Sahrawi refugee education – is studying abroad the way to self-sufficiency?

Sahrawi refugee education – is studying abroad the way to self-sufficiency?

Since the 1990s different international organizations and United Nations relief agencies have accepted that humanitarian agencies ought to include schooling programs in the internationally guaranteed services. Enabling refugees to continue school and gain a profession is believed, in general, to have several benefits, such as reducing the thoughts of revenge, restoring hope and giving meaningful skills that can be used in the rebuild of the society

The education system in Sahrawi refugee camps

In the case of Sahrawi refugees, education is also used as a means to gain national self-sufficiency and independence upon Western humanitarian organisations, and to be prepared for an independent nation. Historically speaking, Sahrawis have suffered from poor education offered by Spain. They blame Spanish colonialism for illiteracy, not building schools and implementing a policy of keeping Sahrawis ignorant. When anti-colonialism movement, Polisario, emerged, better education was one of its central feature. Polisario replaced the old pre-colonial education system and compensated the absence of colonial education system by establishing a mixed, universal, obligatory and secular education system in the camps. The education system included primary and secondary schooling, and centres for professional training that offer computer and technical training courses. Also foreign funding and non-governmental organisations have enabled, especially for women, nursing training and courses in computing, driving and languages.

Additionally, part of the education system was to request that other countries would welcome Sahrawi children and youths to study abroad. Cuba is one of the first countries to offer full scholarships to Sahrawis, and since 1970s over 4000 Sahrawi refugees have graduated from Cuban universities. Cuban co-operation with Sahrawi refugees is particularly interesting, since it challenges the traditional north-south partnership in humanitarian aid. For Cuba, as a socialist country, it is also important to offer an alternative to the Western run operations and their ideas of development.

With scholarships refugees can train in essential professions, like nursing and medicine, but the system requires that refugees return to their home countries and use their skills to improve self-sufficiency and socio-economic development. It is estimated that around 2000 Sahrawis who have studied in Cuba are in the most important political and professional roles in the refugee camps. Educated refugees with good linguistic and professional skills are a great example of the benefits of educational migration, but many Sahrawis have also reported problems related to studying abroad.


Sahrawi schoolchildren undertaking a test. Most of the children here have never set foot outside their camp. Photo: Paul Patrick Børhaug

The counterproductive effects of educational migration

Sahrawis who have studied in Cuba feel that material and nutritional conditions were worse than in the refugee camps. Other problems are separation from family members, and cultural shock and linguistic difficulties when they return back to the refugee camps. Most refugees study more than 10 years abroad, and going back to the camps is difficult, since they have established new lifestyle, ideology and thoughts. Despite the educational migration's obvious benefits for Sahrawi youths and the whole community, most of them feel that the geographical, social and religious distances between Cuba and the camps are too great, and the majority of Cuban-graduates would not send their own children to study there. Morocco has also criticised Polisario's education system by claiming that Sahrawi youths have been forcibly taken from their families and while in Cuba, they have been sexually abused or forced into child labour. UNHCR has taken these claims seriously, but has not found evidence of abuse. Officially, the scholarship programme meets the standards of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. However, one can question the effects of long-term separation for the children and their families that studying abroad causes.

In addition to the graduates' personal experiences regarding the scholarship program's disadvantages, there are also other aspects to consider. Namely, whether the educational migration really increases the Sahrawi self-sufficiency or merely renews the dependency upon Western aid programs. Educated refugees have hard time to find a job corresponding to their education in the refugee camps, and many of them have moved to Europe. Many refugees with medical training choose to leave the camps, and often end up working for the former colonial power, Spain. In fact, the aim for self-sufficiency through education has led to an inverse situation: since there are less and less doctors in the refugee camps, more doctors from Spain have to come to the camps to treat Sahrawis, who, once again, become dependent on the former colonial ruler and externally provided assistance.

Cuba is aware of the counterproductive effects the educational migration has caused among Sahrawi refugees. Despite its efforts to minimise the brain-drain from the camps, Cuba has decided to stop the scholarship programme for Sahrawi refugees. Statistically speaking, there should be enough, for example, medical graduates in the camps. The problem, according to Cuba, is that Polisario's policies lead to the migration of educated refugees. As a result, Sahrawi youths are no longer sent to Cuban universities, but some alternative models have arisen, such as camp based educational opportunities provided by Cuba and other countries.

Written by Hanna Lehto


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Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena. (2010.) Internationalist scholarships: situating Muslim Middle Eastern and North African students in Cuba. The Journal of North African Studies vol.15, no.2:137–155.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena. (2011). Paradoxes of Sahrawi refugees' educational migration: promoting self-sufficiency or renewing dependency? Comparative Education vol. 47, no.4: 433–447.