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Western Sahara map


Homelessness in
Western Sahara

As part of Lines in the Sand project a journalist and the author of 'Endgame in the Western Sahara', Toby Shelley, was interviewed by Year 8 students from Langdon Park school via email.


Hi Toby,

This is Melissa and Lauren. We are here to ask you some questions on the Western Sahara in general because we don't know very much and there isn't much information around.

We have been asked particularly to look into homelessness - others in our class are looking at the situation in other countries.

1. What is your opinion on the situation in Western Sahara?
2. Why don't they fight for their freedom?




Hi Melissa and Lauren,

Firstly, the issue of homelessness. If you consider homelessness not just as not having a roof over your head but as not having someone safe to call your own and feel you belong, then most of the Sahrawis are homeless.

About half of them live in refugee camps in Algeria where their families fled after Morocco and Mauritania invaded thirty years ago.

Western Sahara refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria

Although the people in the camps are very well organised - you have to be to survive in such desert conditions - they all want to return to their homeland and live freely.

Thousands more Sahrawis live as exiles in Mauritania and in a number of European countries. They too want to go home but fear going back to live under control of the Moroccan army and police.

Those Sahrawis who live under Moroccan rule may be living in their homeland but do not consider themselves free because they have never been allowed to choose whether they want their own government or not.

A few thousand nomads (goat and camel herders) do manage to live quite freely in an area of the Western Sahara that Morocco does not control but even they still suffer because they have relatives stuck in areas controlled by Morocco. Also they have to be very careful because of the danger of landmines left over from the years of fighting. I have met many Sahrawis who have been injured - often as children - by landmines.

Sahrawi children at play
© Julio Etchart

I have visited the area of the Western Sahara controlled by the Moroccans on a number of occasions and spent much time with very brave Sahrawis who organise protests against the Moroccan authorities. Many of these people have been in prison because of their activities. Some have been treated very cruelly in prison. Often they were put in prison without ever being taken to court. Others have seen members of their families taken away by soldiers never to return.

The Sahrawis living under Moroccan control feel they are treated very badly, not just picked on by the army and secret police but also not given jobs or other opportunities. But mostly what they say is that they just want the chance to decide who will run their country, a government of their own people or the Moroccans.

The refugees in Algeria who face great hardship living in summer heat you can scarcely imagine, also see freedom to choose their government, use their own language and live in their own way as their greatest ambition.

For many years, the Sahrawis did fight, first against the Spanish who used to rule Western Sahara until 1975, then against Morocco and Mauritania. In fact, they defeated the Mauritanians. By 1991 the war had come to a stalemate - neither side feeling it was winning - and a ceasefire was organised by the United Nations.

The intention was that this should be followed by a vote on who would rule the Western Sahara but that has never happened because Morocco has prevented it.

There is a small danger that fighting will start again with weapons but for now the main struggle of the Sahrawis is by men, women and children living under Moroccan rule going out and demonstrating and proving to the world that they are there and have their ambitions for the future.

I hope this helps,

Best wishes,




Project originally funded by EU and DfID with support from Tower Hamlets LEA