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Western Sahara

Issue date
A report of a TUC delegation of to the Saharawi refugee camps, May 2006

Following the 2005 Congress resolution on the Western Sahara, a TUC delegation visited the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria, from 2-6 May 2006. The visit was hosted by the UGTA, Algeria and the UGTSARIO - the Saharawi national trade union centre. Meetings were held with the UGTA in Algiers, and in the camps with the UGTSARIO and the Polisario government, including President Abdelaziz and the Prime Minister. On its departure, the delegation co-signed with the UGTSARIO a joint press release reflecting the terms of the Congress resolution. The document reports the visit and outlines proposals for action discussed with the UGTSARIO, the UGTA and the Polisario authorities.

The TUC delegation consisted of Alison Shepherd, General Council; Ruth Winters, President, Fire Brigades Union; and Simon Steyne, TUC International Officer. Louise Richards, Chief Executive of War on Want, accompanied the delegation.

Background on the occupation and the international legal dispute

Since 1975, Western Sahara has been under illegal occupation by Morocco, which invaded when Spain, the former colonial power, withdrew after the death of Franco and shortly after the International Court of Justice had rejected both Morocco's and Mauritania's territorial claims. The Madrid agreement between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania partitioned the country, Morocco holding the northern two-thirds and Mauritania the remainder. Mauritania withdrew its claims, after the installation of a new government in 1978. Large numbers of Saharawi refuges fled from the occupation and the fighting and some 165,000 settled in four refugee camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf on desert land effectively ceded to the Polisario Front. The Saharawi people declared their own Saharan Arab Democratic Republic in 1976, which is recognised by 80 other states, with a government in exile seated in the camps.

In April 1991 the UN established Minurso, the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara. Its brief was to implement a peace plan outlined in a 1990 Security Council resolution. The Polisario forces fought the Moroccan occupying forces until September 1991, when a UN-brokered ceasefire was declared. Minurso's brief was to monitor the ceasefire, the confinement of warring parties to designated areas and the exchange of prisoners. While the ceasefire held, the mission was never fully deployed, nor was the transition period ever completed. A key sticking point was an "identification process", to decide who was eligible to vote in a referendum. Identification was to be based on a census carried out by Spain in 1973. The Polisario wanted to rule out Moroccans who settled in Western Sahara after the 'Green March'. In May 1996, the UN suspended the identification process and recalled most Minurso civilian staff. Military personnel stayed to oversee the truce.

UN peace efforts resumed when UN special envoy James Baker mediated in talks between Polisario and Morocco in 1997 and 2000. Agreements were reached on the release of POWs, a code of conduct for a referendum campaign and UN authority during a transition period - but not on voter eligibility. The further talks in 2000 foundered. Attempting to break the deadlock, Baker submitted a "Framework Agreement", in June 2001, which provided for autonomy for the Saharawis under Moroccan sovereignty, a referendum after a four-year transition period, and voting rights for Moroccan settlers resident in Western Sahara for over a year. That formula was rejected by Polisario and Algeria. In July 2003, the UN adopted a compromise resolution proposing that Western Sahara become a semi-autonomous region of Morocco for a transition period of up to five years. A referendum would then take place on independence, semi-autonomy or integration with Morocco. This compromise was seen as addressing Moroccan concerns. Polisario signalled its readiness to accept, but Morocco rejected any referendum that included independence as an option. James Baker resigned in June 2004 and the UN process remained deadlocked.

The Moroccan government constructed a fortified sand wall, stretching some 1,800 kilometres from the Moroccan border with Western Sahara to its frontier with Mauritania. The wall is longer than the Great Wall of China and is protected by Moroccan troops and ten per cent of the world's deployed landmines.

Western Sahara now has three components: the occupied territory, which borders the ocean; the liberated zone of the SADR on the eastern side of the wall; and the refugee camps, which are the seat of the SADR government. Exact population figures are not known: it is estimated that there are 158,000 refugees in the camps; a small population - including some 14,000 Polisario troops - in the liberated zone; and as many as 600,000 (the exact figure is not known) still in the occupied territory in conditions in which their fundamental rights at work and other human rights are denied. In May and November of 2005 massive but peaceful demonstrations by the Saharawi people in the occupied territory were brutally suppressed by the Moroccan occupying forces. There were several deaths, and numerous arrests, some leading to long prison sentences. The TUC delegation met one torture victim who had recently fled from the capital, El Aaiun, to the camps.

Western Sahara is rich in fish stocks and phosphates and probable oil deposits: natural resources under de facto, though illegal, Moroccan control. The Polisario Front remains committed to a peaceful solution, through the UN. Despite the Polisario's acceptance of a referendum to determine the future of Western Sahara, and an international Court of Justice ruling that the Saharawi people have the right to self-determination, Morocco has continually refused to agree to terms for a plebiscite. Western Sahara remains Africa's last colony.

The most recent UN developments occurred on 28 April, on the eve of the TUC delegation's departure, when the Security Council unanimously extended the mandate of Minurso until October 2006, and called again on the parties and states in the region to end the current impasse, and for contributions to help re-unite separated families. While the UN Secretary-General's new Personal Envoy, Peter van Walsum, had warned that any new plan would be rejected by Morocco unless it excluded the provision for a referendum with independence as an option, the Secretary-General stated that the UN could not endorse a plan that excluded a genuine referendum while claiming to provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. Council members therefore urged the parties to heed the Secretary-General's report and use the next six months to reach a negotiated settlement of the impasse.

The SADR is a member of the Organisation of African Unity (and the UGTSARIO is a member of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity - the Moroccan unions withdrew when they UGTSARIO was admitted). The Polisario Front views France (especially President Chirac) and Spain to be Morocco's main backers in Europe, interested in maintaining Moroccan occupation for economic, cultural, migration control and geopolitical reasons - not least to prevent what they perceive as the expansion of Algerian influence. Algeria is a principal supporter of the SADR and was repeatedly described, in the light of its liberation struggle against French colonial rule, as having anti-colonialism printed through its body politic and political culture 'like a stick of rock'. The United States has recently been clearly critical of the suppression of human rights in the occupied territory by the Moroccan occupying forces.

The UN Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, 1974, proclaims that no state has the right to promote or encourage investment that may constitute an obstacle to the liberation of a territory occupied by force. Yet - to compensate for over-fishing in European waters - the European Union is negotiating with Morocco a fisheries agreement, to be finalised imminently, which would permit European fishing in both Moroccan and Saharawi waters. The effect of that agreement would not only be the exploitation of resources in illegally held territorial waters but would also amount to a false affirmation by the EU of Morocco as the administering power under international law rather than as a colonial power. While France, Spain and Portugal have been strongly supportive of the proposed agreements, Ireland and the Scandinavian governments have vocally opposed it and have called for explicit exclusion of Western Sahara from the agreement. The British Government has indicated that it will probably vote in support of the agreement.

The delegation's visit

In Algiers, the delegation met Abdelmadjid Sidi-Said, the General Secretary of the Algerian national trade union centre, the UGTA, and UGTA officials, including the chair of its Women's Committee. The TUC has a close working relationship has developed in the ILO Governing Body, and the UGTA expressed a desire to deepen bilateral relations. Possible joint projects on youth employment and skills and privatisation are being explored with the FCO.

The UGTA hosted the TUC delegation in Algiers and their flights from Algiers to Tindouf and a senior UGTA official accompanied the delegation. Near Tindouf, the delegation was lodged in the Polisario government guesthouse near to the Smara camp and received the warmest possible hospitality from its UGTSARIO hosts and the UGTSARIO International Secretary, Kasisa Cherif, accompanied the delegation throughout. Much time was also spent with the General Secretary, Mohamed Cheikh Lehbib. The reception by the Saharawi people was, in general, extremely warm, but on more than one occasion the delegation was asked why it had taken the TUC 30 years to arrive.

The delegation visited the offices of the UGTSARIO, housed in basic accommodation damaged in recent flash floods. Discussions covered a wide range of issues, including the overall political situation regarding the occupation; the organisation of the camps and their administration, public services and economy; food rations; the organisational structure and activities of the UGTSARIO and its wish to join the new international trade union organisation; and options for international action to support the rights of Saharawi workers in the occupied territory and of the Saharawi people to self-determination.


The UGTSARIO, established in 1984, speaks for all Saharawi workers in all zones. It is described as a mass organisation of the Polisario Front but states that it is independently controlled by its own members. While it considers one of its main political purposes to be the promotion of national self-determination, it represents its members in employment, negotiating their conditions (though not salaries as there are none) and has conducted disputes, including the use of strike action. It holds a triennial national congress, which makes policy and elects, for a three year mandate, the National Executive Bureau of eight people and the General Secretary, who has an automatic seat in the highest political body of the Polisario Front. The delegation was told that all members have a right to stand for office and individuals do not have to hold office or high rank in the Polisario Front in order to stand. Executive members are in charge of the union's main functions, including the regional secretariat in each camp or 'Wilaya'. The National Council, which meets twice a year, approves the half-yearly programme and oversees progress and is composed of 24 members including the general secretaries of professional trade unions. A significant current campaign of the UGTSARIO is to ensure that Saharawi workers formerly employed by Spanish employers receive social security benefits due to them. With the support of the Spanish trade unions they are also campaigning against discrimination against Saharawi workers by the FOSBUCCRA phosphate mining company in the occupied territory.

At the international level, the UGTSARIO is affiliated to the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity and has friendly relations with numerous national trade union centres, mainly ICFTU affiliates, especially with the UGTA, Algeria and the Spanish national centres, but also in Europe with the CGIL, Italy; CGT France; CGTP-IN, Portugal; the GSEE, Greece; LO Sweden; and the TUC; in the Arab Region with the Yemeni and Syrian national centres; and with some centres in Latin America. It has developed twinning arrangements with Spanish and Italian unions and expressed an interest in developing similar links with British trade unions.

Not least because of its friendship with national centres which are overwhelmingly affiliates of the ICFTU, UGTSARIO sees it proper home to be within the mainstream of the global free trade union movement. Notably, it declined an invitation to attend the WFTU Congress in Havana in September 2005. Extensive discussions were held with the TUC delegation and the UGTA about the possibility of facilitating the attendance of a small UGTSARIO delegation at the ILO Conference in June, so that they could meet delegations from other national trade union centres and exchange views on their wish to be part of the new international trade union organisation. It is highly likely that such affiliation would be opposed by the Moroccan national centres, but supported by numerous centres from the global North and the majority from the non-aligned countries.

Employment and economy

The UGTSARIO fulfils many of the normal functions of a trade union centre in the extraordinary conditions it faces - not least that there are no trade union rights in the occupied territory and the economy of the camps is largely cashless and based primarily on egalitarian distribution of food rations from donor agencies and small amounts of communal local food and pharmaceutical production. Formal employment is restricted to the public sector - primarily administration, schools, hospitals, food distribution and production - and is based on voluntary labour. These workers - some 17,000 across the four Wilayas - receive the same food rations as all other citizens but may, depending on availability, also receive small amounts of cash (50 Euros every three months was one example).

There is a small informal economy in the camps - cafes and vehicle repair shops the most visible - but they are not organised formally in the UGTSARIO structure. The lack of interest in actively organising these workers stems certainly from a lack of resources - but also appears to be linked to a desire not to develop a stronger cash economy - whether private or cooperative. On one level that reflects a wish to avoid giving the Moroccan occupiers the impression that the Saharawi people are content to develop an economy in exile, on another, the largely cashless economy acts to protect social solidarity and the prevailing equity in the camps. However, some cash does flow into the economy from remittances from Saharawi migrant workers abroad and in the form of Spanish pensions due to former employees of the Spanish forces or Spanish companies. Families are also allowed to farm small plots and, if they wish, sell those products on the market. That means that while the food rations remain at the core of the economy, a significant number of families have access to some additional income, which is used, commonly for the purchase of some consumer goods - such as refrigerators, televisions, solar panels and vehicles.

Politics and culture

Despite the extreme physical hardship of life in the camps, with extremes of temperature and housing commonly consisting of the original Red Crescent Tent plus one or two mud brick rooms constructed alongside, and the paucity of food rations, the Saharawi refugees have developed a vibrant and sophisticated participatory democracy and parliamentary system and an outward-looking, indeed internationalist, cultural life. Though nominally Islamic, and while the Muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, there is little outward display of religious observance in the camps, which tends instead to be a matter of personal concern and people described their Islam as liberal and open, and faith also had some influence of attitudes to overcoming disability. Saharawi people, despite their considerable physical isolation - in particular those in the southernmost Dahjla camp, which is over 160 kilometres south of Tindouf on the edge of the sand desert - repeatedly told the delegation of their interest in other cultures and political systems and the wide range of literature available to them. Satellite television too provides daily exposure to the outside world; many children go abroad temporarily to undertake post-15 education, which is not available in the camps; and many adults have studied abroad - for example medical professionals trained in Spain or Cuba.


Some 80%-85% of the working age population of the four camps are women. Saharawi men are predominantly migrant workers abroad, still working in the occupied territories (though many entire families are there), or are in the Polisario armed forces in the liberated zone of SADR. Women's committees and women elected to other democratic structures play a key role in the administration of the camps and are active and vocal participants in discussion. The sense of gender equality in the refugee community was notably greater than in some other parts of the Arab region. The effective work-life balance caused by low levels of employment, appeared to have also helped women to take a lead role in the political structures of the camps, though in most of the organisations and institutions we visited, with the exception of the school and the most impressive governor of Smara (who had been elected with a 79% vote, after standing seven times) the most senior posts were still held by men. The delegation met with one of the ward women's committees, but the discussion was led by the male mayor. The women were adamant that when self-determination was achieved and the men returned from the army, they would not relinquish their governance role.

Public services: health

The egalitarian nature of the Saharawi refugee camps is reflected also in universal access to healthcare and education to age 15. The delegation visited three hospitals in Smara and Dajhla. The general hospitals in each Wilaya provide a wide range of care, including dentistry, and there is in addition a central hospital for more serious cases, but the most serious are sent to Algeria or other countries for treatment. All these hospitals have their own small pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity and provide universal childhood vaccination. The National Hospital, which had 90 beds before the floods, now has only 30 and a staff of 15 doctors, 80 nurses and 12 administrators. The most prevalent illnesses were related to malnutrition and dehydration amongst children (the central water filtration system supplied clean water by standpipe or lorry, but water then held in family cisterns was susceptible to parasitic contamination), and respiratory illnesses in winter. Anaemia was common, particularly among children and pregnant women - again linked to nutrition. Much of the funding for the hospitals came from regional governments in Spain and Spanish and Italian specialists came regularly for short residencies.

The visit to the hospital for the war-wounded (exclusively men) and landmine victims (predominantly women, some injured very recently), established in 1978, was both distressing and inspirational. Care and rehabilitation training for the 153 patients was provided by staff and family members, with rooms provided for families and patients to live together. The hospital has a director but he described himself merely as the coordinator of the committee of patients which runs it. The delegation had the opportunity to meet the committee members and some patients. The delegation was told that, in part because of their interpretation of Islam (the injury is God's will so there is no purpose in becoming depressed about it) and partly because the veterans are heroes in Saharawi society, social attitudes to disability were extremely inclusive and patients were generally very positive. While one had been resident for twenty years, others had returned to their families and to employment in the public services. The head of finance and the hospital's official photographer, a wheelchair user who had suffered physical and brain injury during the war, had his own photography studio in the camp. The delegation made a small donation before leaving, taking note of the fact that the SADR had ratified the international treaty against landmines, while Morocco had not.

The delegation also met, at the guesthouse, a young man, previously employed at a subsidiary of Fosbuccra where he remained the only Saharawi among the ethnically cleansed workforce, who had fled to the camps from El Aaiun, forced to leave his mother and brothers behind. Arrested in the November demonstrations, he had been tortured by Moroccan police, who had burnt cigarettes on his toes and broken both his shins with batons. They had also taken and beaten the teenage girl in the neighbouring house where he had hidden, ransacking both homes. Dumped outside the hospital, a passing Saharawi family had carried him in and guaranteed to pay for his treatment. After two months he returned home. A month later, due to have the pins removed, the Moroccan doctor told him he first required a letter of permission from the police. He had considered the risks of taking a migrants' boat to Europe - a hazardous journey claiming numerous lives every month - but instead fled to Smara camp, from where he was sent to Algiers for treatment. He would now receive physiotherapy in the camp hospital. It was notable that, like many other Saharawis in the occupied territory he had a passport which enabled him to travel - indeed it was said that the Moroccan government would be delighted if they succeeded in persuading all Saharawis to leave.

The food crisis

The delegation met Mohamed Tosali, Director of the Cabinet of the Saharawi Red Crescent. There appeared to be a widespread view that pressure - not least from France - on international organisations including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the World Food Programme and Echo - the EU's humanitarian aid organ - had resulted in a reduction of amount of food aid delivered by 30,000 tonnes (or a reduction of rations for 158,000 people to rations for 90,000 people). These organisations were still only providing emergency rations. As a result, standard rations of food - 2500 calories a day - had now fallen to 1600-1800 calories. Food aid has become a political rather than a humanitarian instrument - the widespread view was expressed that the reduction was an attempt to starve the Saharawi people into submission and out of the camps, which have been the symbol of their national resistance. It was reported that the Head of UNHCR had never visited the camps. The food provided was not varied: for example only one type of pulse and one type of cereal, which was causing illnesses due to nutritional deficiency.


The delegation was able to visit only one school, one of three boarding schools for 13-15 year olds, isolated in the desert, we were told, to avoid epidemics in the camps and to protect the children - at the time they were built - in case of a Moroccan invasion or attack on the camps. The schools deliver the Algerian curriculum - we saw a Spanish and a history of religion class - not least to ensure that children can continue to tertiary education in Algeria itself. The school educated 650 girls and boys and, despite the spartan physical conditions and outdated teaching methods, the children appeared to be enthusiastic and engaged in their studies. The schools run on a three-term year and children return to their families in the camps for the holidays. We were not able to visit a primary school, but were shown a Spanish exercise book by a small child, in which, as his first sentence in Spanish, which he had copied but could not read, he had written 'the Polisario soldier is my compatriot'. The school system provides the basis for a well-educated population and clearly has an explicit role in transmitting a sense of national identity. The Deputy Governor of Smara explained that birth registration ensured that school places kept pace with the number of children, and primary schools rotated morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate all pupils.

Meeting with the President of the Republic

The President of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, His Excellency Mohamed Abdelaziz, warmly welcomed the visit of the TUC delegation, to which the Polisario Government attached great importance. He expressed grave concern about the human rights situation in the occupied territory - which he described as a question of the survival of the Saharawi people. Fifteen years since the UN had promised to organise a referendum and established Minurso, the patience of the Saharawi people was exhausted, which is why since May, peaceful resistance has started with protest demonstrations demanding the respect of basic liberty and the right to self-determination, to be determined through a fair and free referendum. President Abdelaziz described the harsh and brutal reaction of the Moroccan authorities to the demonstrations, noting that international observers and media had no access. The fact that no measures had been taken against Morocco by the UN or international community was a matter of great concern and stressed the need for the TUC and other trade union organisations to exert pressure to oblige Morocco to respect basic human rights. Another major concern was the attempt by Morocco and others to steer the Western Sahara issue away from one of decolonisation. The President was clear that the matter must remain one of decolonisation and respect for international law. However, the lack of confidence in the UN to deliver a solution was evident - he described the latest UN Security Council resolution as yet another delaying tactic. In contrast to the behaviour of the EU, the United States, although it did not recognise the SADR, had refused to include Western Sahara in a trade agreement signed with Morocco, as neither the UN nor the US recognised Moroccan sovereignty over it. In the same context, he noted that exploration for oil in the occupied territory was also illegal and, while the French corporation Total-Fina-Elf remained there, he welcomed the decision of the US company Kerr-McGee to withdraw from its agreement with Morocco to explore in the occupied zone.

The TUC delegation explained the origins of the visit in the Congress resolution and assured the President that a full report would be presented to the TUC Executive Committee and General Council. As a national trade union centre, the primary channel for the TUC's support for the Saharawi struggle would be through its relations with the UGTSARIO. The President welcomed the recommendations of the delegation.

Following the meeting with the President, the delegation, before its departure from Tindouf, was entertained to dinner by the Prime Minister, who reiterated the President's key messages and again indicated the concerns about the role of the French and Spanish governments in preventing an agreed international solution to the long-standing denial of the Saharawi people's right to self determination.


After considering the delegation's report, the TUC Executive Committee in May agreed:

  • that matters of sectoral concern - notably the EU fishing agreement with Morocco and the exploration for oil by Total-Final-Elf in the illegally occupied territory of Western Sahara - should be raised with the relevant Global Union Federations;
  • that the TUC should with others explore the possibility of a complaint to the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association about violations of trade union rights in the occupied territory and of a submission to the ILO Committee of Experts about discrimination in employment and occupation;
  • that the TUC should reiterate its concerns about the failure to move forwards towards a referendum, as agreed in UN resolutions, and about the EU fishing agreement with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office;
  • that the reduction of food rations supplied to the refugee camps should be raised with the Department for International Development, with the European Commission and with European parliamentarians; and
  • that the TUC should take part in the international trade union solidarity conference to be hosted by the UGTA in Algiers later in 2006.

TUC Congress 2005

Resolution 78

The Western Sahara

Congress condemns the recent violence of the Moroccan State against the Saharawi citizens participating in week-long peaceful demonstrations starting 25 May 2005 within the occupied territories of Western Sahara in El Aaiun.

This repression highlights the lack of progress by the international community in bringing about an acceptable solution to this 32-year conflict and comes despite numerous European and UN resolutions that support the Saharawis' right to self-determination and the right to a referendum.

The lack of compliance by the Moroccan state can only be interpreted as a blatant defiance of human rights.

The plight of the Saharawi people is silent and invisible, despite their cooperation and willingness to come to a peaceful and negotiated settlement. The recent demonstrations only show the desperation and frustration felt by the people of the Western Sahara.

Congress therefore calls upon the General Council to continue supporting the Polisario and for trade unionists and related campaigners to bring about a resolution to the conflict by raising the issues with the UK Government. Congress also calls on the General Council to:

  • call for a meeting with the relevant government department to raise its concerns;
  • support and help organise a trade union and political delegation to visit the refugee camps and the occupied territories;
  • publicise the plight of the people of the Western Sahara amongst all affiliates;
  • actively support the Sandblast Project; and
  • raise the issues amongst the international trade union movement.
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