Finding Refuge in the world’s last colony: Western Sahara

Under the mandate of our “Policy+People” initiative and the section titled ” Finding Refuge: Looking at humans as humans. Without the filter of economic, social or religious concern”, Samina Ansari talks about the refugee crisis that has not been looked at enough.
Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1975 and gave the control of the area to Morocco and Mauritania without the popular consent of the people living in the area, the Western Saharans.  The Sahrawi nationalists, Polisario Front, declared the Moroccan rule over the area as illegitimate and has since claimed independence over the territory, triggering the beginning of the long drawn conflict, sometimes referred to Western Saharan territorial-dispute. Mauritania withdrew from the area in 1979 leaving Morocco with the formal, but not necessarily legal claim of the area.

Some refer to Western Sahara as the world’s last colony.  

A child looks over at the vast Saharan expanse. Image: Emma Brown

Peaceful settlement is important for the people of Western Sahara, and in the whole area covering Morocco, Northern Mauritania and South West Algeria. Poor governance in these areas have created a multi-layer conflict zone for the entire region with trafficking of drugs and people, causing delays in economic development, decrease in foreign investment and slow growth rate. A peaceful settlement seem to be highly challenging and even four decades after the Spanish withdrawal, there is still no sign of a collective agreement.

The Western Saharan conflict is delicate, a potential settlement can either harm the Polisario as a political organisation, force a compromise with the Sahrawi people, and for the neighbouring countries lead to loss of resources from Morocco.

Today, the area covering Western Sahara is bordered by Morocco in the north, Mauritania in the south and Algeria to the East. In Western Sahara, the Polisario Front and the Sahrawi people are trapped in a land without sovereignty. The parties involved have different takes on  Western Sahara’s “ownership” , and the diversity of these arguments makes little room for a common settlement.  Morocco is currently claiming the area, and  denies the legal basis by the International Court of Justice to support its 1975 advisory opinion that clearly states Morocco has no legal ties to Western Sahara. They that ICJ completely ignores the territory`s  historical and juridical traditions.  The sources of its sovereignty and its border do not follow from western concepts, rather historical links.

Algeria defends its involvement in Western Sahara as the conflict takes place at its borders and has recognized the self-proclaimed state by Polisario Front. The country has confirmed that it is arming and training the nationalist group to fight against Morocco.

Algeria dismisses Morocco’s claim over the area, and argues that Morocco has consistently tried to block Sahrawi people’s self-determination by using all kinds of excuses, most contrary to international law.The international community repeatedly fails to solve the tension between the two neighbours, which in turn prevents the countries from normalizing relations and cooperating economically. The Polisario front is a group that fights for an end to Moroccan rule in Western Sahara, and argues that the matter of self-determination is the root of the conflict.

Who are the Sahrawi people? They are the people claiming Western Sahara as their motherland. The Sahrawi people are the real victims of the conflict, often living in isolation and poverty but not many know of them and they continue to be forgotten by the international community.

Image: Emma Brown

Emma Brown, a journalist who recently worked on a project related to Western Sahara’s conflict visited the many refugee camps in and around the disputed area. “Every Sahrawi family have lost someone or been separated by the war with some family members at the controlled territories and others in the liberated territories. The experience of separation seem to have become one of the central components of Sahrawi identity, the majority living outside the area of their birth”. Since Spain withdrew from the territory 50,000 refugees escaped the area to refugee camps located in Algeria and other neighbouring countries. According to governments of Polisario and Algeria the population of refugees have increased to 165,000 today. Morocco denies these numbers and argues that the Polisario will not allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to carry out a true population count.

The living conditions in the refugee camps are poor, some refugees still live in tents, while the “privileged ones” have housing made of earthen bricks or cement. The maternal mortality is 8 percent, other diseases connected to lung and eye conditions are very common amongst various infections.  Making these camps an extremely undesirable place, followed by mismanagement and environmental challenges.

Refugees in Algeria are facing another dangerous faith with the presence of landmines in and around refugee camps. In 2006 the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action  counted 38 victims in Tan Tan and Assa Zag provinces.

The Sahrawi people in the controlled territories have better resources, and better access to facilities, however they still suffer from family separation and forced displation. In recent years Mauritania has become a place where families from both side of the wall meet.

Taleb Ali Salem, lived as a refugee his whole life before he migrated to Spain. Taleb was born in El-Aaiun, one of the five refugee camps in Tindouf (population of 90,000). “ I was born and raised in the refugee camp waiting for a solution to return to my original home in Western Sahara”.  His family moved to the refugee camp after Spain left the territory and still lives there. “The conflict has taken so long and obviously we feel tired and disappointed but we Sahrawis are a peaceful people and have been waiting for a peaceful solution for more than 40 years”. As the the international community continue to let them down he and his people are very frustrated. “ We have given peace a chance for many years but it has not helped us. We are now thinking about taking arms”. Towards the end of our conversation he thanks me for giving him and his people attention. “ Very few know of us, you are one of them”.

Taleb’s story is still successful as he got away from camp life and he is currently studying in Spain. Some of the witnesses of the Intergroup of the Italian Parliament of Friendship with the Sahrawi People has testified that the life at the camps are dangerous for youth in particular as human rights abuses by Morocco often go unpunished.

These actions fuel frustration and hate among the youth. History has proven that these type of frustrations can create new hate groups. In Afghanistan decades of foreign invasion, civil wars and unpunished human rights violation created the terrorist group Taliban.

Why is the international community not giving the conflict more attention? Many international actors blame Spain for not protecting the land when it withdrew from Western Sahara, several Middle-Eastern and North African scholars blame the international community for the ongoing conflict.

As Middle East continues to face chaos and Syria trumps the list as the world’s largest refugee producing country the conflict in Western Sahara is long forgotten. According to United Nations the conflict in Western Sahara is the organization’s oldest operation and second longest-running refugee crisis in the world. Nevertheless it keeps lacking attention from the organization and the international community as a whole, perhaps because Rabat prevents visits from the international delegation to collect information from the area and the refugee camps, or perhaps there are other underlying excuses.

The international aid community has more or less turned its back to Western Sahara, the UN agencies warned strong decline of donors November 2016, and data from the World Food Programme showed that 2% of aid was lost.  According to Ms. Brown, delays in humanitarian assistance in combination with poverty creates numerous health problems within the Sahrawi refugee camps.

The European Union is criticized for not contributing enough to the conflict in Western Sahara. As the Sahrawi refugees continue to receive little attention and funding, several trade deals strongly benefit from Western Saharan resources exported through Morocco. This violates the rights of the Sahrawi people as these goods are from the occupied territories which has valuable phosphate reserves, and natural gas fields. Recently the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that the favourable tariffs Morocco enjoys should not apply to exports from the occupied territories.

Time will show if this decision is yet another toothless instrument lacking strong implementation, or an European Union as a leading example for the international community to take its act together.

Moroccans are also suffering in this dispute. After decades of armed conflict, Polisario started to keep Moroccan prisoners of war (POW) in custody in the refugee camps. Many were old and had illnesses and faced terrible methods of torture in grave breach with international law. The number of POW are hard to measure due to missing data, and the Moroccan government denied that these people ever existed, to later contradict themselves by demanding their release.

By now it should be clear that the conflict discussed is more than Morocco expanding its kingdom, and the critical yet missing role of the international community, but also lack of consensus over the area’s natural resources. Some actors to the conflict believe Morocco is controlling the international community with these resources, this argument is not gap-toothed, as the international actors keep failing to solve the dispute.  

In 1974, the Western Saharan region was the richest in Maghreb due to its natural resources, its own people however live in tents and have minimal access to clean water. It seems the main challenge is a general consensus on the resources and contradictory positions taken by all actors to the conflict. Creating a sustainable solution that stops ignoring the pink elephant in the room, the conflict in Western Sahara is real, the actors and the people suffering over four decades are real.

Another challenge is to give the Sahrawi refugees more attention, this requires an international community that is present and active. Stories from refugee camps need to reach the rest of the world, we need to know that these people exist, and that they feel deprived of their home. There is need for accurate data on number of refugees, where these refugees are located, and whether they have access to food and healthcare. Their needs cannot be met by the international aid community without reliable data.

A third challenge is lack of information from Morocco to Moroccans, from Algeria to Algerians, from Polisario to Sahrawis and from these actors to the rest of the world. The voices of people can be the main source to changing the perspectives of their representatives and create a stronger collaboration between borders. A strong and stable Morocco- Algeria relationship is the first step in building the bridge for the rest of us to cross, in order to learn and help find solutions for a peaceful settlement. I hope this paper has helped create more questions, as there are many unanswered questions related to the Western Sahara dispute.

One question that is answered is the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination and this right must to be met in our time. This is the heart of the conflict.


The research for this piece was produced for Sciences Po and the images are courtesy Emma Brown. Her work can be found here.

Samina Ansari

Samina Ansari

Editor, Middle East at InPRA
Afghan-Norwegian Samina Ansari is an Intern at NATO Secretary General’s Representative for Women, Peace and Security Office. She has background in Cyber Security law, Globalization law and International-Public Management from University of Oslo, Maastricht and SciencesPo.
Samina Ansari