Calls for a free Western Sahara continue as Saharawi children enjoy holidays with Valencian families

Refugee children enjoy the summer months in Valencia as part of Vacaciones en Paz (Sarai Vicente)

DESPITE the Spanish government’s u-turn on its policy towards Western Sahara, supporters of the Saharawi people continue to campaign for a homeland, while this summer has seen the return of Vacaciones en Paz, after a two-year break due to the pandemic.

Braving the rain, campaigners for a free Western Sahara held their monthly demonstration in Valencia on Friday, where they showed solidarity with the Saharawi people, speaking and reading poems in Arabic.

Demonstration for a free Sahara in Valencia’s Plaza de los Pinazo on Friday (Sahara Lliure Paterna Facebook)

Holidays in peace

Vacaciones en Paz (Holidays in Peace) is a programme which brings refugee children to Spain during the summer months, to give them some respite from their camps in the Sahara Desert where temperatures can reach up to 50ºC.

The programme has been running since 1979 and typically children up to the age of 13 come to stay with Spanish host families in July and August. During their stay, they are given medical and dental care as well as nourishing food, something which isn’t easy for them to come by in the Algerian desert. While here the children enjoy life in a Spanish family and their presence in Spain helps to bring attention to their cause.

However, after two years of pandemic, when the programme had to be cancelled, a war in Ukraine and a cost-of-living crisis, fewer families have been able to offer up their homes this year, meaning that only those born in 2014 have been eligible to come, and those born in previous years have missed out on the experience.

President of the Valencia branch of the Al-Adala association, Sarai Vicente explained: “This year just 80 children have come to the Valencia region; 30 to Valencia, 30 to Alicante and 20 to Castellón. There has been a drop in the number of host families, which is why so few children have been able to come. To give you an idea, the association Al-Adala which covers Valencia capital that I coordinate, during the last [pre-pandemic] summer we took in 21 youngsters, this year, only eight families have offered to take part, which is why only eight children have come, three girls and five boys.”

Sarai continued: “This year, many families have asked to host siblings or relatives of children they’ve hosted in previous years, where a strong link has been formed and the Spanish and Saharawi families have become close. Given the difficult relations between both the Spanish government and the Polisario, as well as Algeria with Spain, the arrival of the children was delayed this year more than ever. Normally they arrive the first week of July and this year it was at the end of the month, which means they have much less time to enjoy the experience, aclimatise and create a positive link between the youngsters and the families.

“So far, the eight children in Valencia have adapted perfectly and are enjoying the experience with their Spanish parents and siblings very much. “

Western Sahara recognised as Morroccan

The plight of the Saharawi people is one that doesn’t often grab the headlines, but theirs is a tragic story which began in the final days of Franco’s rule, some 47 years ago. As Spanish dictator Franco’s grip on power declined, Morocco, at first assisted by Mauritania, decided to invade the Spanish colony of Western Sahara, an area along the coast of the African mainland, to the south and east of the Canary Islands, in what became known as La Marcha Verde. Western Sahara has some of the world’s highest quality phosphate reserves, rich fishing banks, and the potential for generating renewable energy.

Following the invasion, the population of Western Sahara became split as some, mainly women, children and the elderly, fled east to the Algerian desert, near the town of Tindouf where they set up camps and have been there ever since. Many of those who remained fought against the Moroccan occupiers, under the nationalist independence movement, the Frente Polisario and continue to this day to fight for a free Western Sahara.

Before the invasion, as residents of a Spanish colony, the people of Western Sahara enjoyed the right to Spanish nationality. However, once in the refugee camps, the Saharawi no longer had a nationality; consequently, those people in the camps, currently nearly 200,000, are stateless, they have no passports as they do not belong to any country. They survive on humanitarian aid, unable to grow food due to the harsh desert conditions, yet they are stuck, unable to leave, because without the documents of nationality, travel is impossible.

As far back as 1979 the United Nations has supported self-determination for the region, but a referendum has never been held and campaigners supporting the Saharawi people have long believed Spain has a responsibility to help the residents of its former colony, with more than just words and a bit of humanitarian aid. So the complete u-turn in Pedro Sánchez’s government’s policy in March has been a devastating blow. Having always supported the Saharawi people’s claim, Spain’s national policy now recognises the area as Moroccan. For the Saharawi and their supporters, betrayal doesn’t even come close to describing how they feel.

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