Historical Background to Explain the Present
The protracted conflict in Western Sahara is a problem of decolonization and the denial of the right of self-determination of the Saharawi people. With an area of 266,000 km2, Western Sahara remains a Non-Self-Governing Territory
The territory of Western Sahara was allocated to Spain in the so-called Congo Conference in Berlin, which took place from November 1884 to February 1885. Spain began then the colonization of the region, although it did not exercise effective control over the territory until 1934. Spanish forces repressed during decades the Saharawi anti-colonial movement that had emerged and in 1973 the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front) was created. At the same time, the neighbouring countries Morocco and Mauritania made claims to the territory. In November 1975 Morocco's King Hassan II called 350,000 Moroccans to cross the border in the framework of the so-called "Green March".
These events led to the outbreak of an armed conflict in Western Sahara in which Morocco and the Polisario Front were the central actors. On 27 February 1976, the Polisario Front proclaimed the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and only a few days later formed a government in exile based in Algeria. Mauritania withdrew from the territory in 1979 and Moroccan troops occupied this southern part of the Saharan territory as well. The war between the Polisario Front and Morocco continued until 1991, when a Ceasefire Agreement was signed.
A People Divided in Four and Surviving 45 Years of Refuge
During the war, Morocco started to build a 2,700 kilometres long, mined and fortified sand and stone made wall (berm) that divided Western Sahara in two. Today the Saharawi people are forcibly dispersed in four population groups: those living in territory occupied by Morocco, those residing in areas under control of the Polisario Front, those who fled to refugee camps in Algeria, and the Saharawi diaspora in other parts of the world, mainly in Europe.
Following data published in 2014, of the 530,000 inhabitants of the Western Sahara territory occupied by Morocco, 180,000 (34 percent) are members of the Moroccan military, 245,000 are Moroccan civilians (46 percent) and 105,000 are Sahrawi (20 percent).
In the territories liberated during the war and now under Polisario Front control (so-called "Free Zone"), there are an estimated 49,000 inhabitants, while the Sahrawi Diaspora, settled mainly in Europe, mostly in Spain, comprises 50.000 people.
Upon reaching Tindouf more than 45 years ago, Sahrawi refugees established themselves in four big camps or wilayas: El Aaiun, Smara, Dajla and Auserd, named after the major cities of Western Sahara, and a fifth camp, 27th of February (now called Bojador), established to house the institutions of the government in exile. Each wilaya was divided into several municipalities or dairas, and each daira was divided into four neighbourhoods or groups of haimas (tents). This administrative division continues until today. The camps are managed by the Polisario Front and the government in exile. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic is a full member of the African Union and has established its own police and army, religious as well as legal system, and other public infrastructure. Therefore, a particularity of the Sahrawi case is that it is a camp-based state in exile.
The Role of Women in the Sahrawi Refugee Camps
Ever since the establishment of the camps, Sahrawi women have played leading roles in civilian organization and the maintaining of the camps. This has contributed to making the Sahrawi in exile one of the most internationally highlighted examples of refugee women’s organizational capacity. Women organized and took on management positions in the five basic service committees present in each neighbourhood: Education, Health, Distribution and Food, Production, and Justice and Social Affairs. The National Union of Sahrawi Women (Unión Nacional de Mujeres Sahrauis, UNMS), created in 1974 as a fundamental part of the structure of the Liberation Movement, promoted women’s organization during and after the war against Moroccan occupation. It seeks to organize international support for the Saharawi case and promotes women's rights and women's influence in political decision-making in the SADR. During the 2000s the UNMS managed to open the Houses of Women, one in each wilaya or camp. These Houses are used as meeting and training centres for women with the objective to reinforce their social, political and economic participation in Saharawi society. One of the current challenges for the UNMS is to strengthen ties with organized women in the occupied territory. This could help to better articulate the activism of Sahrawi women for human rights.
Self-determination as the Only Perspective
In the Sahrawi camps, dependence on foreign aid is very high in such fundamental sectors as food, water, education and health. As the camps are located in the desert, agricultural activity is practically impossible. Over the years, commercial activity has grown, although on an informal basis and without enough weight to guarantee the self-sufficiency of the population.
The resolution of the Western Sahara conflict is far from being a priority in the international agenda and foreign aid for Saharawi refugees has been progressively reduced, especially during the last decade. As a result, the Sahrawi people confront almost on its own the harsh living conditions of refuge in a desert. Two generations of Sahrawis were born in the camps and they know no other life than that of exile. Humanitarian aid and development projects help sustain life in an environment where refugees do not have the opportunity to decide on their lives.
Since the 1970s, refugee camps have emerged as supposedly the best temporary solution to manage and administer forced migrations, control refugee populations and deliver aid. However, the protracted Sahrawi refugee situation shows that refugee camps might also function as a form of "political containment”
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