ALGIERS, Algeria — Without bold corrective action, mass displacement is not a crisis that will solve itself. Such is the case for Sahrawi refugees in Algeria, for whom statelessness has been a way of life for forty years. This protracted situation serves to demonstrate the resilience of these natives of the Saharan Desert and their determination to achieve independence.
- The Sahrawi people have been displaced and living in refugee camps in Algeria since 1975. That year, the Spanish withdrew from their then-colony in Western Sahara, which sparked a territory dispute between Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The native Sahrawis led a guerrilla war against the Moroccan military until 1991, when the U.N. brokered a ceasefire. Since then, the U.N. Security Council has attempted to conduct a referendum to determine whether Western Sahara will be absorbed by Morocco or become an independent state. The Moroccan government’s refusal to agree to the terms of this vote has blocked U.N. efforts for referendum, thus suspending the process and leaving thousands of people to live as refugees in Algeria.
- Western Sahara is divided by a 1,600-mile sand wall that the Moroccans erected in the 1980s. Dubbed the Moroccan Wall of Western Sahara, it is manned by Moroccan military and fortified with land mines. It isolates the native Sahrawi-controlled territories to the east from the much larger Moroccan-controlled area to the west, and its length is second-only in the world to the Great Wall of China.
- Sahrawis have lived as refugees in Algeria for 40 years now, and the perpetuation of their plight has earned the situation the term “forgotten crisis.” Ongoing delays in addressing the crisis have planted doubts about the effectiveness of the United Nations and the international community at large.
- As frustrating as the situation for refugees in Algeria has been, the Sahrawis have built strong communities within the camps. For instance, at the end of 2015, 100 percent of refugee children were enrolled in school. The dairas, or regions into which the camps are divided, each possess at least one primary school. The SADR considers education crucial, and mandates primary school for all refugee children. In fact, many Sahrawi teachers established outdoor classrooms even before houses were built in the camps.
- The five camps surrounding Tindouf–Ausserd, Dakhla, Laayoune, Rabuni, and Smara are sophisticated in their organization. Rather than the rows of tents one might imagine, the Sahrawi live in homes built from sand bricks. Each camp is like a miniature city, with taxis, buses, barber shops, grocers, hospitals, day-care centers, gas stations, radio and television stations, restaurants and many more “normal” establishments.
- At the end of last year, 75 percent of households in refugee camps were assisted in meeting their basic needs; nutrition and food, hygiene, clean water, sanitation, and healthcare.
- The Saharawi Ministry of Health closely monitors the refugee camps to ward off the possibility of a pandemic. Malnutrition, diarrhea, and high blood pressure have proved particularly difficult to prevent. Throughout 2016, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has implemented plans to assist a minimum of 1,500 malnourished children, and last year more than 38,000 women received sanitary kits to improve the health of their homes.
- The harsh weather conditions of Western Sahara render life in the camps challenging. Intensely hot summers with temperatures up to 130 degrees, as well as frequent water shortages, force parents to send their children abroad to Europe through temporary seasonal adoptions. Last year the UNHCR made water systems accessible to 90,000 refugees, providing 18 liters of water per person daily.
- Winters likewise can be brutal for refugees in Algeria. Thunderstorms and flash floods spontaneously destroy houses, and sometimes entire camps. Torrential rains in October of 2015 damaged 10 health and educational facilities throughout the camps. UNICEF has since funded the reconstruction of these facilities.
- Although the UNHCR and the World Food Program provide tents, food, and other necessities, the refugee camps in Algeria are run entirely by the SADR government and several Sahrawi civil society organizations.
The Sahrawi people continue to prove their tenacity and to anticipate the resolution of their displacement in Algeria. Partly sustained through their sophisticated self-governance, the camps still rely on support from an international community which has all but forgotten them in the wake more recent refugee crises. The opportunity for a quick resolution disappeared decades ago, but there is still hope for the U.N. to resolve the conflicting Moroccan and Sahrawi claims and end the suspended Sahrawi homelessness.
– Robin Lee