27 February Camp
In 1975, at the apex of the conflict over what is now known as the territory of the Western Sahara, the Sahrawi "liberation movement", the Polisario Front, established a number of refugee camps in South-Western Algeria, near the Algerian military town of Tindouf. On the 27 February 1976, the Polisario Front declared the birth of its "state-in-exile", the camp-based "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic" (SADR).
Since then, the Polisario/SADR has developed its own constitution, camp-based police force (and prisons), army and parallel state and religious legal systems (the latter of which implements a Maliki interpretation of Islam). A number of "national" Sahrawi institutions, such as the National Parliament and National Council, National Hospital and Pharmaceutical Laboratory, the National War Hospital and the Landmine Victims’ Centre, are all located close to the camps’ administrative capital (Rabouni), which, in turn, is some 25km from Tindouf and its military airport.
Approximately 155,000 Sahrawi refugees are currently distributed amongst four major camps named after the main cities in the Western Sahara (Aaiun, Ausserd, Smara and Dakhla), and a fifth, smaller camp which has developed around the National Women’s School (called the 27 February Camp). The 27 February Camp was the location of the majority of my fieldwork in the camps between 2001 and 2009, and it is this refugee camp which is the focus of this slideshow.
Departmental Lecturer in Forced Migration
Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford
1. History of the 27 February Camp
The four main refugee camps are estimated to each house between 40,000 and 45,000 refugees, and are each headed by a governor, with administrative and managerial functions completed by camp residents employed by the Polisario/SADR. Each of the camps is divided into a number of districts, and each district is sub-divided into neighbourhoods.
The 27 February Camp, however, is managed not by a governor, but rather by the Director of the National Women’s School. The National Women’s School is the camps’ only boarding vocational school specifically for women. In the past, several hundred refugee women from across the four main camps would annually request permission from the Director of the Women’s School to be able to relocate, with their children, to the 27 February Camp. During the year, they would complete their vocational studies, and upon graduation these women would return with their children to their "home" camp, and the next cohort of women would arrive.
Throughout this early period, while the majority of men were at the military front, only women and children were officially permitted to reside in the "Women’s Camp". To date, boarding facilities continue to be offered to women completing courses in computing, driving, weaving and languages, but since the 1990s, the 27 February Camp has increasingly become a permanent settlement for refugee families, rather than primarily being a boarding educational centre with a floating population.
2. Central Neighbourhoods
While it is still the smallest of all of the camps, the 27 February Camp is currently estimated to be home to approximately 2,000 - 2,500 refugees who live in four neighbourhoods. Three of these neighbourhoods are located on one side of a recently paved road running through the camp, and the fourth on the other side, where the National Women’s School, the Headquarters of the National Union of Sahrawi Women, the camp’s Primary School, local hospital, state court building and National Museum, are all located.
3. Expanding Population
By 2008, the 27 February Camp (and Rabouni) had established stable electricity supplies, while inhabitants in the remaining camps have continued to rely on electricity provided by solar-panels and, especially in the case of hospitals and dispensary units, on small generators. Permanent electricity, alongside the proximity to the National Hospital and the Algerian town of Tindouf, have all acted as incentives for certain families to move from other camps to these expanding locations. This has led to considerable and ongoing demographic shifts within and between the camps. As the population of the 27 February Camp has increased, new families have been unable, or unwilling, to pitch their khaymas (tents) in the existing "neighbourhoods". The original neighbourhoods are now densely populated, and new arrivals have increasingly decided to live on the outskirts of the camp where they have more privacy and space from the camp’s administrative core.
4. Women's Conference
As the 27 February Camp is the location of the National Union of Sahrawi Women’s headquarters, major political events are also regularly held in this camp, attracting both refugees from across the camps, but also individuals and organisations from the international arena. Such events include the National Union of Sahrawi Women’s Conference, which is held every 4-5 years and was last held in the 27 February Camp in April 2007. At this Conference, each main refugee camp was represented by between 80 and 85 women, and the Conference provided a forum for the NUSW’s policy agenda for the next five years (2007-2012) to be debated and set. On the last day of the Conference, the executive members of the NUSW were elected. This major event was attended by international bodies such as UNHCR and the Federation of African Women, by state and non-state representatives from Algeria, Botswana, Cuba, France, Italy, Mexico, Namibia, Slovenia, South Africa and Spain.
All photographs © Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2009.