40 years of exile: Sahrawi refugees abandoned by the international community

The Western Sahara harbors one of the longest standing but yet unknown humanitarian disasters in recent history. Today, marking 40 years since the start, the UN Security Council is about to discuss the stalemate.  Pressure inside the refugee camps is reaching its’ limits, says development organization Oxfam in a new report.  

‘Africa’s last colony’ is an often used and quite apt name for the Western Sahara. Located in between the Atlantic Ocean, Morocco and Mauritania, it’s officially considered by the UN as a ‘non-self-governing-territory in the process of decolonization’. 

Spain withdrew from its Western Sahara colony in 1975. The expanding control of Morocco over the Territory triggered an armed conflict with the indigenous populations, united in the Frente Polisario, which remains unresolved up till today. While the Berlin wall and the Israeli Separation Barrier are quite famous, the 2700 km long sand berm built by the Morrocan Government to divide the Western Sahara is a less well-known wall.  

The UN mission MINURSO has been appointed in 1991 to protect the ceasefire and set up a referendum on self-governance. But no referendum ever took place and perspectives for the Sahrawi remain gloomy. 

Caught in the crossfire, the Sahrawi refugees installed themselves across the border in Algeria, awaiting their return ever since, for 40 years now. Oxfam has been delivering humanitarian aid inside the camps and raising Sahrawi voices at a global level since the ‘70s. The international ngopublishes a new report today – 40 Years of Exile – marking the sad 40 year ‘anniversary’ and outlining the humanitarian impact of the crisis.

Liesbeth Goossens, Oxfam’s policy advisor on Western Sahara: “We’re talking here about entire generations growing old inside the camps’ fences. While ngo’s are able to match basic requirements in terms of food, water and health, living on emergency aid for decennia has a severe impact on peoples’ lives. Think about eating the same 9 basic food stuffs day in and day out. It keeps you alive – but doing so for 20 years in a row causes chronic illness, such as diabetes, hypertension and anemia.”

Unlike many other refugees in the world, many Sahrawi had however the opportunity to study, resulting in a remarkably well-educated and self-conscious young population. 

“Since the referendum was announced, every Sahrawi family has a suitcase packed and ready for their return. That’s thousands of suitcases gathering dust since 1991. Youth are growing impatient as the international community neglects their situation. Pressure is steadily mounting inside the camps”, Goossens adds.

The UN Security Council will discuss the MINURSO mandate today in New York. While the Morrocan Government and Frente Polisario bear final responsibility for reaching a sustainable solution to the crisis, the international communities’ duty to ensure that international law is respected, cannot be neglected. 

The international community must scale up its’ efforts to guarantee a decent living to the Sahrawi and end this crisis for good. The regional insecurity enhances the importance of a sustainable resolution. Forty years after the start of the crisis, the status quo is no longer an option for the refugees. Their voices demand to be heard.

Therefore, Oxfam demands that the UN Security Council:

  • Gives new momentum to the negotiation process and actively support the work of the UN Secretary General’s Person Envoy in the negotiations for a sustainable solution in line with international law.
  • opens up the briefing of the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy and his Special Representative to the public, in a spirit of transparency of information.
  • considersthe organisation of a meeting during which Sahrawi voices are invited to express their views to the UN Security Council, to bring more visibility to the human cost of the conflict.
  • ensures that MINURSO is able to fulfil its’  peacekeeping function, including monitoring, assessing and reporting on local developments in Western Sahara and the refugee camps in southwest Algeria

Notes to editors

•    Download the full report "40 Years of Exile” 
•    Written testimonials from two young Sahrawi refugees are available
•    High quality pictures from the camps and the refugees are available through this link: http://wordsandpictures.oxfamsol.be/?c=314&k=1e9bb32481
•    Interviews can be arranged with Oxfam staff and refugee leaders in the camps

Contact information

Wouter Fransen, wfr@oxfamsol.be +32 479 67 28 28

For updates, please follow @Oxfam.