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You are here: Home Research Resources Expert Guides Sahrawi Refugee Children in a Spanish Host Program Background to the Western Sahara Conflict

Background to the Western Sahara Conflict

According to the United Nations, Western Sahara is the last African non self-governing territory. It is therefore often referred to as the last remaining colony in all of Africa.

For a recent overview of the Western Sahara conflict see Toby Shelley’s Endgame in the Western Sahara, published by Zed Books, 2004.

The contested territory is similar in size to France and is rich in phosphates, fish, and possibly oil.

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 neighbouring countries.

By 1936, Spain and France had formed an alliance to establish Spanish hegemony in the Western Sahara, with the territory becoming a Spanish province in 1958. In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on Spain to organise a referendum in which the Sahrawi people would vote on self-determination. Following the emergence of several fleeting anti-colonial movements in the late 60s and early 70s, the armed forces of the liberation struggle, known as the POLISARIO Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia El-Hamra y Rio de Oro) was officially established in 1973 at a congress held in Ain Bentili in order to organize against Spanish colonialism. On 27 February 1976, the day after the Spanish officially withdrew from the territory the POLISARIO proclaimed an independent Western Sahara and established a government-in-exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).


FIGURE 1: Map of North Africa

1975 was a pivotal year: with Spanish General Franco on his deathbed, Moroccan and Mauritanian forces entered what was at that point still the Spanish Sahara. Dated 16 October, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) published its advisory opinion on what should happen with the territory – it rejected Morocco’s and Mauritania’s claims to the land and maintained the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. On 31 October, the Moroccan army crossed the border into Western Sahara, aiming to occupy three towns which had previously been evacuated by the Spanish. The army clashed with the Polisario Front, which was trying to protect the towns of Farsia, Haousa and Jdiriya from the Moroccan forces. Source:

Six days later, on November 6th, then Moroccan King, Hassan II, called on volunteers to take part in the “Green March”, so named after the sacred colour of Islam. An estimated 350,000 Moroccan civilians crossed into the former Spanish Sahara bearing flags, pictures of the King, and copies of the Quran. In defiance of the ICJ decision on Sahrawi self-determination, Morocco forcibly annexed the northern two-thirds of the territory for itself.

Tens of thousands of Sahrawis were forced to flee the violence and to abandon their homes. The makeshift camps they set up in Western Sahara were bombed by the Moroccan military, forcing them to seek refuge further a field in Polisario-controlled areas, and in Algeria, where many remain to this day.

Algeria granted the Sahrawis asylum and began to build what were intended to be “temporary” refugee camps in the desert. Many young men had stayed behind to fight, but tens of thousands of women, children, and elderly made the long trek towards Algeria.

The Refugee Camps

The Sahrawi refugee camps, often referred to by English speakers as “the Camps”, consist of a collection of administrative and residential encampments in a territorial zone set up in the harsh Algerian desert 30 km from the westernmost town of Tindouf [See FIGURE 2]. 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 Laayoune, Dakhla, La Guera, and Smara.

The refugee camps comprise four provinces, wilayas, or ‘camps’, the names of which parallel existing towns in Western Sahara.

The Smara, Auserd, and Laayoune camps are located in close proximity to one another and each claims around 40,000 – 45,000 residents. Dakhla, is located at some distance from the other camps and claims a higher population of between 45,000 and 50,000 residents. The 27th of February camp began as a women’s school but has since been settled; it is therefore considered by some to be a fifth camp. 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.

These ‘camps’ are subdivided into six or seven municipalities called dairas. The dairas are further divided into neighbourhoods. Rabouni is the governmental and administrative centre of the camps that also houses the visitor’s hotel and museum. While there are four camps, the area surrounding the 27th February Women’s School could also now be considered a fifth camp.

Basic Needs in the Camps

Families in the camps live in tents provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and many of them have built sand-brick buildings alongside their tents. The construction of these family-based sand-brick buildings is relatively recent. The first brick structures to be built were official buildings such as schools, hospitals, and administrative buildings. 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. Since the cease-fire was signed in 1991, a small cash-economy has emerged in the camps. A few small markets and shops have opened, and are largely run by demobilised soldiers and students returning from their studies abroad.


FIGURE 2: Map of Sahrawi Camps near Tindouf (South-West Algeria)

Women in the Camps

Sahrawi women’s central role in pre-colonial and colonial life continued when the camps were established. Women’s importance in the camps was magnified by the absence of the majority of men, who were engaged in military activities in the Western Sahara. Throughout all periods of the conflict, women have played a central role managing the camps and participating in important administrative posts. They have developed and volunteer on a number of committees that aim to provide healthcare, education, childcare, resource management, and other social services. They are also active in the political arena, with women playing key roles not only in the National Union of Sahrawi Women but also in local, provincial and national politics. Women who have studied abroad offer their services as doctors, nurses, lawyers and teachers in the camps.

Education in the Camps

From the beginning, the Polisario Front prioritised education, established mixed schools for children, and created adult literacy campaigns to educate thelargely illiterate community. At the end of the Spanish colonial era, only 5 per cent of all Sahrawis could read and write. Today, children’s education is obligatory and literacy rates in the camps are believed to have reached 90 per cent. Children attend crèches and nursery schools, and then complete their primary education locally. Two boarding schools provide children over the age of 12 with secondary education in the camps. One of these also admits some students from nomadic families who live in the liberated territories rather than in the camps themselves.

The 6th June boarding school, established in 1979, teaches children from the camps and from the Liberated Territories, in addition to approximately 75 children who have differing degrees of physical disabilities. Velloso de Santiseban, A. (1993) La educacion en el Sahara Occidental. Madrid: UNED

Upon completion of primary school, however, many students transfer to schools in Algeria to continue their studies, given the limited number of places available and the increase in population. University education is undertaken by agreements with such countries as Algeria, Cuba, and Syria. These students usually live on limited provisions and are away from their families and the camps for most of the year. Some of these secondary and university students teach members of their communities when they return to the camps in the summer periods. Although great efforts are made to educate youth, they return to the camps with few prospects for employment. Full-time, salaried jobs cannot be supported by the camp economy, as it is not cash-based. Most people are encouraged to volunteer for minimal remuneration on one of the various committees or administrative units responsible for service provision across the camps.

Last updated Sep 23, 2011