The World’s Last Colony

The Western Sahara and its Refugee Camps

Published in: Volume (Urban China): 'Crisis' - Feb / 2009



The map „The World in 1945“ published by the United Nations cartography department shows the status of the world’s countries with a wide array of colors at the time just after World War II: Independent and self governing nations are colored in Blue. Red, Purple and different shades of Green are used to indicate dependencies and colonial conditions. Thus codified, the world of 1945 has the appearance of patches of colorful confetti. “The World Today” a map representing the same kind of relationships for today’s times, has turned almost entirely blue. Only one single red spot, indicating a dependent state is remaining in the very center of the map: Western Sahara is the only non-self-governing country in the world today. The world’s last remaining colony.

Western Sahara is located at the very western point of Africa, where the Sahara meets the Atlantic Ocean. Without a single river, no arable land nor permanent crops, few areas of pasture and temperatures well in excess of 50° Celsius (125° Fahrenheit) during summer, it is one of the most inhospitable places for settlement. Due to the lack of arable land, the Sahrawi population developed a rich nomadic culture with camel meat being their ‘staple food.’ The country is rich in raw materials, such as phosphate and has substantial fishing waters off its coastline. More recently, speculations about oil reserves located off its coast have made the complicated and tragic political situation of the country even more conflictual.

Formerly a Spanish colony until 1975, the country was invaded by Morocco and Mauretania when Franco pulled his troops out of the country as one of the last major political initiatives before his death. The Polisario, an independence movement of the local Sahrawi population fighting against the Spanish oppressors launched a guerrilla war against the two new occupying forces and managed to oust Mauretania from Western Saharan territory.  No sooner got but lost, Morocco immediately expanded its area of occupation to the territories relinquished by Mauretania and was thus controlling more than two thirds of the Western Sahara by 1979.

A large part of the local Sahrawi population had by that time fled to neighboring Algeria establishing four refugee camps in the very remote region near Tindouf. In response to persistent assaults by Sahrawi partisans Morocco built a 3.000 km long berm through the middle of the desert, cutting through the complete length of the Western Sahara, and separating the occupied western part of the country from fragmented pieces on the eastern side of the berm. An act of pure violence through planning, and probably one of the most extreme manifestations of architecture the world has ever seen.



The Camps

The early Sahrawi refugees fleeing across the border to Algeria established the first settlement Rabouni, which later developed into their administrative center. In the following years four refugee camps were constructed in the area that today are housing approximately 40.000 refugees each: El Aiun, Awserd, Smara and Dakhla, named after the four main towns in their former home country. Each camp has a center where offices of the mayor and public services for the whole camp are located. Nearby is the commercial area, with clay huts selling foodstuff, clothing, mechanical tools and mobile phones. Even though they are well stocked, few customers frequent the little shops as much of the merchandise is simply too expensive for most inhabitants of the camp. A constant flow of ancient Land Rovers passes over the dirt roads of the camp and a wild ensemble of garages and repair shops, petrol stations (plastic pipes connected to barrels of petrol suspended in high air) and even a car wash (in the middle of the desert!) give testimony to a mobile and motorized community.


Replacing a country

If added up the four refugee camps with their approximately 170.000 inhabitants represent the largest ‘urban’ settlement within the whole Sahara. The camps, named after the four largest cities that had been left behind and are now occupied by the Moroccans, have an ambiguous relationship to the concept of home and remembrance: Even though the camps are meant to forge a collective memory through the use of the abandoned city’s names, these names were designated more or less randomly to the four camps and have no relationship to the actual origin of the residents living there. The refugees come from all parts of their old homeland. The fact that the Sahrawi population has been living mostly nomadic lives and virtually all of the commemorated cities are of Spanish (i.e. colonial) foundation makes this constructed lineage even more dubious.

When founded in the late 1970s the camps, out of both contingency and intentionality, followed something akin to a utopian vision: the construction of a new society. As most men were engaged in guerilla activities of the Polisario movement against the Moroccan occupation, it was the women who assumed the leadership for running and organizing the camps. Women also put themselves in charge of issues pertaining to trade, education and other community matters. Formerly being a conservative nomadic society, the settlement within the camps triggered a substantial and lasting step of emancipation for the Sahrawi women and establishing a social system almost bordering on matriarchy.

Located within Algerian territory the land for the refugee camps, was donated by Algeria, which surrendered virtually all aspects of its sovereignty to the Sahrawis. From now on they were free to organize their lives (and refugee status) independently. Within the camps the land itself, its allotment and its use is decided by claims and negotiations of involved parties. If a refugee family intends to settle on a piece of land, put up a tent, construct a clay hut or extend its residential spaces, it physically marks its planned constructions and the spatial claims in the sand and negotiates with the neighbors and other people of interest regarding the extent of these claims. The act of planning thus takes place on a one-to-one scale. Should negotiations remain unresolved, they are conveyed to the mayor of the camp for processes of mediation. It is a system based on the understanding that land cannot be private property and cannot be valued with money and interests between parties have to be balanced.

In the early years, the economy within the camps was not based on money, but on bartering and a common access to goods and services. Rather than establishing a cash or fiscal economy, the understanding that goods are exchanged through trade in kind, and that neither foodstuff, nor services like education, medical treatment or transport should be paid for in money, but instead that this all contributes to a general and common benefit was the foundational believe for the new Sahrawi society. Even though eventually money was introduced into the social and economical structure of the camps, many aspects of daily live are still based on the notion of common ownership and public goods.

Having transformed from a nomadic society to a settled refugee society living in a spatially confined and compact area, the Sahrawis find themselves positioned to benefit from services and possibilities that were previously not available or even conceivable: Effectively every child receives primary education, with many continuing for secondary or higher education. Literacy rate has reached 90 % making the Sahrawis one of the best-educated people in all of Africa. Standard medical services are available in all the camps with health centers located in close proximity to the whole population. Internet cafes have opened up and most families are equipped with solar powered TVs, radios and even mobile phones, giving them access to information and communication channels previously unimaginable. It is the very fact of being a peoples of refugees, of having been forced to transform from a nomadic society to a virtually urbanized one, and the very conditions of living in the camps after having lost their homeland, that has enabled a process of emancipation within the whole society, as well as an advancement of education and access to global information and the exchange of ideas.


The Temporary as an Architectural Style

Each camp as an administrative unit (‘Wilaya’) is subdivided into quarters (‘Daïras’) which are further subdivided into blocks. The residential Daïras of the refugee camps are arranged around the administrative and commercial zones which are located in the center of each camp. Refugee family usually live in a small cluster of clay huts and tents. The camps are only loosely built up, occupying large areas, and fizzling out towards the periphery, with single huts strewn over the desert floor in the distance.

Even though having existed for approximately 35 years techniques of the temporary prevail in the construction of the camp and its buildings. Refugee families live in tents or in clay huts that are self-built from clay bricks made out of the dusty sand of the very ground that they are located on. The periodically occurring sandstorms often raze those huts to the ground and revert them to the pile of sand that they have been constructed from. Little investment is made in the design of buildings, being reduced to the bare minimum and ready to be torn down again. The interiors though are heavily decorated with carpets and cloth, which could easily be moved to be used in a following building. Paved streets do not exist just as there is virtually no (physically) networked infrastructure such as sewage system, electricity grid, telephone landlines or streetlights. All service is local or cellular. Electrical power is provided by car batteries and individual hand-held solar panels that each family own. Phone service is solely mobile and cellular, just as lights (torches). Fresh water is provided from individual jerry cans and metal containers placed in front of each tent. Everything is movable, foldable, transportable or disposable. It’s a mobile society. Beyond the obvious rationale that the refugees are not willing to invest into an area that is not their home, and the possible lack of funds for more durable solutions, these collection of construction techniques for a quasi urban settlement are intended to represent and visually express a concept of temporality. The refugee camps are built in the architectural language of ‘interim-solution’. They adopt the canon of the intermediate and are meant to signify the transitional as this shows the world that the living conditions are not meant to be permanent. Thus contributing to a political statement, construction methods are utilized to produce and perpetuate the aesthetics of the temporal and provisional, even though many structures have existed for almost 35 years. This use of the temporary is strategic. Although nothing has proved more permanent than the four Sahrawi refugee camps in the Algerian desert, they are employing architecture to mark that their presence, now spanning almost two generations, is nothing but provisional. The temporary has become an architectural style and an agent in the politics of the Saharan conflict.

The Sahrawi refugee camps expose the dilemmas of planning in the context of people in flight and humanitarian aid. Borne out of a situation of conflict and tragedy through the loss of their homeland and much of their original culture, the camps have allowed the Sahrawi people to organize their lives in a radically new way, bringing along processes of general emancipation, education and connectedness previously unknown. In spite of the remoteness of the camps’ location and their relentless climate, it is the spatial configuration of the living conditions, the density and relative compact size, which has allowed for these benefits to arise. It is a whole nation reduced to four camps that is now able to take advantage of services and allows methods of exchange hitherto unattainable. A bizarre process of urbanization, if there ever was one.

But the refugee camps are also one of the reasons why the underlying conflict and the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara remains unsolved. As the Sahrawis are living in relative safety outside of the immediate area of conflict, and settled in reasonable living conditions, there is little international interest and no pressure of an emergency to force the warring factions to an agreement or a solution. The crisis has been dealt with on a humanitarian or architectural level; it does not need to be addressed anymore on a political level. Similar to its architectural dimension, it is the very temporality of the camp as a quasi-urbanistic tool of settlement, which allows the condition to remain virtually permanently making any political solution every more unlikely: the dilemma of planning within the humanitarian context.

Compared with other refugee camps, the Sahrawi camps in the border land between Western Sahara and Algeria offer a new concept of conceiving refugee camps not only as technical solutions for fleeing people in situations of conflict, but as social spaces of exchange and emancipation. All refugee camps were constructed without support from UNHCR who are still not involved in managing the camps. Unlike refugee camps in other zones of conflict, the camps are largely self-administered with Sahrawis being in charge of the organization of their own lives. The camps forced a nation – but also gave it the possibility – to radically reinvent itself, and take certain aspects of its destiny into its own hands. Not just being a storage space for people in flight, the camps (even if maybe officially denying it) function and are understood as cities, offering a political, cultural and economical life to its residents, but also ready to be dismantled again, should the opportunity arise.