From colonial subjects to stateless refugees

Aminetou Errer Bouzeid, LEFRIG Project Coordinator and Social Worker
/ 4 mins read

The exact number of people who were forcibly displaced in the 1970s to the Tindouf refugee camps set up by the Algerian state is unknown, but estimated at hundreds of thousands of people. The roots of their displacement can be traced back to colonial Spain’s actions. The Saharawi Collective Youth Association LEFRIG was established to raise awareness about the colonial past that led to this contemporary displacement and statelessness.

Paisaje Campamentos, Tindouf, Algeria.
Tindouf, Algeria.

In the 1970s, the colonial Spanish withdrew from the Western Sahara and the territory was occupied by Morocco and Mauritania. This violent occupation was supported by the international community in order to exploit the coastal and in-land resources of the Western Sahara. In response to the occupation, the Saharawi national liberation movement was founded by the Polisario Front, calling for the establishment of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. The resulting War of Independence then triggered the displacement of Saharawi people, formerly viewed as Spanish subjects.

This international fraud remains in place today, preventing the Saharawi people from enjoying their right to self-determination as a nation, including their right to manage their own natural resources. Since the colonial period, this occupation has led to the exploitation of resources through commercial agreements and exercises which enact violence against its people, creating three generations of refugees to-date. The will of the Saharawi people is that the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic manage its own resources, which are presently in the hands of European companies, protected by Morocco’s militarily occupation of the territory. We argue that in the construction of nation-States as human organizations created to manage a territory, a natural component of State building is the management of its territory by its inhabitants.

In the contemporary context the situation is increasingly critical. In November 2020 the 30 year cease-fire was interrupted with a return to military confrontations. This will only generate more violence against this population. We demand a dialogue that considers the needs of all the people living in the Western Sahara territory.

At this moment, the majority of Saharawis who live in the refugee camps in Algeria are at a crossroads when dealing with both their fundamental right to self-determination and with the impossible living conditions of camps that have existed for over half a century. This situation leads some people to try to make a living in Europe, mainly in Spain. It is here that Spain’s political and economic responsibility to this community is undermined, and their identities denied.

Since 2007, there is an established jurisprudence in Spain (including the Supreme Court’s decision no. 8948/2007, from 20 November 2007), according to which:

Algeria has never made a statement, neither expressly nor tacitly, recognizing or granting Algerian nationality to Saharawi refugees living in the Tindouf camps.

Regarding the Algerian travel document given to Saharawis at these refugee camps, the Supreme Court further added that “Algeria, on humanitarian grounds, grants documents to Saharawi refugees in their territory in order for them to travel to countries like Spain where the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic is not recognized as a State. This document is equivalent to the issuing of a passport to which the Spanish Consulate in Algiers attaches the matching visa”. As the case law mandates, the documentation provided by the Algerian authorities to Saharawi refugees explicitly does not grant nationality.

On the one hand this judicial decision does improve the lives of thousands of people who find no other alternative than fleeing the camps to improve their living conditions, but not without a cost, as they must live in denial: their Saharawi nationality does not exist in Spain.

This policy results in lives subjected to a lack of documentation for long periods, exemplified by the young people who, as minors, travelled to different Spanish regions under the family reception programs within the framework of the “Vacaciones en Paz” (to spend a summer in Spain) or, later, within the “Estudios en Paz” program (living with Spanish families while studying in Spain). When continuing their stay in Spain, these young people are forced to stay in the Spanish territory for ten or twenty years without documentation that could facilitate access to residency, leading to physiological, mental and material suffering and emotional trauma that is still currently emerging.

As young people affected by statelessness, we understand that it is very important to organize ourselves in order to be able to demand regulatory changes from Spanish and European institutions in response to our current situation and the diversity of situations that can lead to statelessness. Therefore, we have become a member of the European Network on Statelessness to learn about the work of other organisations on statelessness and to propose joint actions and projects that aim to bring together different stateless people to enable and empower this group to exercise a strong defence of their rights at European and international level. We look forward to future collaborations with stateless people and organisations working to end statelessness.

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