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.
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 2m 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.
The Polisario says that without a vote it has no option but to return to war. Morocco [...] advances its autonomy proposal as the only viable way forward. 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.
Rays of Sahrawi Hope
While the UN process has stalled, Polisario has pursued alternative routes to press its cause, particularly by filing complaints with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over Morocco’s exploitation of natural resources in Western Sahara. It has booked some successes. On 21 December 2016, the ECJ ruled that an agricultural trade agreement between Morocco and the European Union (EU) could not be applied to goods from Western Sahara. On 27 February 2018, the ECJ barred the inclusion of waters off the Western Saharan coast in a EU-Morocco fisheries agreement, further confirming it did not allow the EU to consider Western Sahara as part of Morocco.
“The Moroccan strategy of using the passage of time to legitimise its occupation isn’t working”, a Polisario minister told me. “As time passes, we are seeing more affirmations that the international community will not endorse the Western Sahara’s Moroccan-ness”. Countries friendly to the Polisario are also acting on the precedents set in the European court. In May 2017, South African customs officials boarded the NM Cherry Blossom, a vessel carrying 50,000 tonnes of phosphates for the Moroccan state-run Office chérifien des phosphates from the Western Saharan port of Laayoune that docked in the South African port, Port Elizabeth, on its way to New Zealand, and seized its cargo.
An area where the Polisario claims to be making progress but faces greater uncertainty is its handling of Morocco’s accession to the African Union (AU) in January 2017. Morocco immediately started lobbying for the SADR’s expulsion from the AU and sought to exclude the self-styled Sahrawi state from the November 2017 AU-EU summit in Abidjan. It failed in these efforts. In the Polisario’s view, Morocco miscalculated its ability to shift AU member states’ positions in a multilateral organisation long dominated by states sympathetic to the legality of the group’s claims to self-determination, including Algeria, Nigeria and South Africa.
Polisario leaders are of two minds about Moroccan accession to the AU. They assert that the SADR’s membership alongside Morocco as equals may create an opportunity to use the AU for dialogue and diplomacy, even though Rabat adamantly opposes using the AU as a negotiating channel and is trying to kick out the SADR. At the same time, the Polisario is concerned that while the AU has successfully pushed back against Morocco and remains committed to recognising the SADR, which is an AU founding member, the regional organisation no longer is the reliable ally it once was. Instead, it has become a new battleground.
Back in the camps around Tindouf, young leaders are conflicted. On the one hand, they feel grateful for the sacrifices made by the older generation. They appreciate the efficiency of the Polisario’s management of the camps and the political freedoms they enjoy there, aware that such liberties are unusual in a region where autocratic governance prevails. “We have freedom here. We can go to hospitals and schools for free; we can travel [Sahrawi refugees have broad access to training and education programs in Spain, Cuba and Algeria]; we can criticise our leader and government and send our message to the world. When I talk to him [Brahim Ghali], I feel like we’re on the same level”, an elected leader from Polisario’s youth wing said.
On the other hand, they are impatient with the pace of diplomacy on the Western Sahara question. “If we wait for the UN Security Council to deliver the referendum and the freedom to go back to our land, we will be here for 300 years”, said Hamdi, the youth leader quoted above. “I believe that the UN and MINURSO represent international protection for the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara. If we don’t go back to war, nothing will change. After all this time, I don’t believe in a political solution. The UN thinks it can just give us some food and essentials and we won’t bother them”.
Is it the conflict that is frozen or the nearly three-decade-old framework for resolving it? The older generation is somewhat fearful about how the ascent of these more confrontational, more militant youths will affect the Polisario movement. “We’re doing our best to calm our youths, but how long can this last? Every night on TV they see Moroccans beating Sahrawis and the international community does nothing”, a senior Polisario diplomat said.
The uptick in tensions raises wider questions. Is it the conflict that is frozen or the nearly three-decade-old framework for resolving it? What would the breakdown of the status quo precipitate in a regional environment that has radically changed since 1991? Both the Maghreb and the Sahel, which Western Sahara straddles, face political upheaval and violent turmoil.
With the frozen conflict showing signs of thawing – at least on the Polisario’s side – while also appearing with new urgency on the EU and AU agendas, creative thinking is needed to unblock the peace process. It is complacent to imagine that the status quo can continue indefinitely. A final settlement of the conflict may be elusive for now, but are there better modalities of conflict management worth contemplating? Can the parties be pushed to modify their maximalist positions, and if so, how? These are not easy questions to answer, but they are important ones to ask – for the UN secretary-general and Secretariat, for members of the Security Council, for the involved parties, and for the Maghreb and the Sahel more broadly. UN envoy Köhler, who has started to ask some of these questions, will need the support and engagement of Security Council members to get answers, since neither side is likely to budge from its position without external pressure.
In the interim, Köhler needs space to bring a new strategic direction to efforts to resolve the conflict. For this he also will need the support of MINURSO, which is mandated to support his efforts but also to fulfil a number of operational functions. The mission should carry out the investigation it promised in Guerguerat and enforce the ceasefire – the latter in particular is critical to improving Köhler’s prospects of restarting talks that remain the best option for resolving the long-running crisis and reducing prospects it again turns violent.