By Cristina Orsini

Borders. In the wake of what too many journalists are calling the “migrant crisis”,  these have become the new places of reporting. Places where rules and rights become blurred, and life uncertain. But while the protagonists of today’s news stories are the refugees of Europe’s borders , other refugees have been experiencing the murkiness of border life for decades. More than one hundred and fifty kilometers south of the Algerian capital, near the small military city of Tindouf, refugees from Western Sahara have been living on the border for forty years. Last week, the living conditions of these refugees severely worsened, as they experienced heavy and uninterrupted rain accompanied by strong winds. The week of uninterrupted rain precipitated the Saharawi refugee population into an emergency as houses, schools, hospitals, and food stocks disintegrated under the water. But who are these refugees locked in this corner of the globe?

After a twenty-minute drive from the centre of Tindouf, the car stops. In front, a lane of gray asphalt cuts across a sea of flat, ochre nothingness, all the way to the horizon. A man in a green military uniform, his face marked by a life under the sun, lifts the checkpoint bar with a smile. The Algerian police escorting the UN convoy make a U-turn, and a white Toyota with the Sahrawi flag takes the lead. Here, an invisible line signals the entrance to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Precisely forty years ago, this patch of land was given by the Algerian government to the refugees then escaping the conflict between the POLISARIO Front and the Moroccan Kingdom. This is a conflict that remains unresolved, stagnant as endless negotiations drag on due to the interests of some and the obliviousness of others. It is a conflict that most refugees did not live themselves, but whose consequences have trapped them into this dusty nothingness.

Across the checkpoint, the Algerian territory administered by Sahrawi authorities appears to be the gift of an empty box. A box full of sand – but not the one that forms breathtakingly beautiful dunes in other parts of the Sahara. This sand is flat, blackened by the smog of the white Toyotas that everyday escort international personnel to and from the camps, and only pinpointed here and there by the blue of garbage bags. The air is salty, and the hulks of old cars piled on top of each other seem like grotesque forms of art. At the same time, this empty box offers a place where the Sahrawis are allowed to exist—breed skinny goats, sell cigarettes and handcrafted jewellery, and cry for their martyrs on the Western side of the Algerian border.

Theirs is an existence of dependency on the aid of international donors and the work of UN agencies and NGOs. Food, access to clean water, vaccinations, education- all these needs are covered by UNHCR, the WFP and UNICEF, along with a long list of NGOs, especially from Spain and Italy. When looking at basic needs alone, the Saharawis may seem rather well off compared to other refugee populations. After all, theirs is a humanitarian emergency that escapes definition, a crisis that has become normalized, internalized, and even institutionalized in a Republic that does not exist on the world map. Indeed, the Saharawis have built a functioning government, with its own ministries and system of regional administration. Nevertheless, this is a government without its own revenue, and its ministers live in tents and houses made of mud, just like all the other refugees. It is a government without real sovereignty. It is a government that symbolizes the harsh everyday reality the Sahrawi refugee crisis has become since forty years ago.

Since then, many things have changed. A Sahrawi doctor points out how, when he arrived as a young boy in 1975, children would die from the most simple infections. Today, he proudly explains, the Saharawis have managed to vaccine most of the children with the help of international organizations. Similarly, primary school attendance almost reaches 100%. Children dream of becoming pilots and doctors, and to contribute to the development of their people. In the highest grades, some receive scholarships to study in Algerian cities or even in Spain.

Yet, they are not allowed to work in Algeria, nor in any other country. When well-educated young Saharawis finish school and university, there are few employment opportunities awaiting them. Becoming teachers in the same internationally-built schools in which they, their parents and their grandparents have studied. Becoming doctors administering internationally-donated vaccines. Or joining a factitious government that administrates a state within a state.

And the others? Where are the young men in Tindouf?  It seems that many leave the camps to join the black market, often intertwined with criminal activities, trafficking, and exploitation.  Others go back to “to the front”, in what they call the “liberated territories”, in the Western Sahara that Morocco still claims its own. Here, they may become “martyrs”, killed by the Moroccan police for joining demonstrations to demand freedom and independence. Some just sit around under the shade of improvised roofs, in the restless boredom of those constantly waiting for something to change. Education, then, becomes a heavy burden to carry.

The hope for independence seems to be the only thing that separates the refugees in Tindouf from bare survival. This hope produces a sense of restlessness and patient, determined waiting—a waiting that may seem naive, but that is better than despair. When asked what she would like to have in order to live a better life in the camps, Hassina, 16, first points out that her and her classmates do not have computers for their computer science classes, plants for natural sciences, and enough sport fields for physical education. Then, after a moment of reflection she says, “actually, forget about it. We do not need anything else here, just our independence”. Her classmate, Baibat, dreams of becoming a pilot for a not-yet-existent airline of a not-yet-existent nation. But some young Saharawis may be increasingly tired of waiting: last year, for the very first time since these refugee camps exist, Sahrawi youth manifested their discontent in a series of demonstrations.

Girls playing during their school break. On the bin someone has written "aman", meaning safety/peacefulness in arabic.

Girls playing during their school break. On the bin someone has written “aman”, meaning safety/peacefulness in arabic.

This may be because this SADR is still Algeria. The language is different, the flags and the ministers are different, the culture is different, but there is no line on the map. The ultimate sovereign is the Algerian government. In this context, propositions of more “sustainable” solutions than constant emergency aid are often met with rejection: “Why would you make the effort to cultivate a deserted land that is not even yours?” In the psychology of a refugee population, sustainability would mean accepting that life at the border has become the only possibility.  It would mean stopping to wait and to hope – stopping to live, and starting to survive.

At the end of the day, when the car crosses the checkpoint one more time, but going the opposite direction, you see the Algerian flag and no stamps on your passport; only some more dust on your shoes. And you wonder: have I really gone somewhere? If an unfamiliar mixture of helplessness, restless boredom, and naive waiting fills your tired body, then yes—you have been to the SADR; you have been to a country that does not exist.

Featured image: CC Cristina Orsini