The Forgotten, 40-Year Refugee Crisis - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Forgotten, 40-Year Refugee Crisis

The Forgotten, 40-Year Refugee Crisis

By Laura Secorun Palet


Because they are out of sight, but they shouldn’t be out of mind.

By Laura Secorun Palet

Imagine you have to live in the exact same place for 40 years. And now picture that place is a settlement made of mud in the middle of the desert, surrounded only by vast stretches of dusty nothingness. That’s how the people of Western Sahara live.

Forty years ago, the Saharawis went to war with Morocco, who had annexed Western Sahara into their kingdom against their will after the Spanish colonial powers turned it over to Morocco and Mauritania. Many Saharawis fled to southern Algeria during the conflict, and Morocco won. So they have been living in sandy limbo ever since. By now, most of the world has forgotten about them. After all, a refugee “crisis” is supposed to be limited in time, and their camp in Tindouf looks more like a sand-colored village than the cliché of UNHCR tents and World Food Program trucks. According to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, it is also embarrassing for Western nations since “Morocco is seen as an important ally, but the occupation of Western Sahara is a flagrant violation of international legal norms.”

Gettyimages 109743022

Saharawis flags blow in the wind in the Western Sahara village of Tifariti.

Source Dominique Faget/Getty

And yet, their humanitarian situation is as dire as ever. While the WFP has been gradually cutting their deliveries for the past few years and the media spotlight has shifted to the Middle East, the 150,000 Saharawi refugees are stuck in the awkward situation of being “too well off” to warrant emergency aid but too poor and isolated to be really self-sustaining. But malnutrition, infant mortality and lack of education are prevalent in the camps, and their homes are far from stable. As much as they decorate with furniture and curtain doors and carpets, every four to five years, that region of the Algerian desert gets severe rains. When the rains come, the houses turn back to mud and everything needs to be rebuilt. This is exactly what happened in October, when heavy rains damaged the homes and food supplies of over 25,000 refugees. 

Still, they have managed to accomplish quite a lot since they first arrived at this dry patch of southern Algeria. The camps are organized in four separate districts, and they have local elections to choose their respective “mayors” (who most often are women). There is a hospital run by a handful of Saharawi who studied medicine in Cuba, as well as a few corner shops where anything from mint tea to overpriced bottled water can be bought. The Polisario Front, who went to war against Morocco, now is their political representative charged with guaranteeing the rule of law in the camps and representing their interest in the snail-paced international negotiations.

Meanwhile, their resource-rich homeland of Western Sahara is now controlled by Morocco, despite a Security Council resolution that once called for an independence referendum for the Saharawi people but was later dropped. But Morocco won’t budge, says Jacob Mundy, assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University. So while most children in the camp still believe they will one day return to their homeland, Mundy thinks it’s unlikely. “They are stuck in time.”

This article has been updated to clarify which countries took control of annexed Western Sahara and details about a Security Council resolution.


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