Sahrawi: Maghreb's Forgotten Refugees

As soon as the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara started and the vicious and bloody war diffused, nearly 200,000 Saharawis made their way across the desert, under aerial bombardment, to refugee camps in Algeria. Five camps were created under the control of the Polisario Front - the Sahawaris' national liberation movement, which had been created two years earlier to overthrow Spanish colonial rule. Algeria effectively ceded control of the region to Polisario, allowing it to be run as a semi-autonomous province near the military town of Tindouf.

34 years passed, and they still living in this refugee camps with no real perspectives to return to their homeland any time soon due to the passivity of the international community. Built on parched sandy land, the settlements have mushroomed into virtual cities with a population of some 200,000. They lack running water and draw electricity from solar-powered batteries, but are models of organization, divided into districts with town halls.

Depending uniquely on International aid (rarely enough to guarantee the basic human condition) the isolation and lack of property created a strong sense of union and community where all are seen as part of a big family - the Saharawi family. It create a democratic state where there are no salaries, each refugee has a vote and women are equal to men. A state born out of hope in no man's land.

Despite the lack of everything, the refugees seam to share all they have amongst others, including with the occasional foreign visitors who find in the hospitable family homes the only place to stay during their visit.

Stories of war, exile and fear can be heard from most of the refugees one comes across in the camps, however the feeling of hope and prosperity seams to be unanimous amongst all. The certain of one day go back to their homeland and to traditional nomadic life is what most characterise the Saharawi people. The people long time forgotten by the world.

A group of Saharawi women get ready to watch a traditional camel race in Dajla refugee camp in southern Algeria.

A Saharawi girl stands the room she shares with the family at Rabouni refugee camp in southern Algeria.

Saharawi children look through the small windows of a house in the 27th of February refugee camp.

The shadow of a refugee passing by outside a small room at the Medical Center for Landmine and War refugees near Rabouni refugee camp.

A Saharawi family at the landmine and war victims medical centre in Rabouni refugee Camp.

A group of nomad Saharawi women gathering in Dajla camp for refugees, southern Algeria, during some traditional festivities.

A group of Saharawi women await for the opening ceremony of FISAHARA Film Fest 2009 in a refugee camp in Algeria's southern province of Tindouf.

Saharawi children play after school in Rabouni refugee camp.

A group of Saharawi landmine victims gathering in the courtyard of the Medical Centre for Landmine and War Victims near Rabouni refugee camp.

A group of Saharawi men prepares a traditional cup of tea on a tent in the Western Sahara liberated territory.

Father and daughter walk down a road in Rabouni refugee camp.

A Saharawi woman stands by the entrance of the improvised hospital in Dajla refugee camp.

A Saharawi man leaves the only existent vegetable garden in Rabouni refugee camp.

A cistern truck, with drinkable water, passes by in direction to Smara refugee camp.

General view of Smara refugee camp, the largest of the five Saharawi camps in Algeria's Tindouf province.

Photos & text: Paulo Nunes dos Santos. All Rights Reserved

About the photographer:

Paulo Nunes dos Santos is a Portuguese born freelance journalist and photographer currently based in Dublin. His work is focused mainly on international conflict, current affairs, humanitarian and social issues and his photos have appeared in publications such as The Guardian, New York Post, The Canberra Times, Smithsonian, Expresso as well as in a variety of corporate magazines and websites. His portfolio can be viewed at

Contributions to Photography News are always welcome. If you would like to submit a photo essay please read our Submission guidelines here.


  1. Anonymous says

    Thank you for this touching insight into Saharawi refugees' lives...

    dana hulst says

    they say it takes a lot of courage to be a refugee. just think how could it feel to be forced to leave your homeland, and not be really welcomed in any other country.

    Anonymous says

    Great work Paulo

    Anonymous says

    Great work, shame that the introductory text is a bit tainted by a naive outlook on the life in the camps. The Saharwi community is not as liberal as they want foreigners to think and 'the feeling of hope and prosperity' is not shared by everyone. I am not talking about the politics outside of the camps or the idea of an independent state, because I agree that everyone in the camps hope that it will happen one day. But many Saharwis disagree with the politics of Abdelaziz, and many young people in the camps are frustrated and very unhappy. But great photos.

    galaxiecarol says

    Wonderful photos and a thoughtful journey into the lives of the refugees. Thank you!

    Anonymous says

    One should check numbers, 200 000 is an exaggerated estimate of the Saharwi refugees in Algeria. International NGOs estimate numbers are more around 100 000...And please change the introductory text, it sounds so partisan, nothing is this black and white. When a war of propaganda is raging as it is now, and don't take me wrong, the Moroccans are so good at it, I think it's essential that outsiders keep some amount of criticism, I won't say balance, because balance can be as biased, but some healthy journalistic caution. There are dissident voices in the camps, not supportive of Morocco of course, but who criticize the political leadership of the Polisario (speak with the head of the journalist union in the camps or the director of the cinema festival -yes there is a cinema festival there!), there's plenty of frustrated youth as mentioned before, and it's not a society as liberal as it seems in regards to women (speak to the teachers at the nurses school). But the fact that these people openly criticize and voice their opinions clearly shows a certain level of democratic debate within the Saharwi community which is far more than anyone could speak of in Morocco, that's for sure!

    Anonymous says

    @ Anonymous - november 22, 2010 11:16PM

    You should follow your own advice and check the numbers:

    UNHCR counts 165,000 saharawis at the camps in 2009, however when the moroccan occupation started around 200,000 made their way towards tindouf!

    Anonymous says

    Lies lies and more lies. Sahara is Moroccan and has always been Moroccan. Keep dreaming for I am a sahrawi with a proud Moroccan history.

    academic writing jobs says

    They have their own traditions that I'll never understand..

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