The Plight Of The Sahrawi People: A Forgotten Refugee Crisis

February 13th, 2021

By: Areej Shaikh

The Sahrawi people are one of the oldest refugee groups in the world, having fled their homes in Western Sahara in 1975 amidst a territorial conflict with Morocco and Mauritania. The brutal conflict continues to this day in a stalemate, leaving over 150,000 native Sahrawis in refugee camps in Algeria. However, the tables turned on December 10th, 2020 when President Donald Trump announced that the United States would recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara territory in a deal that would normalize ties between Morocco and Israel. The deal is an American Trojan horse, an agent that undermines the story of the Sahrawi people and their struggle for independence, disguised as a promise of peace.


The story of the Sahrawi people’s plight dates back to Spanish colonialism when Western Sahara was controlled by Spain beginning in 1884 and was known as the Province of the Sahara. To counter foreign rule, the indigenous Sahrawis formed a politico-military organization in 1973 called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, abbreviated as the Polisario Front. It was first formed as an insurgency against Spanish control in order to establish Western Sahara as an autonomous, independent state. Spain’s withdrawal from the territory in 1975 left the Polisario Front and the neighboring states of Morocco and Mauritania clashing over sovereignty claims to Western Sahara, igniting the initial conflict. This territory was attractive to foreign powers mainly due to the 1.7 billion tons of phosphate deposits located in the Saguia el-Hamra region. While the International Court of Justice (ICJ) recognizes the historical ties the territory has with both Morocco and Mauritania, the ICJ has stated that those ties do not entitle legitimate ownership.

In November 1975, Moroccan King Hassan II instituted the Green March, in which 350,000 unarmed Moroccans crossed into Western Sahara to demonstrate popular support for its annexation. Armed forces were moved in to occupy the territory soon after. The Polisario Front responded with guerrilla warfare, backed by Algeria and Libya, and claimed Western Sahara as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Following four years of armed conflict, Mauritania renounced its claim on the territory and entered a peace deal with the Polisario. In 1991, the United Nations intervened and brokered a ceasefire between the Moroccan and Polisario forces. It was agreed that a referendum would be held to decide the sovereignty of Western Sahara, overseen by the U.N Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. However, due to disputes regarding voter eligibility and choices to be offered on the ballots, no referendum has occurred to date. Morocco and the Polisario remained in a fragile 29-year truce until November 2020, when Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, announced an end to the ceasefire due to Moroccan border operations. The two forces now exist in a high-pressure powder keg, with a lone spark having the potential to destroy their reluctant coexistence.

Injustices Faced by the Sahrawi People

The Sahrawi community remains divided into three main factions, with approximately 150,000 living in refugee camps in Algeria, 200,000 in the disputed Western Sahara territory, and 30,000 inhabiting the Free Zone, a land buffer between Algeria and Morocco. The specific conditions and circumstances in these areas vary, however they all rest on a common denominator: human rights violations and injustices towards the Sahrawi people.

Many residents of Algerian refugee camps know nothing other than a life in exile. Day-to-day life is harsh and unforgiving, with temperatures rising to over 60 degrees Celsius, frequent sandstorms, and constant droughts. Most live in modest huts or tents with no electricity and limited access to clean water, leaving few ways to protect oneself against the heat and harsh climate. Opportunities to establish livelihoods in the camps are virtually nonexistent, and restricted access to markets makes self-sufficiency near impossible. The camps depend on international aid to meet the basic needs of refugee populations. The European Commission's Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations is the main donor as they provide food, water, health services, and education. Despite humanitarian efforts, malnutrition rates among Sahrawi refugee children under five years old are at 7.6 percent as of 2019 while half of the children under five and half of women aged 15-49 suffer from anemia. This worrying trend poses the risk of increased deaths and the spread of disease. With no hope for a better future in the Algerian camps, the Sahrawi refugees pray for a political solution protecting their right to self-governance, clinging to the hope that one day they will be able to return home.

“For me, the most difficult thing to understand is that we are forgotten by the rest of the world, that no one is coming to help us after all. ...I thought our lives, our stories, and our rights were being discussed and fought for, that it was just a matter of time before we went home. Now that I have grown I can see that it is not the case.”
- Asria, Sahrawi refugee interviewed by Oxfam

Meanwhile, in the disputed Western Sahara territory, Sahrawis dedicate their lives towards independence despite the potential repercussions. The Moroccan government bans gatherings of any nature when they suspect pro-independence sentiments and forcibly breaks them apart. The vaguely worded offense of "undermining territorial integrity" is used to silence any political activity and those opposing the government’s stance on the Western Sahara issue. Legal recognition of human rights organizations is not granted, even if they fulfill all legal obligations outlined by Moroccan law. Security forces regularly detain demonstrators and Sahrawi activists without explanation, subject them to torture, force them to sign incriminating police statements, and imprison them after unfair trials. Many of these activists are abducted by Moroccan authorities and forcibly made to “disappear.” According to Sahrawi human rights activists, more than 260,000 people have been displaced from 1979-2009, more than 20,000 groundless detentions have occurred, more than 500 have been forced to disappear, more than 120 have been murdered, and thousands have been tortured by Moroccan forces. Morocco continues to choose policies of terror to silence Sahrawi voices claiming their homeland, rather than negotiate a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

“The Moroccans killed our children. They killed our brothers, our husbands, our loved ones. We were alone and defenseless. But we had one hope: returning to our land, free from the people who had attacked us.” - Unidentified Sahrawi Woman featured in Lost Land, a documentary by Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd

Impacts of the Morocco-Israel Deal

Under the Morocco-Israel deal brokered by former President, Donald Trump, the United States will recognize Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara and sell the state 1 billion dollars worth of weaponry. In exchange, Morocco will establish diplomatic relationships with Israel, breaking Morocco's long-standing solidarity with Palestine. Trump crafted a double-edged sword, capable of delivering fatal blows to both the Sahrawi and Palestinian causes. The Morocco-Western Sahara and Israel-Palestine conflicts run parallel. Recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara by a superpower such as the United States increases its legitimacy in the political arena. Without pressure from foreign powers, Morocco will not have any reason to further negotiate with the Sahrawi, host a referendum, or find a solution that satisfies all stakeholders. Rather, Morocco becomes free to annex the land of the indigenous Sahrawi people, with no one to speak up against them.

Israel benefits similarly, with Morocco being added to the list of Arab League nations normalizing relations with the country, a list that now includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan. This ability to retain foreign support will legitimize any action Israel takes to claim Palestine as its own. This allows both Morocco’s and Israel’s decades of human rights violations and occupational abuses towards Sahrawis and Palestinians to go without consequence. The deal acts solely as a transaction between the privileged; the rights of those who already lack a voice in exchange for the furthering of selfish political agendas. The deal disincentivizes peace and justice, undermining the stories of the Sahrawis and Palestinians and their fight for independence in a land they consider home. It is up to us to take a stand, be their voice, and ensure their stories do not go untold.


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