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Research Settings

Characteristics of the Research Groups

The Palestinian, Afghan and Sahrawi refugee communities across the research field sites shared many basic features. For example, they all represent protracted refugee communities of predominantly Muslim peoples.

The Palestinian group, however, had a particularly significant Christian minority.

All three of these societies were largely illiterate prior to their forced migration.

The Sahrawi and Afghan refugee youth shared a background of mobility, one coming largely from a society with a significant pastoral base, the other from a society with a long tradition of male (and occasionally family) migration as a 'rite of passage' to full adulthood (Monsutti 2005). The Palestinian and Afghan refugees were largely agrarian-based prior to their displacement and had the difficulty of adjusting to urban life as refugees.

Legal status varies between and within the groups; all of the Sahrawi camp residents had official refugee status, as determined by UNHCR, receiving humanitarian aid and international protection. Palestinians were officially recognised as refugees by UNRWA, but did not enjoy international legal protection. The Afghan refugees were initially welcomed into Iran and encouraged to self-settle. Over time, however, the Iranian government has become increasingly reluctant to grant newly arriving Afghans "official" refugee documentation, or to renew the documentation of those Afghans already resident in Iran.

Most Palestinian refugees receive their education in UNRWA schools; these are largely understaffed and under-resourced. Sahrawi youth benefit from a highly organised education system, despite the challenges brought on by lack of funds and resources. For Afghan students in Iran, education is a constant struggle. They mainly attend informal schools which are self-funded and managed by members of the Afghan community. They are under constant threat of being shut down by the Iranian government.

Brief historical sketches of the Palestinian, Sahrawi and Afghan refugee communities are described below and offer further points of comparison.

Palestinian refugees


(Map adapted by David Sansom)

A bitter struggle came to a climax in 1948 in the former British-mandated Palestine. Following the1947-8 War in Palestine, the state of Israel was created. This war was known as the 'Nakbah' or Catastrophe by Palestinians and resulted in more than 750,000 Palestinian people leaving their homes and places of work and taking refuge in camps hastily erected by the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

A special agency was set up in December 1949 by the United Nations, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to manage Palestinian refugee camps and provide health, education and humanitarian aid. The largest number of Palestinian refugees is found in Jordan, with over 1.6 million registered with UNRWA. Syria acknowledges 391,651 registered Palestinian refugees. In Lebanon, 382,973 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA. Of these, 53 percent live in official refugee camps. In the West Bank, 37 percent of the population - 607,770 Palestinians - is made up of refugees and in Gaza, 852,626 Palestinian refugees comprise 75 percent of the total population. Today, Palestinians rank as the largest refugee population after the Afghans. Globally, one in three refugees is a Palestinian.

Palestinian statistics are drawn from UNRWA (Public Information Office) Statistical Yearbooks, 2003, Vienna.


Sahrawi refugees in Algeria

Western Sahara is said to be the last remaining colony in all of Africa.

According to United Nations' figures for 1998, there were 275,000 inhabitants in Western Sahara, excluding Moroccan settlers in the territory, as well as refugees in neighbour countries.

By 1936, Spain and France formed an alliance to establish Spanish hegemony in the Western Sahara. In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on Spain to organise a referendum in which Sahrawis would vote on self-determination. In 1973, the POLISARIO (Frente Popular para la Liberacin de Saguia El-Hamra y Rio de Oro), the armed forces of the Sahrawi liberation struggle, was formed by a group of Sahrawi students living in Rabat, Morocco.

On February 27, 1976, the day after the Spanish officially withdrew from the territory, the POLISARIO proclaimed an independent Western Sahara (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or SADR).

Two years later, in 1975, Spanish General Franco died and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) published its advisory opinion on Western Sahara, rejecting Moroccos and Mauritanias claims to the territory and maintained the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. Soon after the ICJ announced its position, the Moroccan King, Hassan II, assembled the Green March, where an estimated 350,000 Moroccan civilians crossed into the former Spanish Sahara to annex the northern two-thirds of the territory for Morocco.

Makeshift camps inside the Western Sahara sprung up to temporarily shelter those who fled their homes but these were bombed soon after in a series of raids by the Moroccan air force. While young men generally stayed behind or eventually returned to fight, many of their family members sought refuge further a field across the Algerian border where they remain to this day.



Between 150,000 and 200,000 refugees from the Western Sahara currently live in one of the four remotely located camps set up in the harsh desert 30km from the western most Algerian town of Tindouf.

The Smara, Auserd, and Aaiun camps are located in close proximity to one another and each claims around 40,000 – 45,000 residents. The fourth camp, Dakhla, is located at some distance from the other camps and claims a higher population of between 45,000 and 50,000 residents. Each camp is intended to function as a self-contained “wilaya” or province of SADR. Each “wilaya” is divided into six “daira” or districts, with Dakhla claiming seven due its slightly higher population. Each “daira” is subdivided into four “hay” or sub-districts.

Some of those who settled in the camps had come from a tradition of nomadic pastoralism; others had fled from the larger urban centres such as El-Ayoun, Dakhla, La Guera, and Smara. They live in tents provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), while most families have added on sand-brick buildings alongside. Trucks bring in water to the camps, as well as food, medicine, and other basic supplies. Limited access to water makes subsistence agriculture next to impossible. Therefore, international aid groups provide most of the food consumed by camp residents.


Photo: By Nogues Alain / Corbis Sygma

Photo online at

Despite the remoteness and isolation of the refugee camps, many of the camp residents maintain transnational networks that link them to families and institutions abroad. Educational networks are particularly necessary in order for students to continue their education, as agreements have been established with schools in such countries as Algeria, Cuba, and Libya in order for Sahrawi youth to complete university degree programs.

The Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace) program is also an important channel that links youth to Spain and is organised by the Asociación Amigos de Pueblo Saharaui (registered in 1986 as a national Spanish NGO). Vacaciones en Paz is an annual holiday program that allows between 7,000 and 10,000 Sahrawi children between the ages of eight and thirteen to be hosted by Spanish families in their homes for a two-month period during the summer.

During their stay, the children receive medical examinations and treatment, as well as gifts of clothes, toys, and money which they take back with them to the camps. The relationships established during the program often endure beyond the summer months, as strong proto-familial relationships form between the children and their Spanish host families, and return trips reinforce such cross-border bonds.

Afghan refugees in Iran

The presence of Afghan refugees in Iran was seen initially as temporary, and the government, in a gesture of Muslim fraternity, generally welcomed them. The majority of Afghan refugees in Iran arrived during the period of Soviet military presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s and up through 1992.

Many were afforded substantial benefits, including food subsidies, health care, and free primary and secondary level education for theirlion or more. However, only 22,000 are believed to live in camps, or less than 1.6 percent (ICRI 19981). Instead, they are largely self-settled and scattered throughout the countrys villages and cities. ates reach 2 milchildren (BAAG 19968). In 1998, the Ministry of Interiors Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA) estimated Afghan refugees in Iran at 1.4 million. Other estimates reach 2 million or more. However, only 22,000 are believed to live in camps, or less than 1.6 percent (ICRI 19981). Instead, they are largely self-settled and scattered throughout the country's villages and cities.

The British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG 19965) identified the major flows of Afghans into Iran and grouped them into 1) Those who prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were working in Iran as economic migrants; 2) Those who fled the Soviet invasion during the 1980s

By 1998, their official numbers reached some 2.35 million and by 1992, nearly 3 million.

; 3) Hazaras who fled in 1991 as a result of massive flooding of their lands; 4) Heratis who fled the Taleban takeover of their land in 1995; 5) Kabulis who went to Iran as a result of economic hardship following Taleban takeover of the capital; and, 6) Economic migrants who entered since 1979.

Those who arrived prior to 1992 were issued "green cards" which afforded them legal recognition and entitled them to subsidies on health, education, transport, and provisions upon repatriation to Afghanistan (BAAG 1996:5). Temporary cardholders and undocumented refugees have little or no legal access to jobs and social services. A number of Afghans who had at one time held proper documentation lost their status after they decided to repatriate to Afghanistan. When they again sought refuge in Iran as conditions in Afghanistan worsened, they found themselves undocumented and at risk of being arrested and deported. Currently, those who do not hold proper refugee documentation do not have access to health care nor education for their children.



Education has emerged as an important priority among Afghan families living in Iran. However, the Iranian government has banned Afghan children from Iranian schools in an effort to encourage their families repatriation to Afghanistan. In response, Afghans adopted different strategies to try to overcome the barriers to their childrens education; some borrowed the identity cards of Iranians or from Afghans who had legal rights to education. Others mobilised to create informal, self-directed, and self-funded schools for their children. During the course of the present study, most of the contact and interaction with the youth took place within these informal schools, though they were constantly under threat of forced closure by the government.

Last updated Sep 25, 2011