Political limbo and statelessness in Africa’s last colony

Danielle Smith - Founding Director, Sandblast Arts and Dr. Violeta Ruano
/ 8 mins read

The Saharawi people have been stateless for over 40 years since Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco in 1975. Danielle Smith, Founding Director of Sandblast Arts, and Dr. Violeta Ruano reflect on the impact of limited opportunities in Algeria's refugee camps on the migration of Saharawis to Europe, some of the challenges they face as stateless people in Spain, and what recent developments may mean for the Saharawi people.

Map of the Berm wall
The Berm wall built by the Moroccan regime (Photo: Sandblast Arts)

“I am Saharawi and I want to live in my free land” sang internationally recognised Saharawi singer Mariem Hassan, back in 2012 in her album Al Aaiun On Fire - Al Aiun referring to the capital city of the Saharawi homeland, Western Sahara.

Identity, nationality and freedom are some of the most important words for the Saharawi people. They have been stateless for over 40 years since Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco in 1975. The kingdom’s military invasion not only disrupted the decolonisation of the territory from Spanish rule; it scuppered Saharawis’ dreams for independence. The 16-year-long war that ensued between the Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, and the Moroccan army divided the land, Saharawi population – and families – in two.

After the invasion, half of the population escaped through the desert and settled as refugees in five large camps in the harsh southwestern Algerian desert. There, they created their own nation, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, a full African Union member recognised by over 60 countries worldwide. The rest of the Saharawis stayed in Western Sahara, existing as a minority and second-class citizens in their own land under Moroccan occupation. Both communities have been actively campaigning for self-determination. Economic, health, educational and political reasons, however, have driven a significant part of the Saharawi population to migrate or escape to Europe, where no country has officially recognised their independent national identity.

Cultivating a better future through education

Today, three generations of Saharawis have been born and raised as refugees with limited opportunities for development. Despite tremendous efforts on the part of the Saharawi government to create and maintain a working educational system, there simply are not enough material and human resources to deliver.

Currently, all primary school children can attend school for free but most must leave the camps to further their studies as there is not enough capacity locally to continue. The majority go on to study in different regions of Algeria, a country which sponsors the education of thousands of Saharawi children. Dropout rates at secondary school, however, are increasingly high. This partly reflects the weak educational standards in the camps but also an overt lack of ambition and encouragement. The situation is particularly tough on young girls who find themselves with greater family responsibilities when they get to secondary school and less time to spend on their studies or finding work.

The work that UK-based charity Sandblast Arts does in the camps, through its after school Desert Voicebox project, seeks to provide opportunities for both children and women to develop their potential and transform their lives. The four year-long English and music education programme aims to inspire primary school children to learn and be better prepared to overcome language barriers in Algeria in secondary school, where English is replacing French in the classroom. The programme aims to promote creative thinking and expression and give young people the confidence to become cultural ambassadors in order to use their voices to reach wider audiences to tell their story and champion their rights.

In the context of the camps, Desert Voicebox is not only unique in providing English and music education in a systematic way at primary school, but it is also helping address the dire lack of extracurricular activities for children to be stimulated and grow outside the classroom.

The scale of the project is still small, however, currently operating in only one primary school in the refugee camp of Boujdour. A strong demand for it to grow and reach more children means the longer-term goal will be to expand the project to all five camps and ensure a local team of Saharawi teachers become fully certified and qualified to train others.

Seeking opportunities and protection in Europe

Initiatives such as Desert Voicebox are too modest to stem the migration of Saharawis from the camps where young people, in particular, face uncertain futures and few prospects.

Not surprisingly, the largest concentration of Saharawis outside the region is found in Europe, particularly in Spain. Small communities exist in France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, Norway, the UK and elsewhere. Saharawis arrive in Spain either as asylum seekers, or with an Algerian or Mauritanian passport seeking temporary work, as well as for medical reasons or through summer vacation schemes for the children. In all instances, they are never allowed to enter as Saharawis. If they want to stay on, the reality is that they have to constantly deal with the renewal of documents to work, often existing in limbo for years, unable to travel back to the camps, while waiting to have their stay regularised. As highlighted in Spain’s Statelessness Index country profile, Spain is one of few States that has a dedicated statelessness determination procedure leading to a stateless status, with Saharawis representing 94.55% of stateless status applicants and 99.76% of those granted stateless status overall in 2020. Despite this good practice, this is not matched with adequate protection for those applying for stateless status in Spain, and so Sahrawis going through the procedure can face barriers such as not having the right to a temporary stay permit, the right to work, or the right to free legal aid throughout the procedure.

Bahia Mahmud Awah, a highly regarded Saharawi poet, journalist and anthropologist, raised in the Saharawi refugee camps, but currently living in Madrid, puts it this way:

“In 2002 in Madrid I was legalising my situation, renewing the documents that authorised me to reside in Spain. I had to go through an unending administrative process, queuing in the street, suffering the low temperatures and the indifferent looks of the passers-by… I had my Saharawi passport, national ID and birth certificate… but our ex-coloniser Spain does not recognise them as legal because they are issued by my country, the Saharawi Republic, which Spain does not officially recognise. They simply called me “apátrida”, stateless..."

Those who come from the part of Western Sahara that is under the Moroccan occupation often arrive in Europe as political refugees. Those living there are regularly persecuted, tortured and deprived of work and education as punishment for peacefully demanding their rights or for breaking the Moroccan information blockade. Due to the lack of international visibility of their situation and the ability of the Moroccan kingdom to act with impunity, Saharawis have virtually no recourse to address the injustices they endure. Dead end realities and persecution drive many to take grave risks to escape.

Aminatou Haidar, one of the most prominent human rights activists from Western Sahara, and a Nobel peace prize nominee, paints a vivid picture:

 Just imagine many children instead of drawing toys; they draw a policeman with a gun and a stick beating people and people behind bars. I am scared that they will become violent and incite violence. . . because practicing violence, one day will incite violence. . . It is our role as human rights defenders to call for peace.”

Haidar is an example of someone who has paid a high price for her peaceful pursuit of human rights since 1987, having suffered repeated imprisonment, torture, and being beaten for leading a peaceful demonstration for Saharawi self-determination in Al-Auin in 2005. She also endured a 32-day hunger strike in Lanzarote when the Moroccan authorities expelled her from Western Sahara for refusing to identify herself as Moroccan in her landing card upon returning to Al-Auin from the US in 2009. As in Europe, Saharawis living under Moroccan rule are denied the right to their national identity, except this time, it happens in their own homeland.

A new and uncertain era

For the Saharawis, there are still huge challenges ahead. On 13th November 2020, a 29-year-old UN-monitored cease-fire in Western Sahara ended. Polisario forces responded militarily when Moroccan forces attacked Saharawi civilians, who were peacefully protesting along the Berm in the buffer zone, at Guerguerat near the Mauritanian border. Several dozens of Saharawis had travelled over 1000km from the refugee camps to peacefully block the passage of commercial trucks travelling through an illegal breach that the Moroccans had created in the Berm to facilitate overland commerce to the rest of Africa. As the UN had repeatedly failed to take action against this violation, Saharawi civilians had decided to act instead.

The cease-fire dating back to 1991, was supposed to have culminated in the implementation of the Settlement Plan involving a UN-organised referendum for the Saharawis to fulfil their self-determination rights and choose their political future to either be independent or part of Morocco. Originally scheduled for early 1992, the referendum has never taken place. After decades of political limbo, countless failed attempts by the UN and its special envoys to overcome obstacles, repeated cease-fire violations by the Moroccans, and mounting Saharawi frustrations with the status quo, the events of the 13th November was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

To compound matters, on 10th December 2020 - ironically, International Human Rights Day – former US President Donald Trump recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for it establishing full diplomatic ties with Israel. Contravening international law, this represented a huge blow for the Saharawis who, until then, had counted on no country in the world recognising Morocco’s claim.

These developments inevitably mean the Saharawis will face greater hardship, alongside challenges to gaining justice and recognition. This is likely to mean even more refugees hailing from the region to Europe in the future.

Despite seemingly having the odds stacked against them, the Saharawis remain firm in their quest for self-determination. Much remains uncertain of how the Biden administration will address the situation inherited from Trump. What is for certain, is that the Saharawis will need international support more than ever to achieve their long-denied rights.

A call for action

If you would like to show your solidarity and find out more, please join the international campaign -Western Sahara is Not for Sale- recently launched by Saharawi civil society organisations. The campaign denounces the illegal exploitation of their natural resources and rights. Also contact your MPs to find out about the trade agreements between the UK and Morocco and whether they include Western Sahara or not.

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