Western Sahara’s forgotten refugees
September 30, 2010 3 Comments
The conflict in Western Sahara should be making headline news around the world and have ordinary people up in arms, metaphorically speaking. Not only has the country been colonised by Morocco since 1975, regardless of the illegality of the colonisation and the seemingly endless number of UN resolutions that substantiate this. Not only has the European Union amongst others benefited from trade agreements with Morocco to illegally extract its resources. And not only has Morocco been scolded for the many Human Rights abuses that have been committed by its police and security forces against the Saharawi population, as well as against human rights activists in Morocco and the occupied territories of Western Sahara.
But one of the forgotten tragedies in relation to Western Sahara is the estimated 125.000 to 165.000 refugees from the war in 1975 and their descendants that are still living in tents or huts in refugee camps in Algeria without electricity or decent sanitary conditions, where malnutrition is commonplace, and under temperatures that often exceed 50 degrees. The refugees are unable to return to their homes because the Moroccan wall and army are hindering their movements, and people in the refugee camps are financially totally reliant on foreign aid, with the World Food Programme repeatedly complaining that donations are insufficient.
Abba Malainin, the Western Saharan liberation movement Polisario‘s representative in Denmark, has just returned from a visit to the camps. “The situation of Saharawi refugees is exceptional, as for 35 years now they have been living in exile, making them one of the world’s most protracted refugee populations. And remember that the Saharawi refugees are in exile because it was imposed on them by the Moroccan invasion of their land”, he says, “and that they have split people on the two sides of the Moroccan security wall, which we call the Wall of Shame”. The rapidly growing population in the camps face “unreliable and shrinking aid flows”, he continues, and the combination of all these factors has caused “an explosive situation throughout the territory”. But whilst people in the camps are understandably dissatisfied with the conditions there, they are perhaps even angrier at the lack of any progress. “The people complain that so far the international community or media have not acted or reacted on behalf of their peaceful struggle or given them the attention they deserve”, says Malainin, “but the international media and its front pages are unfortunately always attracted by issues where there are armed conflicts, not attempts at solving conflicts peacefully”.
And the conflict in Western Sahara is a conflict that Polisario is trying by all means to solve peacefully. Whereas there has been some talk of an increased radicalism amongst the youth in the camps, Abba Malainin insists that such a radicalism is only a potential future scenario and has not yet taken root. “The Saharawi’s in the camps and in general, including the youth, are fed up with the UN’s unfulfilled promises for organising a referendum, but the Polisario Front still believes that a combination of the peaceful Intifada in the occupied territories of Western Sahara, active diplomacy, and more pressure from the international community on Morocco could make a democratic referendum a viable solution”, he says, although he also warns that the patience of the potentially radicalised will not last forever. “The consolidation of the actual status quo is not acceptable. A status quo where the Moroccan government and third parties, including the European Union, plunder the natural resources of the illegally occupied Western Sahara without any profit for the people in the camps who are suffering from malnutrition”.
Despite the adverse conditions in the camps, the people living here have been able to create a durable and vibrant society. The camps are run by Polisarios government in exile, the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and have basic democratic structures of elected officials and local committees, a constitution that enshrines religious tolerance and gender equality, institutions such as courts, prisons, a police force, schools, and medical services, and their own laws. The SADR government is recognised by 82 countries and is a member of the African Union.
“The Saharawi arrived in the camps with a literacy rate well below 10% and reversed it to one of above 90% today”, says Abba Malainin as an example of the successes of the SADR government. “The Saharawi’s made education a priority because they recognized that in the absence of any natural resources, human development was vital for achieving self-reliance and true independence”, and whereas people living in the camps must take their degrees outside the camps, “a significant proportion of them return to apply their knowledge and skills”.
Another success story is that of women’s rights. “The Saharawi women are among the most liberated in the Muslim world”, he says, “and their status is characteristic of the well-organised, egalitarian society that has developed in the refugee camps over the past three decades”. The Saharawi women, amongst other things, owe their liberation and experience in institutional matters from the experience they gained from running most of the governmental and other structures during the war with Morocco, while the men were out fighting. They also owe it to the practical implication of an old Saharawi nomadic saying, says Malainin. “A tent is built on two poles, men and women, and society cannot do without either”.
There have been some documentation of human rights abuses in the camps, although none in recent years, and the SADR government recently invited the UN to supervise the human rights situation in the refugee camps. The camps do not have any credible opposition or media as such that can challenge the government, and there have been claims that Polisario marginalizes those who directly challenge their leadership or policies. According to Human Rights Watch, however, “Sahrawis can and do criticize the Polisario Front leadership”, and there have been no known recent cases “where the Polisario prosecuted publishers or writers for exercising their freedom of expression”. Abba Malainin also insists that the government takes human rights seriously. “SADR and the Polisario have focused on improving the plight of their people and have taken steps to ensure human rights in the camps. These steps include the provision of human rights training for military and police officers and the welcoming of international reporters and observers to the camps”.
As for pluralism in the camps, Malainin argues that Polisario is not a political party as such but more of a liberation movement that is meant to include all sections of society to press for liberation in unison. “Polisario has been the unified voice of the Saharawi movement since 1973. The Saharawi people consider it their legitimate representative and it is encompassing all political trends in the Saharawi society. Over the course of its 37-year-long struggle for independence, the Polisario Front has remained the leading independence movement largely because it has remained a tolerant and inclusive entity. At Polisario’s conference, held every three years, the general congress revises its policies and democratically elects its leadership. Nobody here is banned from giving his or her opinion”. The role of Polisario in a future independent Western Sahara is therefore also meant to be left in the hands of the people. “Polisario has declared that it will either function as a party within the context of a multi-party system or completely disband after self-determination has been achieved”, says Malainin, who still remains positive as to the end result of the Western Sahara conflict. “I see a free and inclusive Western Sahara in the future, a place where democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights are respected”, he concludes.