This past weekend marked the 70th anniversary of the wartime film Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Set in the tumultuous milieu of World War II Casablanca, a coastal city in Morocco, the film weaves a story of love and intrigue set amid the desperation of fleeing European expats and the quiet agony of refugees stranded within the confines of the city.
Rick’s Café, the setting for some of the movie’s most famous scenes, was a fictional creation of Hollywood – up until several years ago when an American woman opened up a real-life Rick’s Café in the center of bustling Casablanca. Today, the café is regularly crowded with visitors from around the world reliving the charm of the film and the drama of the era. However, not far from the real-life Rick’s Café lies a real-life crisis – men, women, and children surviving one of the world’s most protracted refugee situations.
The Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, are a series of camps set up in the 1970s to essentially warehouse thousands of Sahrawi refugees in the wake of a conflict with Morocco. Today, most of the refugees from the conflict – along with their children – still reside in these desert camps. Harsh weather conditions combined with the lack of resources in the Sahara desert have made self-reliance nearly impossible, and forced refugees in the camps to be almost entirely reliant on outside aid. While education exists within the camps and literacy rates are reasonably high, the Saharawi refugees have few opportunities and no voice.
The camps are governed by the Polisario Front, originally pitted against Spanish rule, later locked in conflict with Morocco. The Polisario gained a reputation for quashing dissent and suppressing freedom of speech back in the 80s, but today human rights reports indicate this might be only the tip of the iceberg. Accounts of human rights violations perpetrated by the Polisario against the Sahrawi refugee population currently range from reports of rape to torture and trafficking, among other tragedies.
“There is no doubt that the refugee situation in Tindouf is one of the most protracted in the world,” says Joseph Grieboski, chairman and CEO of just CONSULTING and founder of THE INSTITUTE on Religion and Public Policy. “UNICEF aptly describes how ‘the overwhelming majority [of refugees] know only the sight of the camps – vast, flat wastelands with the harshness of one of the hottest deserts in the world.’” But perhaps, Grieboski adds, “the greatest injustice of this situation is that for many of the Sahrawis remaining in the camps, it is not by choice but by obligation.”
Pressured to remain in the camps in spite of limited opportunities and the ongoing threat of human rights abuses, many Sahrawi refugees live in fear of the very regime that claims to care for them. Much like the desperation of countless refugees depicted in Casablanca, tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees dream of opportunities outside the camps and a future free from fear.
This week, as we remember the iconic film that captured the hearts of viewers around the world, I hope we can join together in raising awareness of the real-life crisis occurring not far from the unforgettable scenes that first captured our imagination. The plight of Saharawi refugees deserves both our attention and our advocacy.
Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights and religious freedom issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran, and the plight of Syrian refugees. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin can be contacted via her website at kristinwright.net or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: November 28, 2012