The Polisario Front’s functioning government in the refugee
camps in Algeria, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, fosters a sense of
being a distinct people for the Sahrawis while showcasing the Sahrawis’
capability for self-governance to the international community. The Sahrawis
comprise the administration for the camps, distribute aid, and provide medical
care for its inhabitants. This directly contrasts with the situation in most
refugee camps internationally, which contain a large NGO presence and have
international organizations distributing food aid. In the camps in Tindouf, the
Sahrawis themselves distribute the food aid from the World Food Program. All of
these activities are carried out through different popular committees within
SADR’s government. In addition to presiding over activities in the camps, the
Polisario Front, through SADR acts as the Sahrawis’ representatives abroad
fostering diplomatic relations with other countries and participating in
international organizations. These two primary functions of SADR and its
successes in administering the camps and conducting diplomatic relations abroad
provide a model for the future state they wish to govern in Western Sahara.
SADR’s activities as a state in exile also foster a sense of belonging among
the Sahrawi population. As Randa Farah argues, the Sahrawis’ ability to have
institutions on “borrowed” Algerian territory turns refugees “into virtual
citizens of a Sahrawi state-in exile” and entrenches “a sense of belonging to a
unified Sahrawi nation.”30 These institutions include government administration
buildings, free and compulsive public education, Sahrawi-run healthcare, and a
functioning army. The Sahrawi government also attempts to promote institutions
or create items that symbolically denote a nation. The Sahrawi flag remains the
most ubiquitous of these symbols as it hangs on the SADR administrative
buildings and demonstrators use it in protests in the occupied territories.
Although the Polisario Front’s efforts to offer free public education to its
population, eliminate epidemics in the camps, and peacefully distribute food
aid prove

impressive in the eyes of the international community, its
attempts to operate as a state on borrowed territory belie the unconventional
nature of its statehood. Operating in one of the most barren parts of the
Sahara desert, the hamada, the Polisario Front has minimal self-generated
income and resources at its disposal. The Sahrawi population primarily relies
on food-aid from the World Food Program, which has proved difficult in recent
years as donor countries faced economic crises causing the WFP to reduce its
aid to SADR. Furthermore, the Sahrawis’ starch heavy diet from this aid results
in widespread malnutrition.31 Undersupplied hospitals and schools along with
rampant unemployment among the Sahrawis in the camps also indicate the
Polisario Front’s inability to provide for its population. Indeed, many of the
Sahrawis with university degrees from abroad return to the camps unable to put
their education to use. Despite a well-organized governing and public services
system in the camps, the Polisario Front’s dependence on the UN and
international NGOs to fulfill its population’s basic needs exemplify the limits
of its statehood. The Polisario Front’s diplomatic activities internationally
provide another example of its efforts to operate as a state and present itself
abroad as a competent governing power. SADR participates in AU activities as a
full member and also attends meetings for the Non Aligned Movement and
Socialist International. Over eighty countries have recognized SADR, but many
of these countries have revoked or frozen their recognition. Of these eighty
countries, fourteen host SADR embassies. Additionally, the Polisario Front
sends representatives to countries that have not recognized SADR such as the
United States, Spain, the UK and France. These diplomatic activities enable the
Polisario to cultivate a network of countries that vocally support the Sahrawi
cause and maintain contact with pro-Sahrawi grassroots organizations abroad.
Sahrawi citizens also benefit from these diplomatic activities through
scholarships that allow them to attend universities in Spain, Algeria, and
Cuba. The Polisario Front thus receives from some measure of international
political support,

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but none of the states that officially recognize SADR are
powerful enough to influence Morocco or UN Security Council members’ positions
on the conflict. SADR’s army, the Saharan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), also
plays an important role in the conflict in that it adds legitimacy to the
Polisario Front’s threats to renew guerilla warfare. Under the current
ceasefire, SADR’s army contains between 3,000 and 6,000 soldiers, but could
probably mobilize a much larger force from its adult male population within 24
hours to recommence fighting.32 Despite its inferior technology to Morocco, the
SPLA has the advantages of superior knowledge of the territory, the ability to
surprise Morocco with hit-and-run tactics, the choice of when and where to
attack, and can utilize sandstorms that disable the Moroccan Army’s
technology.33 Furthermore, SPLA troops are continuously stationed at
observation points along the berm. In addition to rendering threats to return
to violence plausible, the SPLA’s constant preparedness also conveys the
Polisario Front’s hesitancy to rely on the international community to act on
its behalf if Morocco were to make advances east of the berm.

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