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How Refugee Saharawis Use ICTs in Their Fight for Independence

By Guest Writer on September 4, 2015

Refugee Woman

The Story of Western Sahara

The formation of the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, started in 1975, when Spain sold off its former colony to Morocco and Mauritania, and a war now commenced between the POLISARIO (Sahrawi guerrilla movement) and Mauritania and Morocco.

It has now been 40 years since Morocco took the control of Western Sahara. Especially in the camps but also in the occupied areas, Saharawis feel an immense disparity in the way they are being treated, both in relation to lack of job opportunities, in educational institutions and in life in general. There is a common distress among Saharawis that the global community is forgetting their case, and hence they have to fight even harder themselves to enlighten the world about their right to independence.

According to a new report called ‘Acting with Impunity’ from SAIH, human rights violations are taking place on a continuous basis in the occupied areas, with an information blockage and police surveillance of Saharawis. Furthermore, MINURSO, does not have a mandate to investigate and monitor human rights in Western Sahara, making it the only UN peacekeeping mission that does not have that mechanism. Instead, Saharawis are being repressed on a daily basis, and should they speak out publicly or participate in any demonstrations about the situation, they are brutally violated by the police and other government forces. There have been 163 alleged incidents of human rights abuse taken place since April 2014.

Furthermore, as Morocco has engaged in cooperation with several big companies such as US Kosmos Energy, who are drilling oil from the waters of Western Sahara, Saharawis all over the world are trying to speak out to the world community that they are not benefitting from these partnerships, neither the Saharawis in the occupied areas nor in the camps.

Technology in the Camps

While a great part of the world community is still learning about the existence of Western Sahara, Saharawis are finding new ways through ICTs to let their world know of this existence.

In the life of the 5 refugee camps, Smara, Laayun, Dakhla, Auserd and Boujador, there is no general electricity, and the camps are running only on solar power. Each family has its own solar system, which means that during the day it is possible to run ICTs such as TV and radio. There are however plans to set up electricity in the camps. The freed areas run by POLISARIO are also solely dependent on solar power, whereas the occupied areas have other sources of electricity.

The first ICT that was introduced in the camps was radio. When the war broke out in 1975, some Saharawis came with their radios to Algeria, where they would follow the Saharawi liberation and fight at the front. The TV arrived at the camps in the early 1990s, which, together with radio, have been the main connection to the outside world. Through television programs, many people, especially women, have learned different domestic skills, just as cooking, clothing, etc.

The Connection to the Occupied Areas

Photo from The Economist

Before mobile phones were introduced to the camps around the year 2005, the refugees had to displace from the camps and travel all the way to a main city, Tindouf, Algeria in order to use a phone. The nearest camp, Layuun, is 10 km from Tindouf and the one most far away is Dakhla, 140km away. From phones in Algeria, people would call other Sahrawi students living abroad, such as Spain and Cuba or family members in the occupied areas. They were and still are restricted only to talk about family issues and nothing political. Today, mobile networks are arriving in the camps in Tindouf, and almost every adult has a mobile phone.

Jalihenna Mohamed of UESARIO (Sahrawi Students’ Union) explains how mobile phones are especially used in people’s work: for example, to gather youth for specific events where they send out SMS messages to all students. Businessmen also use it to communicate to other businessmen in Mauretania, Algeria and other places in Africa. Jalihenna furthermore explains that through the usage of mobile phones and Internet, it becomes more difficult for Morocco to control their freedom of speech blockage. Through demonstrations and attention in the international media, Saharawis now “break this fear barrier and they start talking about politics as something normal…now they start communicating easily and courageously”.

Internet connectivity came to the camps around 2010 and was mainly in the Rabuni camp, where different institutions reside. Today, other camps have Internet connections, and Algeria is creating a new generation of online users made up mostly of youth and students.

Social media is surpassing among Saharawis, and people both from the camps, occupied areas and diaspora, now have more possibilities with the Internet and mobile phones to share stories in a quick and resourceful manner. For example, if an incidence happens in the occupied areas, it can easily be communicated through pictures and articles to UESARIO, and other pro-independence unions, who will then share it on different websites, TV, radio, and more.

At the same time, the Internet has its disadvantages: it is not always easy to see if supposed Sahrawi supporters are who they appear to be. Many find it necessary to be cautious and to monitor it.

UESARIO has entered a partnership with the Danish solidarity movement (Afrika Kontakt) to open a media center in the camps in the fall of 2015. The project concerns the use of social media and training in video skills, article writing, and more to spread awareness about the case of Western Sahara. Even better, the media center will give Saharawis a chance to better communicate their living situation to their world.

Mathilde K. Krogholt has a Master in International Development from University of Westminster, London, where she specialized in ICT4Development. Since then she has involved herself in different work areas within technology and international development, such as with a software company in East Africa and now working with the Danish NGO, Afrika Kontakt, who works with project partners and countries in Africa.

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