The Sahrawi people or the Sahrawi are the people living in the western part of the Sahara Desert comprising Western Sahara, a big chunk of Mauritania, Southern Morocco, and southwest of Algeria. They have a mixed culture of Berber, Arab, and Black African elements. The Sahrawi territory is in Northwestern Africa. The region was under Spanish governance until the decolonization process in 1963. Following the departure of the Spanish in 1975, the Madrid Accord ceded the region to Mauritania and Morocco. The fight for sovereignty over this region between Mauritania and Morocco birthed an armed conflict with the Polisario Front, a left movement for the Liberation of the Sahrawi. Escalation of this conflict led to the refugee crisis that still cripples the region as many Sahrawis fled to Algeria to reside in camps.
On the 27th of February 1976, the Polisario declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). In 1979, Mauritania withdrew claims to the territories. An agreement brokered by the United Nations between Morocco and the Polisario Front after 16 years of armed conflict led to a ceasefire and the later creation of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in 1991. So, for over 40 years, the Sahrawis who were caught on the polisario/algerian side have been leaving in refugee camps in Algeria.
The Morocco-Sahrawi-Algeria relation
The international relation between Morocco and Algeria can be rightly described as not-friendly. As both countries stepped into 2021, their bilateral relationship stood at crossroads in which the originally obtainable relative calm is no longer the case. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and Morocco’s success in international politics that led to garnering the US’s support and recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in December 2020 have stirred the geopolitical instruments of Western Maghreb. Algeria, at this moment, is burdened with the question of if and how to topple Morocco’s newfound power.
The power tussle between these two nations has led to little to no coordination against common problems like terrorism by militant groups in the Sahel. The Polisario Front, since 1991, decided to pursue their goal of establishing an independent Sahrawi state in Western Sahara by resorting to the utilization of the framework of the United Nations Mission for the referendum in Western Sahara and abandoning the use of arms. This however came to an end after 29 years of ceasefire with the capital of Morocco, Rabat, in November 2020 Pivoting towards.
In 2020 citing the historical injustice caused by the colonial powers Spain and France to Morocco the United State’s recognized the Moroccan sovereignty over the whole Western Sahara. Currently, the Moroccan government is in control of about 80% of the territories while the Polisario Front controls the remaining 20%. This massive diplomatic feat has yielded a cascade of events in Morocco’s favor including the opening of consulates by several nations in Moroccan-controlled part of the Western Sahara.
With patches of conflicts here and there, the conflict between Algeria/Polisario Front and Morocco is becoming more apparent and tension continues to rise.
COVID-19 and the health system of Morocco and Algeria
The COVID-19 pandemic that brought the world to a halt in 2020 did not leave any nation or tribe untouched. Economies were distorted, and lives were uprooted. One could argue that regions involved in armed conflict were further plunged into an abyss. This was the case with the Sahrawis but on critical evaluation of the political and socioeconomic markers of better living standards, clear disparities will be noticed in the health care status of the Moroccan controlled Western Sahara and the Algerian controlled Tindouf camps.
Although a common cause of crisis for both nations, the COVID-19 pandemic tipped the scales in Morocco’s favor. Various indicators show that Algeria has been worse affected by this pandemic. The Algerian health care system was already overwhelmed and by the time of the flare-up in November, the whole system was completely overwhelmed by the pandemic. There was a chronic shortage of bed space and an accompanying lack of ventilators and other medical equipment. Algerian hospitals were often referred to as “mouroirs” meaning, “a place of dying” due to the lack of 21st-century health care services. Also depicting how bad the healthcare system is its ranking as the 173rd out of 195 by the Global Health Security Index.
Unlike Algeria’s state-run hospitals, Morocco’s healthcare system ranks 68th out of 195 according to the Global Health Security Index – the fourth highest in Africa. Despite having a projected inadequacy of medical personnel, the Moroccan government has taken steps to mitigate against the collapse of the health system including the setup of six field hospitals, resorting to temporary confinement, and amending laws to allow for the involvement of foreign doctors in medical practice.
The state of things in Tindouf camps in Algeria
The Tindouf camp is a refuge to over 170,000 Sahrawis and has been plagued by debilitating health conditions as diabetes, acute and chronic malnutrition, and anemia even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As was expected, the pandemic only served to worsen the already precarious situation. An increase in COVID-19 cases has been reported in the camps as of the end of March 2021 by the United Nations Refugee Agency. Sources say that complicating the already existing health condition is the deplorable state of hygiene, the inadequacy of screening tools for the virus, and the lack of management equipment for confirmed cases of viral infections.
According to Oxfam, an international non-governmental humanitarian agency, “within the camps, shortage of beds, medical supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical personnel, and hygiene products plague the camp. There is not a single ventilator in the camp and the refugees live in closed quarters increasing the chance of further escalation.
The picture in Tindouf camps sharply contrasts with what is obtainable in Moroccan-controlled territories of Western Sahara. The sahrawi people in Morocco enjoy relatively better health care infrastructure, supply of medical personnel and PPE, and hygiene products. The economic growth in the Moroccan area is one of the fastest in the region and as of 2021 the city of Laayoune the biggest city in the Moroccan sahara is going to have its first medical school.
There is a health emergency in the Tindouf camps of southwest Algeria that calls for immediate attention. The Sahrawis in the Algerian camp are in a deplorable state of living and while their Moroccan counterpart are living much better lives where their health needs are adequately met by Morocco. In short after over 40 years the Moroccan government has invested heavily in the well-being of their southern subjects while things only gotten worse for those on the Algerian side. Sadly the sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps will continue to suffer as they are being used as bargaining chip for an already dead on arrival policy.