The Youth Movement in Sahrawi Refugee Camps

Refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, have long been run by the Polisario movement, which seeks an independent state in Western Sahara, also claimed by Morocco. But a new generation of Sahrawi refugees is growing fractious as aid dwindles and diplomatic efforts fail to deliver a settlement.

An indigenous Sahrawi woman walks at a refugee camp of Boudjdour in Tindouf, southern Algeria, on 3 March 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Set deep in the desert outside Tindouf, Algeria, the Sahrawi refugee camps are a remote yet lively political hub. The camps are home to 173,000 refugees of a forgotten conflict: an older generation who remember the war against Morocco from 1975 to 1991, and a younger generation born in the camps since the latter year’s ceasefire agreement. All are active in the struggle for a return to the disputed territory of Western Sahara, a 100,000-square-mile coastal stretch of desert now mostly controlled by Morocco. The camps resemble other Saharan settlements, with trucks threading through low sand-clad structures and herds of camels, goats and sheep grazing the desert bush. But their politics are unique: the Polisario Front, a military and political movement formed in the early 1970s to fight for independence for Western Sahara, controls them.

Living conditions in the seven Tindouf camps have improved a great deal since 1976, when Sahrawi refugees first fled here from fighting between the Polisario and the Moroccan army. With the men in combat, nomad women, with no experience in administration, had to set up rudimentary structures for social welfare. Over the next 40 years, the camps grew and the Polisario invested heavily in education and health. In the past several years, more schools – including kindergartens, a film school and an arts academy – and clinics have popped up, and six of the seven camps have been connected to electricity grids. With electrification, access to the Internet – and its galaxy of virtual worlds – has become widely available.

Between aid reduction and ambient despair, the Polisario risks losing control of the generation born and raised in the camps.

But while some doors have opened, others are closing. The international assistance upon which the camps rely is shrinking: an aid worker said annual donations had dropped from $10 million to $7 million over the past several years. Jobs in the camps are scarce. A senior Polisario defence official said an unusually high number of youths, perhaps 500, left the camps in mid-2017 in search of work. In general, though, opportunities for legal migration to Europe – normally to Spain, the former colonial power in Western Sahara – are fewer. Between aid reduction and ambient despair, the Polisario risks losing control of the generation born and raised in the camps. “Without work and without money, men are fragile. The temptation toward migration, extremism or narco-trafficking is strong”, the senior defence official said.

Meanwhile, the Internet allows youths to express themselves outside of traditional channels. “There’s a sense of transition from a mass movement to something less centralised”, a 30-year-old video blogger and activist said. Social media is tying refugees more tightly to Sahrawis living in the parts of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco, with activists circulating mobile phone videos of Moroccan repression.

Most of all, the younger generation appears to doubt that diplomatic efforts can resolve the crisis they have grown up with. “When our fathers were fighting against the Moroccan occupation, the whole world, and especially the UN, were listening to Polisario”, said Hamdi, a youth leader. But not now, he continued. “Either we get our land back or we go back to war”.

Souring on the UN

The Western Sahara conflict has been frozen, with a few flare-ups, since the 1991 ceasefire along a line snaking from the south-eastern corner of the Moroccan-Algerian border to the Atlantic Ocean. Moroccan soldiers sit on the western side of the line, now fortified by a berm of sand and stone two metres high, and Polisario fighters patrol the eastern side. In 1991, the UN created a peacekeeping mission with the additional mandate of supervising a referendum in Western Sahara on self-determination. The referendum has never been held and the peace process appears stuck. In many respects, the conclusions of Crisis Group’s last extensive report on the conflict, published in June 2007, remain relevant today: a resolution will have to come through direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario, rather than the UN-led process. Since 2007 Morocco has proposed autonomy for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty as the basis for a settlement. The Polisario rejects the idea. Negotiations between 2008 and 2012 bore no fruit, with Morocco unwilling to consider any alternative to its proposal and the Polisario remaining committed to self-determination.

In the meantime, the parties’ relationship with the UN has soured as both sides have become more aggressive. In November 2015, Rabat declared the secretary-general’s special representative, U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross, persona non grata in the disputed territory, after he pushed to restart negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario. In 2016, it expelled dozens of civilian staffers of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) after Ban Ki-moon, then the secretary-general, used the term “occupation” to refer to Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara during a trip to Sahrawi refugee camps. Rabat allowed only some of the MINURSO personnel to return following discreet talks with UN officials. For the Polisario, these incidents amount to an erosion of the UN’s role, even as the status quo continues to its disadvantage, since Morocco controls two thirds of Western Sahara’s territory.

Both [Morocco and the Polisario] share a similar complaint: that the UN is inadequately enforcing the ceasefire.

In August 2017, the current UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed a new envoy, Horst Köhler, a former president of Germany. Köhler embarked on a listening tour of the region as a prelude to relaunching negotiations, but thus far he has not succeeded. The Polisario remains cool to UN efforts. For its part – ahead of the annual renewal of MINURSO’s mandate in late April, when Morocco and the Polisario customarily trade accusations to mobilise allies on the Security Council – Rabat is saying that the UN has been “insufficiently firm” about Polisario violations in the buffer zone. It is threatening to take military action if the supposed infractions continue. In a sense, both sides share a similar complaint: that the UN is inadequately enforcing the ceasefire.

The Guerguerat Events

The rise in tensions suggests that the conflict’s structure is changing, albeit slowly. On the Polisario side, an important factor is that the movement’s leader throughout most of the conflict, Mohamed Abdelaziz, died in May 2016. He had held the position of Polisario secretary general since 1976 and was the first and only president of the state the front declared, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). His successor as secretary general, Brahim Ghali, another Polisario founder, is temperamentally different: he has shown greater willingness to confront Morocco and the UN, something that has earned him credit among deeply frustrated Sahrawis.

Events in Guerguerat are a sign of this change of approach. Guerguerat is a buffer zone just outside the berm abutting the border with Mauritania. In August 2016, Morocco deployed gendarmes to supervise the construction of a road through Guerguerat. The Polisario protested that the deployment was a violation of Military Agreement No. 1 of the ceasefire, which stipulates that the berm is a line of demarcation neither party can cross.

After weeks passed with no response from the UN, Ghali dispatched Polisario fighters to the area, triggering a months-long standoff, with the two sides at times just 200m apart. It was the closest they had come to armed confrontation in decades. The Polisario also increased its high-visibility deployment of fighters to areas east of the berm (which it calls liberated territory) – despite Morocco’s withdrawal of forces outside the berm in February 2017 – to assert its claim to sovereignty. Most recently, in December 2017, it held a live-fire military exercise in Guerguerat that Rabat termed a provocation. Because top Polisario leaders attended, it likely was meant as one. The preceding April, the UN said it would dispatch a technical commission to investigate ceasefire violations at Guerguerat, but it has yet to do so, reportedly due to Moroccan opposition. The Polisario cites the delay as proof of the UN’s bias in favour of Morocco and the status quo.

Since the idea of holding a referendum continues to structure the peace process, the Polisario says that without a vote it has no option but to return to war. Morocco, for its part, advances its autonomy proposal as the only viable way forward, and has effectively ruled out a referendum. Direct negotiations have never moved beyond this impasse. “If the referendum is not going to happen, the UN should declare this officially, so we can decide our next step”, a Polisario diplomat told me.