The people of Western Sahara have lived in exile for 32 years, ever since Morocco occupied their country. But in the refugee camps, the literacy rate among them has soared, and many have become highly educated. The only drawback? Their skills and qualifications are going to waste. Correspondent Beatrice Newbery recently visited the camps.
It’s not easy living in the desert for a week without a change of clothes, or a sun hat. But I could barely complain when my luggage never arrived at Tindouf airport in Algeria.
After all, I was on my way to a refugee camp, whose inhabitants are accustomed to living in one of the world’s harshest environments, without luxuries of any sort, their basic needs met by humanitarian aid.
Western Sahara has a green and abundant coastline, and a kind climate. But many Saharawis cannot remember their own country. They were born in refugee camps and know only the shocking heat and the sandstorms of this home in exile.
Right to self-determination
The camps came into existence in 1975, when Morocco occupied Western Sahara. This was in defiance of a ruling by the International Court of Justice, which said that Western Sahara belonged to the Saharawi people and that they had a right to self-determination.
Three weeks after that ruling, in what has become known as the Green March, the Moroccan government mobilised 300,000 Moroccan civilians to walk into Western Sahara, ‘reclaim their ancestral homeland’, and start the occupation.
Despite the hardship of 32 years in exile, the Saharawi people have made a huge organisational success of their camps. The government in exile, called Polisario, has 17 ministries, and the camps themselves feel like a proper town, with a sense of community and neighbourliness.
The layout of the camps is immaculate. Each one is split into six or seven villages or daira. The neighbourhoods are called hay, and they have a water cistern, a dispensary and a crèche. In the centre of the camps are the official buildings, a primary school (up to the age of eleven) and a kindergarten for the very small children.
It is in the area of education that the Saharawi exiles have shown themselves to be most visionary. In fact, this population of 200,000 refugees represents one of the best-educated people in Africa, despite the fact that they were almost totally illiterate when they were forced into exile, and despite their lack of educational resources in the camps.
Their achievements in this field have been driven by the feeling that an effective resistance movement could only succeed with an educated workforce, which included educated women. In fact, the moment the exodus began, the Saharawis decided that education would be a priority.
Even as the women and children walked across the border into Algeria, with their men waging the beginnings of a 16-year war of resistance against the Moroccan invasion, there were two tents considered vital en route, the school tent and the dispensary.
Today, the camps are full of women with degrees. Many have spent 20 years abroad – in Algeria, Cuba, Russia, Libya or Spain – gaining those qualifications. This was at no small cost to them. Many did not return to the camps a single time during those 20 years, and communicating with their families in the refugee camps is not easy. I met one boy who returned from studying abroad only to find that his mother had died six years earlier.
These long years of sacrifice make it harder for the educated Saharawis to accept that there are few jobs or opportunities when they return to the camps. They hoped to be leading a new, independent country. Instead, they live in a place where boredom is the order of the day and where the economy barely functions.
But hope does seem to spring eternal in the camps. After all, the Saharawis have spent years waiting for the United Nations to fulfil its promise to organise a referendum on independence for the territory. They know, that if they give up their hopes of a free Western Sahara, they are giving up all they have.