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In 1975 Mauritanian forces occupied the south of the Western Saharan territory and Moroccan forces progressively occupied the north. The Saharawi people found themselves divided under the rule of their neighbours and by late 1975 tens of thousands of Saharawi people had fled their homes to camps to the east of the region.

As most of the men immediately joined the army it was the women, children and old people who fled to the refugee camps that had been set up on the eastern border. These camps were then bombarded with napalm and phosphorous and the refugees were forced to move on, to the inhospitable desert of southwest Algeria.

The refugees were organized initially into three camps each named after a town in Western Sahara; Smara (the sacred town), Dhakla (the largest port) and El Aaiun (the capital of Western Sahara). A fourth camp, Auserd (a small town in the interior of Western Sahara), was formed later as a result of population growth. The camps are located around the water wells south of the oasis town of Tindouf.

The refugee camps are located in the south west Algerian desert around the oasis town of Tindouf. Each of the four camps were named after existing towns in Western Sahara; El Aaiun, Smara, Dhakla and Auserd.

Over 170,000 people, mainly women, children and old people are now settled in the camps, living in tents. The harsh desert environment with extremes of temperatures, frequent sand storms and occasional shortages of water, make living conditions extremely difficult.

Structure of the camps

The hallmark of the Western Sahara refugee camps is their regular and organized layout. The four camps, or districts (known as 'wilaya') are divided into six or seven villages (or 'daira'). Each village is then divided again into quarters or neighbourhoods (called 'hay') with small streets betwen the houses, tents and outbuildings. Each hay has a water cistern, a dispensary and a creche.

In the centre of each camp are the official buildings - a primary school (up to the age of eleven) and a kindergarten for the very small children.

The El Aaiun camp daira (village) has four hay (neighbourhoods). Goats and sheep live around each daira. El Aaiun has six dairas - Bucraa, Amgala, Dchera, Guelta, Hagunia and Dora. The daira of Guelta was destroyed by floods and is now some distance from the main camp.

In the absence of most men the running of the camps was mainly taken upon by the women. In the beginning the women had to deal with lack of clothes, water, food and shelter whilst also caring for the elderly and the young.

Later the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) set up ministries to deal with the administration of the camps. Ministries for transport, development, health, education, justice, commerce, foreign and internal affairs and defence were set up to deal with every aspect of daily life in the camps.

Each camp is run by popular council where the president of the council is directly elected by the population of the camp he/she serves. Each council has five administrative committees (health, education, food distribution, handicraft and justice). The heads of the committees are selected by the members of their respective ministries in the annual congress.

All Saharawi people are represented at all levels - national provincial and district.

Following the arrival of the refugees in southwest Algeria, and despite the supportive efforts of the Algerian government, thousands of the Saharawi people died from famine and epidemics.

It was not until 1980 that epidemics were wiped out in the camps due to the sucess of the health and hygiene programmes. Serious problems of lack of medicine, equipment for hospitals and dispensaries still exist.