The Saharawis come from Western Sahara, a territory on the north-west coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. Upon the withdrawal of the colonial power Spain in 1976, Morocco and Mauritania made claims to the territory (Mauritania renounced these claims in 1979). The indigenous Frente POLISARIO declared Western Sahara as an independent country and fought Moroccan occupation.
The UN Security Council established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in 1991 to settle the issue. At the same time, a ceasefire between Morocco and Frente POLISARIO entered into effect. The referendum has been stalled, and attempts to find a sustainable political solution have failed.
A great number of Saharawi civilians fled occupation across the border to south-western Algeria to temporary camps. Almost thirty years have passed since the first refugees arrived, and a whole generation knows only the life in the camps. The protracted period in exile, coupled with harsh geographical and climatic conditions where the camps are located, make the refugees totally dependent on international humanitarian assistance from NGOs and the UN.
The photographs were taken between September 2003 and September 2005 in the refugee camps for people from Western Sahara, close to Tindouf in south-western Algeria.
All photographs © Heidi Haugen, 2005.