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FMR: Western Sahara and Palestine: shared refugee experiences

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  • Norwegian Support Committee for Western
    Forced Migration Review Issue 16, January 2003 Western Sahara and Palestine: shared refugee experiences by Randa Farah As a student in 1977 I attended a
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 5, 2003
      Forced Migration Review

      Issue 16, January 2003

      Western Sahara and Palestine: shared refugee experiences

      by Randa Farah

      As a student in 1977 I attended a meeting at which the Polisario
      representative urged students to assist yet one more struggle for liberation
      and selfdetermination. Although at the time most Arab students supported the
      Sahrawi cause, a minority, invoking notions of ‘Arab unity’, denounced
      Polisario as a ‘separatist movement’. Today, the Moroccan regime relies on
      similar slogans to deny the Sahrawi people the right to self-determination
      set out in a 1975 ruling by the International Court of Justice.

      Twenty five years later, as I flew to Tindouf in the Algerian desert to visit
      the Sahrawi refugee camps, I wondered why I – as a Palestinian refugee
      researcher – had not made the journey earlier. As I pondered the
      question I felt that the silence of the sand echoed the disturbing silence in
      the Arab world on the urgent conflicts in Western Sahara and Palestine.
      Indeed, all those I met in both Palestinian and Sahrawi camps bitterly
      complained that the Arab world has abandoned them, forgotten their existence
      or sided with their enemies.

      Headed by the Frente para la Liberación de Sagiau al-Hamra and Rio de Oro
      (Polisario Front) and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the
      refugees of Western Sahara are efficiently and highly organised, have
      democratic institutions and processes and a high level of participation in
      decision making. Laws and institutions guarantee social equality, including
      women’s rights, provide free education and health services and the right and
      duty to work. In general, the level of democratisation I encountered in the
      camps is unmatched elsewhere in the Arab world. Could the experience of the
      Sahrawi refugee-citizens and their mini state-in-exile provide a beacon of
      light amidst the bleak despair engulfing the Arab world?

      Historical background

      In 1884 Spain colonised Western Sahara. Prior to the termination of Spain’s
      colonial mandate in February
      1976, both Morocco and Mauritania made territorial claims which were rejected
      by the International Court of
      Justice (ICJ) in its verdict in October 1975. A UN Inquiry mission that
      visited the territory in May-June 1975
      reported that the Sahrawi population had overwhelmingly expressed their wish
      for independence and that
      Polisario appeared as a prominent political party in the territory. On the
      same day, Morocco’s King Hassan II
      led a ‘Green March’ during which approximately 350,000 Moroccans crossed into
      Western Sahara, carrying
      a bizarre briccolage of white banners, American flags and the Holy Koran.

      In 1991 the Security Council mandated a UN peace-keeping force (MINURSO)2 to
      oversee a referendum to decide whether the Sahrawi people wished to integrate
      with Morocco or opt for independence. Morocco’s role
      in obstructing the referendum has been amply documented. The latest Moroccan
      autonomy proposals were
      aborted in July 2002, when the Security Council adopted Resolution 1429
      "underlining the validity of the
      Settlement Plan" and expressing its readiness to consider any approach which
      provides for self-determination.

      The democracy of the desert: SADR and its citizens

      The Moroccan takeover of Western Sahara led to the displacement of
      approximately 150,000-200,000 refugees. Many carry the memory of the American
      napalm and phosphorous bombs dropped indiscriminately on them by the Moroccan
      army as they fled in 1975. Four refugee camps and one unofficial settlement
      have been established in what is referred to as the ‘uninhabitable’ desert
      near the Algerian town of Tindouf.

      The SADR – currently based in the camps – has successfully drawn upon
      democratic and egalitarian principles
      rooted in nomadic, Arab and Islamic culture and history. Islam, as practised
      by the Sahrawis, is tolerant and liberal. One of several examples of how SADR
      has been able to draw upon local traditions is its institutionalisation of
      women’s rights. Traditionally, women have total autonomy in managing the daily
      activities in and around the tent. Any form of violence against women, verbal
      or physical, is condemned and
      the man is usually ostracised by society. Consequently, these incidents are so
      rare that the issue of domestic violence against women or children is almost

      However, the Sahrawi people are neither ‘primitive’ – as some orientalists
      would argue – nor ‘communist’. They
      have developed livelihood strategies to adapt to the physical and political
      environment and respond to the Moroccan occupation by maximising what little
      resources they have. Their numbers are few as are their financial and material
      resources. They have to depend almost totally on humanitarian aid and a high
      level of efficiency, organisation and democratic mechanisms to be able to wage
      their political, social, economic and diplomatic battles.

      Wilayas and camps

      The Sahrawis refer to the camps as wilayas, or provinces, which in turn are
      subdivided into da’iras, or municipalities. Each da’ira is subdivided into
      several hays, or districts. The wilayas and the da’iras are
      named after towns and areas in Western Sahara, such as Smaara, al-Ayoun, al-
      Dhakle and Oauserd. Similarly, most Palestinian refugee camp areas are called
      after the villages of origin and/or main urban centres, such as manteqat
      al-Quds (Jerusalem) and al-Khalil (Hebron), or significant events and symbols
      in the political history of Palestine. In both cases, the names of original
      places in the country of origin had been granted to the places of exile as a
      form of popular resistance against ‘forgetting’ and an affirmation of the
      inseparable relationship
      between those exiled and places in their homeland.

      Over time most tents in the wilayas have been replaced with brick homes. The
      adobe huts have basic furniture,
      blankets and kitchen utensils. Despite the lack of public electricity in the
      camps, some families have acquired TV
      sets powered by solar energy in order to access the outside world. In
      Palestinian refugee camps, TVs are
      found in the majority of homes, one of the few affordable items for
      entertainment, especially for children.

      Needless to say, there are important differences between the Sahrawi wilayas
      and the Palestinian refugee camps. Not least is the fact that the latter exist
      within or near urban centres whereas a massive desert
      separates the wilayas from Algerian urban centres and society. However, the
      underlying social and economic
      imperatives and dynamics in both cases are not as different as may at first

      In both cases, the communities are not and never were homogeneous. Sahrawis
      were never totally nomadic
      as by the 1960s a sizeable force was working in the phosphate industry.
      Similarly, in Palestine, though the economy was predominantly agricultural, a
      significant number of the fellahin subsidised their agricultural resources
      with mercantile activities, while others worked in urban centres as
      wagelabourers. In both cases the initial years of exile levelled the
      socioeconomic status of the uprooted population and introduced new forms
      of differentiation.

      Undoubtedly, humanitarian aid and its management procedures contribute to the
      emergence of social and economic variance among refugees. Thus some
      entrepreneurial Palestinians were able to fill a niche in the ‘refugee market’
      by mediating between households and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency
      (UNRWA). New small merchants bought and sold rations, as some families needed
      cash while others needed more sugar or flour. A few of these entrepreneurs
      succeeded in generating capital and expanding. Commercial enterprises began to
      appear as some shelters were transformed partially or totally into little
      retail shops and today there are large markets in most Palestinian refugee
      camps. Needless to say, there are other factors that contributed to
      differentiation within Palestinian camps, such as the size of the household,
      the availability of members with marketable skills and labour markets,
      remittances from expatriates and social and political relationships.

      In the Sahrawi community, although the distribution processes of humanitarian
      aid is egalitarian, nevertheless
      some households have economic advantages. A few families who served the
      Spanish colonial administration
      receive pensions which give them economic and social leverage. Others have
      relations abroad who send goods or cash. Already there are a few shops in the
      camps selling goods brought from Algeria, Mauritania and elsewhere. Through
      informal economic trade networks, the seeds of a cash economy and a market are
      beginning to emerge in the wilayas, mirroring similar processes in Palestinian

      Collective political mobilisation and socio-economic imperatives

      New generations are being born in the wilayas and SADR’s efforts to invest in
      their education have begun to bear fruit. Hundreds of students study abroad,
      returning with degrees in medicine, education, chemistry and
      the social sciences and with new ideas to contribute to the cultural and
      political life of the community. Children
      are participating in a Spanish programme, Vaccaciones en Paz, under which
      thousands of Spanish families
      host Sahrawi children in their homes for two months every summer. The emphasis
      on education as a strategic
      objective for the Sahrawi people echoes the Palestinian strategy to redeem
      ‘home’ and ‘homeland’ and tackle poverty by acquiring education and political

      The Sahrawi graduates work in the various wilayas and attempts are made to
      place the right person in the
      appropriate job. However, with the passage of time, especially with cutbacks
      in international aid and stalemate
      in the political situation, a growing population of Sahrawis may be pressed to
      look for alternative social and economic possibilities. Underlying all these
      processes is the question of how to reconcile the growing social and economic
      needs of individuals with the collective political will in order to withstand
      the Moroccan tactics of procrastination and stalemate.

      The Palestinian case provides insight, if not answers, to this issue.
      Examining the Palestinian movement
      over five decades, it is obvious that a sense of collective belonging and
      mobilisation appear during some periods as intense and other times as subdued.
      This is due to the fact that the reproduction of identity is a political and
      ever changing dynamic that includes active agency but also external dynamics.
      The current Intifada
      has had a clear impact in reawakening a collective sense among Palestinians in
      the diaspora, most of whom have
      never seen Palestine. Those who are hoping that the passage of years will
      weaken the Sahrawis’ collective resolve need only look at the Palestinian case
      to see that time and distance are no guarantees that conflict
      will disappear.

      The UN, self-determination and ‘autonomy’

      Sahrawi refugees call 1975 the alghazu (‘invasion’), paralleling the
      Palestinian nakbah (‘catastrophe’) of
      1948. Since these traumatic junctures in the lives of the two peoples,
      numerous UN and international resolutions
      and declarations have been accumulating dust. Both the Oslo agreements and the
      Moroccan ‘autonomy’ proposal for Western Sahara violate principles of
      international law.

      The right of the Palestinians and the Sahrawis to self-determination is a
      non-negotiable right enshrined in
      principles of international law. Indeed, it is a central principle in the UN
      Charter, as expressed in Article 1(2)
      and reaffirmed as a human right in Article 1 of both international covenants.
      In 1960, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Granting of
      Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which affirmed that "all
      peoples enjoy the right of self-determination".

      The Zionist-Israeli argument that Palestine was not a nation state prior to
      the establishment of Israel and
      hence does not have a right to selfdetermination is invalid. In 1919 the
      Covenant of the League of Nations
      recognised the Palestinian people as an independent nation to be
      "provisionally" placed under the British
      Mandate, the British acting as a "custodian" to lead people "not yet able to
      stand by themselves" to independence.

      The Oslo framework for peace provided for a form of Palestinian ‘autonomy’ or
      ‘authority’ with ultimate sovereignty remaining in the hands of the Israelis.
      The consequences of ‘autonomy’ have become clear to the Palestinians: Israeli
      land annexations have continued and the settler population doubled since the
      peace process began. The Moroccan-American autonomy option proposed for
      Western Sahara would have had similar consequences, leaving key matters such
      as defence, foreign affairs and the currency under Moroccan control.

      The state, the nation and the nation state

      The five million Palestinian refugees and exiles were marginalised in the Oslo
      negotiations and relegated as a
      ‘final status’ issue. They feel betrayed by the Palestinian Authority. Their
      political nexus in the form of the PLOPA
      was torn away as a result of Oslo as refugees were abandoned to fend for
      themselves. Israel’s refusal to contemplate the right of return has been
      supported by the failure of the Oslo agreements to refer to UNGA Resolution
      194 (III), which calls for their right of return, compensation and
      restitution. Oslo’s emphasis on building state-like institutions in the
      statelet (22% of Mandate Palestine) granted to the Palestinian Authority
      ignored key questions fundamental to the Palestinian predicament.

      Who was to represent the Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the rest
      of the world? Settlers and settlements would have been a major hindrance to
      the contiguity of its territory. Schisms over political representation would
      have emerged between the PNA and host countries, especially Jordan – the only
      country to grant refugees full citizenship rights – where 40% of all
      UNRWA-registered refugees reside. The relationship between Palestinians living
      within Israel and the Palestinian state was undefined.

      Mirroring the Israeli determination to create demographic facts, the Moroccan
      authorities have lured over
      150,000 settlers into the occupied territory in order to change the results of
      the long-delayed referendum.
      As in the occupied Palestinian territories, settlements are heavily
      subsidised, giving the inhabitants considerably
      higher incomes than they would have enjoyed if they had stayed in Morocco. The
      150,000 Moroccan soldiers in Western Sahara persecute those who oppose
      integration with Morocco or support the Sahrawi right to a referendum.

      Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of
      Civilian Persons in Time of War (12 August, 1949) clearly outlaws settlements:
      "the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian
      population into the territory it occupies". The purpose of the Article is to
      protect the civilian population
      of an occupied territory and to reserve permanent territorial changes, if any,
      until settlement of the conflict.
      Both Israel and Morocco have violated the Fourth Geneva Convention by
      radically transforming the occupied
      territories by bringing in new settlers in order to change the demographic
      make-up of the territories under their occupation and to utilise the natural

      In both the Sahrawi and Palestinian cases it is difficult to think of
      repatriation and self-determination as
      mutually exclusive. Rather, they should be viewed as part of a larger
      political solution that amalgamates
      the two concepts and is solidly grounded in international law.

      Berms, fences and borders

      Western Sahara is split in two by the 900-mile long Moroccan berm, a defensive
      wall extending from the
      north-east corner of Western Sahara down to the south-west near the
      Mauritanian border. Built in the early
      1980s, following advice given to Hassan II by Ariel Sharon, the berm is made
      of earth and reinforced with
      soldiers, anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, trenches and detectors. It has
      been estimated that 1-2 million landmines have been planted by Morocco. Ariel
      Sharon is now building a similar wall which will devour chunks of
      Palestinian land legally considered part of the West Bank. It too will be
      fortified with electric fences, trenches
      and motion detectors.

      For 27 years Sahrawis have been separated from relatives and neighbours, some
      living under Moroccan occupation and others in the wilayas in Algeria,
      Mauritania and elsewhere. Palestinians too have not seen their
      relatives for decades. In Lebanon I met a refugee who goes to the southern
      border fence to see if he can
      glimpse his original village across the border. When he cannot, he hopes a
      breeze originating in his land will
      blow his way.

      Walls erected by occupiers are indicative of a culture of fear and are raised
      precisely because the occupier realises that their occupation is opposed by
      the rightful inhabitants. It is only a matter of time before the enclosed and
      imprisoned populations find ways to overcome the barriers. Occupying powers
      must reflect on
      history to realise that walls are no match for people’s struggle for freedom.
      When will they realise the
      paradox and absurdity of negotiating peace while simultaneously building


      The Arab world should stand up for the rights of the Sahrawi people for
      self-determination and learn from the
      successful experiences of democracy and the building of civil institutions of
      this small but resilient people. If left to fester, the Palestinian and
      Sahrawi conflicts are threats to regional and global stability. It is time
      that the silence of the sand is shattered. Louder Arab voices must be heard
      calling for the universal application of international law to put an end to
      the impunity with which occupying powers strip occupied peoples of their
      rights to self-determination and return.
      Randa Farah is attached to the Anthropology Department at the University of
      Western Ontario.
      Website: www.ssc.uwo.ca/anthropology/farah.
      Email: rfarah2@...
      This paper is based on a larger research project in which Dr Dawn Chatty, of
      the RSC, is the principal investigator. The author would like to express her
      gratitude to her Sahrawi hosts and to those who shared their ideas and
      experiences which helped her write this article.
      The most comprehensive and regularly updated source of Internet information on
      Western Sahara is the Western Sahara Referendum Association
      (ARSO): www.arso.org/index.htm. Other Sahrawi links are on the FMR website at:
      1. The SADR website is: www.arso.org/03-0.htm
      2. The MINURSO website is: www.un.org/Depts
      Forced Migration Review is the in-house journal of the Refugee Studies Centre,
      University of Oxford. Produced in collaboration with the Global IDP Project of
      the Norwegian Refugee Council.
      PDF version: http://www.fmreview.org/FMRpdfs/FMR16/fmr16.7.pdf

      Forwarded by:
      Norwegian Support Committee for Western Sahara

      *** Referendum now! ***
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