims for the car accidents that have proliferated in exile (many of the old jeeps in circulation are well past their prime). If such cases cannot be settled between families directly, they may end up at a local (SADR) court. Refugees convicted of crimes may be sentenced to serve time in SADR prisons.

As the population ages, refugees find themselves involved in increasingly complex inheritance cases. Siblings dispersed geographically among the refugee camps and annexed areas, and possibly other places, need to coordinate among themselves to apportion what they have been left. In the case of houses in the Moroccan-controlled areas, refugees with rights to a share of the property may be unable to appear physically in a Moroccan-run court to stake their claim. They may have to rely on family cooperation and subterfuge to receive an inheritance, which can be crucial for survival in exile.

A Move Toward Visibility

Survival in the Sahrawi refugee camps is exhausting. Forty years on from their formation, most of the camps still lack access to an electrical grid, and the recently installed communal water taps do not run every day. Secure livelihoods are rare. Rations baskets have shrunk as donor fatigue has risen. Wages for employment in SADR ministries (introduced in the early 2000s) are meager, and sometimes delayed for months. Opportunities in informal markets are greater or lesser depending on the availability of hard currency—sent to refugee families by relatives working abroad. For the past decade, and especially after the collapse of the last round of UN plans for a referendum, [8. Jacob Mundy, “Western Sahara Between Autonomy and Intifada,” Middle East Report Online, March 16, 2007.] many refugees have sought to migrate to Europe—in particular, Spain. The route is difficult. Since no European country recognizes SADR passports, refugees must obtain other travel documents, either an Algerian passport through an opaque arrangement between Algeria and SADR, which keeps some waiting months or years, or an Algerian or Mauritanian passport through ancestral or current kinship ties. Then refugees must get a suitable letter of invitation for a visa. Once in Europe, refugees must apply for a status that would allow them, eventually, to work—and then must find a job. And, of course, a would-be migrant must find the money to fund all of these steps along the way.

While the chances of finding a job have diminished greatly since the financial crisis of 2008, Sahrawi refugees still look to Europe as a space from which to generate remittances for relatives who have remained in the camps. Yet, increasingly, they marry these aspirations for greater material security with an ethic of visibility for their activism to support self-determination for Western Sahara. Wary of accusations of straying from the cause, Sahrawi refugees in Spain have organized local activist groups. One young broadcaster for SADR radio opined: “I’d like to go to Spain. That’s where the most activism is happening now.”

Refugees who move away from the camps may still keep them in sight. Refugee homes constantly buzz with talk of, telephone calls from and visits from migrants who “have to go back [to the camps] to recharge their batteries,” as one man said. For the generation of migrants who lived much of their adult life in exile, the camps, rather than Spain, are a spiritual home in which—in the absence of a post-conflict Western Sahara—they imagine their final resting place. Migrants’ associations collect funds to repatriate the bodies of refugees who die in Spain to the camps. The graveyards, like the camps themselves, have expanded over the years. A crucial question for the younger generations of refugees—the peers of the children and grandchildren of Mohamad Fadel and Almuadala born in exile or, like their youngest grandchild, in Spain—is how they can achieve visibility in their fifth decade as refugees, and indeed beyond.

How to cite this article:

"North Africa’s Invisible Refugees," Middle East Report 278 (Spring 2016).

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