Caught Between Spain and the Polisario: The Plight of Western Sahara's Youth

Caught Between Spain and the Polisario: The Plight of Western Sahara's Youth
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Published October 6th, 2017 - 13:39 GMT via

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A refugee camp in Western Sahara (Wikimedia)
A refugee camp in Western Sahara (Wikimedia)

With closed horizons, Young Sahrawi refugees find themselves lost between the Polisario and Spanish bureaucracy.

Born in Algeria's desert, Young Sahrawi refugees have been suffering for decades. The endless conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which erupted over Western Sahara after Spain withdrew in 1975, has resulted in a life of exile for thousands of Sahrawis in Tindouf, southwestern Algeria.

The people of these desert camps still depend on humanitarian aid, which has been cut dramatically since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, as fewer resources are stretch to cover more global catastrophes. The lack of food security and employment opportunities have left young people in limbo, despite desperate attempts from the UNHCR and other NGOs to build youth development programmes - that have often failed because of funding shortages.

These projects have reached few people in the camps, which have driven many young people to search for other sources to survive.

They may be called "factories", but the brick-making gatherings in the five camps have often been the toughest option for those young people. Most have graduated from school, but many others dropped out because of family or financial crises.

Those close to the Mauritania border have found illicit oil trafficking to be the most beneficial trade. At the southwestern Algerian border, hundreds of pick-up trucks queue to cross into Mauritania. Meanwhile, others dig through the recently established sand wall which places all Sahrawi refugee camps under siege, fortified by dozens of checkpoints.

"I worked in oil trafficking for eight years," a young Sahrawi who wanted to stay anonymous told The New Arab. "It was really dangerous but it was worth it. Now I have my own shop and two cars."

However, this path has been no bed of roses. "Three of my friends were caught while trying to cross the border and have been given life sentences."

Sahrawis in Algeria do not enjoy the right to work unless they also hold Algerian nationality. This policy has been deliberately designed to empower the Polisario to contain the generation that grew up here in the Hamada desert, one of the harshest places on the planet.

There are many losers and few winners. The monthly food distribution sometimes does not amount to 1kg of rice per person, causing a permanent need for young people to find alternatives to provide for their families.

With doors closing in front of these young refugees, a journey abroad has become the dream of many.

In July, dozens of Sahrawis discovered an escape route. It all began with a group who bought tickets to Tangiers, making sure to travel through Spain on their way to the acclaimed resort.

Ironically, they reserved places on a Royal Air Maroc flight, but had no intention of travelling further than Barajas, Madrid's airport.

Upon entering Barajas, the group ripped up their Algerian passports and sought asylum in Spain. After four days of detention, some were sent to reception centres while others were deported to Algeria.

The New Arab tried to reach those at the centre but they refused to comment, fearing "unexpected consequences".

Spain has been the number one destination for Sahrawis because of historic ties between the two peoples. While Spanish civil society has always stood by Saharan refugees, the government has always been supportive of the Moroccan monarchy.

But beyond all, the question which many have raised is why some were accepted and others were denied.

"We thought that it was only one group - but when people started flowing in, the airport officials had to demand proof that these young immigrants were Sahrawis," a source close to the Spanish immigration office told The New Arab.

Sahrawis are the world's only refugees who do not obtain internationally recognised refugee identification, which has made it complicated for them to get recognition worldwide.

The "Apatrida" ["stateless"] status has been the only document that can be granted to Sahrawis in Spain. The process takes up to two years. Sometimes a provisional residency is given in the meantime, but approvals have been recently halted without any further explanation to the applicants.

Habibulah Mohamed Lamin is a journalist based in the Western Sahara refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. He has worked as a translator and is director of Equipe Media Branch, a group of media activists covering Western Sahara. His work focuses on politics and culture of the Maghreb.

Follow him on Twitter: @

Copyright @ 2017 The New Arab.

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