The refugee camps of the Western Sahara allow us to rethink the notion of the nation state - and that of the citizen itself
Formerly a Spanish colonial territory, and since 1975 occupied by Morocco, the Western Sahara – at the western edge of the continent – has been called Africa’s last remaining colony. With the beginning of a guerrilla war against Morocco in 1975, most of the Western Saharan population – the Sahrawis – had to flee across the border into south-western Algeria, settling in refugee camps. Most of the refugees expected this to be a short-lived episode abroad, before they would be able to return to their home country. No one knew that the camps they were setting up near the city of Tindouf would still be the focus of the Sahrawis’ political, social, cultural and economic life more than forty years later.
These camps have been established mostly independently by the refugees themselves, with support from Algeria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was initially not involved. Even though the Sahrawis do not have control over their own country, they proclaimed the independence of the Western Sahara on 27 February 1976. Its sovereignty is recognised today by approximately 40 countries, though its status remains unresolved.
Not anticipating to remain in exile for long, one would expect the Sahrawis to establish only the most basic infrastructure in the camps. The earliest photos seem to confirm this assumption: rows of uniform tents in the desert sand, providing shelter for the refugees and protecting them from the harsh environment. Except for a central open space, no other facilities seem to exist. But this assumption turns out to be deceptive. Besides several clinics to deal with injuries and diseases (measles and diphtheria were spreading in the early days of the camps), the refugees immediately started setting up their own schools and training additional teachers to provide comprehensive education for the young. Furthermore, community meetings, recreational activities, as well as courses in craft were set up.
While the provision of housing and medical aid might obviously be considered a necessary response to emergency and immediate crisis, the activities of schooling and recreation seem to fall into a category of improvement or upgrading. Even if in hindsight, and with our contemporary notion of humanitarian action, the provision of schooling comes as no surprise, it is evidence of a specific strategy that the Sahrawis employed for their life in exile, and that we will come to observe throughout the camps: to provide the full spectrum of activities of everyday life in the camps, while being prepared to abandon them if the opportunity arose to return to one’s homeland in the Western Sahara. The strategy is not about establishing the minimum level to guarantee survival, but at providing the maximum possible, to allow a full life from the very beginning. The temporary, something that might be understood as a bare response to an emergency, and the permanent, tendencies of normalisation and initiatives of upgrading, are therefore not opposites or antitheses, but always coexist simultaneously.
Today, more than forty years later, six camps – Boujdour, El Aaiún, Awserd, Smara, Dakhla and Rabouni – in an area with one of the most relentless climates on this planet, are inhabited by altogether 160,000 Sahrawis. Smara is the largest camp with approximately 40,000 inhabitants, and covering an area of some 12 square kilometres. From one of the few hills in the mostly flat landscape, you can see the camp stretching out to the horizon. A relatively dense fabric of single-storey buildings, huts and tents is interspersed with larger institutional facilities such as schools and clinics, and denser clusters of shops and small markets. Over the years, Sahrawi families have constructed residential compounds that often consist of a number of huts arranged around a small central open space. The huts, built of adobe bricks, are typically monofunctional: one hut for cooking, one for washing, one for sleeping, one for drinking tea and receiving guests. Depending on the size and financial situation of each family, these compounds can consist of one or two huts, or grow to include up to seven or eight buildings.
Given their long history, the fact that temporary architecture such as tents are still evident in the camps requires explanation. Primarily, there are functional considerations. In the heat of the summer, when temperatures rise above 50° Celsius, the tents provide a comfortable night-time climate, as they cool quickly and allow a breeze to enter. They also reference the nomadic tradition of the Sahrawis, alluding to the era before their country was lost to Morocco. Beyond questions of culture and comfort, another reason for using tents is symbolic. The tents serve as an architectural signifier of the fact that the Sahrawi refugees have not surrendered to life in exile, but instead are still struggling for a return to the Western Sahara. The tent – signifying temporality – is a building type that signals that the situation is not settled. It expresses through architecture the ongoing political demand of the Sahrawis to return to their home country. A political claim is communicated through an architectural type.
Stepping into one of the huts, you are surrounded by decoration: tapestry and curtains on the walls, carpets on the floor, and textile coverings for the cushions around the walls, that act as seating. All of this decoration is easily movable. If the opportunity of return to the Western Sahara suddenly arose, it could simply be placed on the back of a pick-up truck and transported. This decoration is in line with the notion of temporality. Things become more complicated when the decor changes medium. When inhabitants of the camps start decorating their buildings with stucco or plaster, we can ask if this represents the first step towards permanence. Have the people who embellish their interiors with stucco – with motifs ranging from the simple to the funny to the outright kitschy – resigned themselves to life in exile and given up on any return to the Western Sahara?
One way to resolve this tension is by using designs that reference the political, such as the national flag or the shape of the country’s territory. But another way of seeing it is to question the supposed dialectics between permanent and temporary. A typical scene in the camps is that of a residential building with carefully sculpted columns, arches or similar architectural detailing, while solar panels are lying outside in the sun, generating energy for a TV or the fridge. While the care for the architectural elements might represent permanence and the transportable solar panels might represent the category of the provisional, this scene in fact teaches us that the permanent and the temporary are not binary opposites, but always co-exist. They are just different material expressions of the same motivation: to create a liveable environment that supports personal expression and development, starting from the very first day. This tension also shows how every architectural element, every detail, has additional messages and meanings. Architecture is never neutral, never innocent.
Driving from the Algerian city of Tindouf to the east, you pass miles of uninhabited Saharan desert. The landscape is barren, dominated by sand and gravel, and mostly flat. With no trees in sight, the only vegetation is some ankle-high dusty shrubs, fighting to survive in the harsh desert climate. Approaching the Sahrawi camps, you pass a key element that belongs to the defining features of refugee camps worldwide: a checkpoint controlling access to the camps. This particular checkpoint, though, differs from virtually all such comparable posts in the global matrix of camps: whereas nearly everywhere else, the checkpoints are operated either by security personnel of the hosting country, in this case Algeria, or by UNHCR, this checkpoint is manned by Sahrawi soldiers, that is, the refugees themselves. It is not Algeria that determines who can enter the camps and who can’t, it is the refugees. The local population of the camps can decide who has access to them. What seems like an insignificant, and mostly administrative, detail, in fact is the first evidence to a unique situation that the Sahrawi refugee camps represent: rather than being spaces of absolute control and of the refugees’ reduction to mere recipients of aid, they tell a story of self-reliance and (semi-) autonomy. They show how the camp can be conceived as a political project or as a tool of social emancipation.
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Already evidenced by the refugee-controlled checkpoint at the camps’ entrance, the Sahrawis live in a territory from which Algeria has ceded most of its control. The partial autonomy has led to an extensive administrative structure with its respective spaces mainly in Rabouni, the administrative centre for the camps. When walking through Rabouni, you pass, among others, the Ministry of International Affairs, and the Ministries of Health, of Defence, of Planning. Rabouni also houses the main national hospital, the national museum and the national archive. A large central market is at the main transport hub, where every day hundreds, if not thousands, of Sahrawis arrive to work at the ministries.
Just a few hundred metres to the east of Rabouni, an innocent-looking gate gives passage to the institution that is the key to this matrix of governmentality: it is the Parliament of the Sahrawis. From here, the refugees govern themselves. Political representatives, voted in through an election process taking place in the camps, debate and dispute the policy questions of the Sahrawi people. What emerges is unique for refugee settlements: a seat of government for a refugee nation where refugees govern themselves. A refugee camp as a capital for a nation in exile. What also emerges in the exceptional situation of life in the camps, is a certain kind of normality: people arriving in the morning, going to work, having lunch in the canteen of their ministry or in a sandwich shop, and returning home in the evening. It is the normality of participating in a self-governed life and being able to shape it – though of course bound by life in exile. Not only in charge of their own lives, the refugees are also developing expertise and experience in running a country. They are using this time of living in the camps to prepare themselves for the nation yet to come. The time in the camps has not been spent idle and wasted. Rather, it anticipates and prefigures the nation.
This specific concept of a nation, developed in the camps, is marked by hybridity, however. Shortly after fleeing to the camps in Algeria, the refugees declared the independence of, and their sovereignty over, the Western Sahara on 27 February 1976. While the Sahrawis’ authority over their country is recognised by around 40 nations, it cannot be exercised by the refugees given the ongoing occupation by Morocco. So the sovereignty is confined to the area of the camps, which of course is only implicit, and could be described as a ‘borrowed sovereignty’, as they are within another sovereign nation, Algeria. Nevertheless all the elements of a sovereign nation, in terms of a political and a legal system, governmental institutions and embassies, and civic order, exist. We could therefore see the concept of the nation developed by the Sahrawis as novel in the sense that it severs the conventionally firm link between territory and authority. In the camps, new forms of the nation state are being invented.
The Sahrawi camps are spaces in which inhabitants are in charge of their own lives – at least to the extent possible with the continuing occupation of their home country. It is a space that has given rise to a novel system of administration, and new social structures, where nomadic traditions have transformed into modern concepts of family structures and new identities have been created. In stark contrast to the common conception that these camps are usually spaces where politics is prohibited, within the Sahrawi camps politics is both facilitated and promoted. Not only is the Sahrawi population encouraged to engage themselves in political matters, but the camps themselves are seen and used as political projects in their anticipation of the Sahrawi nation state of the Western Sahara. The Sahrawi camps, therefore, give us proof of the camp as a form of urban space. At a time when spaces of control and surveillance are multiplying in our cities, where gated communities and corporate compounds withdraw ever more space from public and political interaction, the opposition of the urban condition to camp spaces becomes less and less valid. Maybe the Sahrawi camps represent a spatial quality that is in fact more urban than many of our cities.
At the risk of compounding the injury done to the most abused book title in the history of architecture: can we imagine a Learning From the Camps? Can we see the Sahrawi camps not only as a unique phenomenon in a global landscape of camps, but also as a paradigm that could act as a model for other refugee settlements? Could we translate some of these understandings to other camp locations in the world, or even the European context?
While the Sahrawi camps were mostly self-initiated and self-constructed, with support from Algeria, it is usually UNHCR that is responsible for planning and setting up refugee camps. In the case of people fleeing from conflict, UNHCR negotiates with the local government (or private landowners) to secure a piece of land on which the refugees can be housed. The planning strategies of a camp are formulated in accordance with local rules and interests, but are shaped by a central planning document that UNHCR has devised for itself, the UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies. This handbook lays out the general planning principles and services that need to be provided in camps. What becomes obvious – and not surprisingly – is the quantitative and technical logic of the document. It is guided by questions such as ‘How many litres of water per day?’, ‘How many square metres of space per person?’, ‘How many schools per camp?’ The notions of cultural and recreational activities, of social exchange, or of political engagement do not play a role in these planning strategies, and hence, are mostly not considered. The UNHCR guidelines understand the camp as a technical device for protecting and saving lives. What the Sahrawi camps teach us is that we should rather consider a refugee camp as a proto-urban space, where urban qualities need to be considered from the very first moment. It also shows us that the refugees can be entrusted with shaping their own spaces to a much larger extent than we might want to think. Instead of UNHCR officials planning a camp for refugees, residents can be involved in this process themselves. This should extend to the management of the camp and the provision of services such as schools or clinics, thus preventing the camps from turning into NGO-cities, as is otherwise the case.
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One large difference of the Sahrawi camps is their demographic homogeneity. The camps are exclusively inhabited by the same ethnic group, speaking the same language, practising the same religion, having fled the same conflict, and being united by a shared political agenda. Few other camps can exhibit this homogeneity that has also given rise to a strong loyalty among its population. The biggest challenge would therefore be to realise these notions of agency in the far more heterogeneous environment evident in other camps.
In an oddly twisted way, the Sahrawi camps mirror some key elements of the economist Paul Romer’s concept of Charter Cities. These are newly founded cities with their own ‘charter’, that is, governed by their own set of laws different from those of the country they are located in. In contrast to Romer’s concept where these cities, in the Global South, are in fact set up and controlled by Western powers, and used for a developmentalist agenda – an approach that has obviously led to accusations of neo-colonialism – in the case of the Sahrawi camps, it is the inhabitants who are governing their own urban settlements. But instead of being engines of neoliberal market development as envisaged by Romer, the Sahrawi camps are locations of political and social emancipation. Thinking along the lines of Jean and John Comaroff’s Theory From the South that suggests how Africa in specific and the Global South in general can be seen as a source of theory and explanation for contemporary global transformation processes, why not turn Romer’s idea of Charter Cities on its head. Instead of imagining more and more pockets of the neoliberal West established in countries of Africa that also risk bringing more inequality and consumerism – why not establish new cities in the Global North that share some of the direct democratic, emancipatory and egalitarian principles of the Sahrawi camps, and allow us to rethink the notion of the nation state, and hence also of the citizen?