Statelessness and belonging: The case of Saharawis in Spain

By Celia Garcia de Medina-Rosales, alumnus of the Migration Studies MA, University of Sussex (2021/22). Her dissertation was awarded 2022 JEMS Award for the best Migration Studies MA

Statelessness, defined in international law as ‘not being considered a national by any state under the operation of its law’, is receiving increased attention. UNHCR’s 2014iBelong’ campaign aims at ending statelessness by ensuring the right to a nationality, on the grounds that rights are derived from belonging to a political community by acquiring a national citizenship. Another perspective on statelessness looks at groups who have been dispossessed of their land, becoming citizens of states they don’t necessarily identify with. In academia, these are called ‘stateless diasporas’.

What then, does ‘belonging’ and ‘statelessness’ mean to people who are not considered formal citizens of any state where they live? What about those who are, but also identify as belonging to a country not recognised internationally? What role do the host state and society play in their experience, and does this influence their personal engagement with their origin country in the place they now live? Pondering over these questions, I interviewed 8 Saharawis living in Spain as part of my master’s dissertation. This piece highlights my key findings. 

Indigenous to Western Sahara, the Saharawis were colonised by Spain from 1886 until 1975. A year later, Morocco annexed the territory, and despite numerous UN resolutions for its decolonisation, 80% remains occupied. Thousands of Saharawis sought refuge in the camps of Tindouf (Algeria), now governed by the POLISARIO under the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Due to colonialism, most of the diaspora lives in Spain. Those from the Occupied Territories generally possess the Moroccan citizenship. However, those born in the camps find themselves in a legal limbo; they’re not Algerian citizens, but Spain doesn’t recognise the SADR either. To regularise their situation, Saharawis must be granted stateless status and eventually obtain citizenship. This situation enables subjective understandings of statelessness to emerge, influenced by the Spanish state and society.

Spain’s citizenship regime is amongst the strictest within the EU, but exceptions based on historical reparations exempt certain Latin Americans and Sephardic Jews. Saharawis, whose situation is a direct consequence of Spanish colonialism, feel they should also belong in this group. Spanish citizenship is not only necessary to enjoy stability and basic rights including work, study, or move, it’s a matter of justice. Due to Spain’s non-recognition of the SADR, many Saharawis possessing stateless documents are met with doubt surrounding their origins, which can substantiate feelings of not belonging anywhere. Others reject the legal definition of statelessness because it erases their collective identity, given that ‘stateless’ in Spanish is ‘apátrida’: the absence of historical, juridical, and affective ties linking a person to a homeland.

Furthermore, Saharawis’ plight doesn’t necessarily end with a passport. Many aspire to visit Western Sahara but can’t because of the fear, restrictions, and intimidation of Moroccan authorities. Algerian-Spanish tense relations might also jeopardise Saharawis’ ability to travel to the Tindouf camps, a place some cited as also belonging to because they can practice their Saharawi culture which they hope to do in their homeland one day. Consequently, Saharawis find ways to negotiate their ascribed statuses. Said’s journey from fleeing the occupied territories with a Moroccan passport to being granted protection and a new citizenship abroad allowed him to voice his Saharawi identity, where he was previously just considered Moroccan. Mustafa applied for stateless status instead of taking the citizenship route, for, besides other practical things, the recognition of the Saharawi refugee camps as his birthplace instead of Algeria. 

Spain’s local institutions complexify feelings of statelessness and belonging through their immigration practices and degree of support of the Saharawi cause. Catalonia and the Basque Country lead as progressive autonomous regions. Amir, a nurse working in Bilbao feels a sense of attachment to the city because ‘for the national administration, [he‘s] stateless, but the civil servants see [him] as Saharawi’.

Belonging is therefore deeply social and shaped by the relationship that Saharawis have with Spanish people. Given Saharawi and Spanish interconnected histories, many reject exclusive identities. Bahia Awah introduced himself as a ‘saharo-spanish’ writer and anthropologist, which challenges the idea that Saharawis belong ‘here’ or ‘there’. This is further contested by Saharawis who decide to remain in Spain after participating as children in the Holidays in Peace scheme where they develop emotional bonds to their host families. Therefore, Saharawis’ sense of belonging in Spain often occurs before obtaining a Spanish passport. Feelings of statelessness and exclusion can also endure after obtaining citizenship due to racism and xenophobia within Spanish society.

it’s like a constant reminder that you don’t belong here’.


The desire for Spanish citizenship is also to influence Spanish’s policies regarding Western Sahara. Others act before obtaining citizenship and use social media as a tool to articulate their distinct identity. However, the non-recognition of Saharawis by the Spanish still impacts their online engagement. During her citizenship application process, Nadia ‘needed to be careful with what [she] said… not to criticise the Spanish monarchy or share [her] political beliefs’. 

Before 2013, Saharawis were considered either Moroccan or Algerian. The stateless status identifies Saharawis, which Mustafa sees as a political tool of pressure on governors to be attentive to their demands as future voters. Other factors influencing their engagement includes the extent of the host family’s political involvement or Saharawi’s socio-economic positionality as adults: some have more time and financial resources than those in lower-wage sectors or where they can’t access activist networks. Improving one’s socio-economic and legal situation is not necessarily incompatible with mobilising for Western Sahara. Iman is part of an organisation of lawyers who help Saharawis with legal matters, but Spanish citizenship allowed her to study, learn languages and become an expert to also advance the case of Western Sahara in international law. As a university teacher, Bahia visibilises Saharawis within Spanish academia by organising fieldtrips to the camps and liberated territories.

Experiencing statelessness and exclusion also motivates Saharawis to change Spain’s socio-political landscape and formulate a new template for belonging. Mustafa’s Saharawi collective supports unaccompanied Moroccan youth because he strives for a Spanish solidarity that challenges ideas of loyalty and nationalism. Bahia’s essay ‘Lavapies’ suggests a non-hierarchical idea of belonging, independent from one’s ethnicity, passport, and class. Indeed, Saharawis’ condition is not detached from that of other migrants, which explains Nadia’s participation in last year’s protest following the Melilla massacre by Moroccan and Spanish forces, whose collaboration followed Spain’s support for Morocco’s occupation.

[Belonging is] the fight for the rights of people in a society [asking us to] imagine an administration where they don’t understand your language but try to understand you… these things are what make you feel part of something


Despite the limited sample, my research offers insights into the experience of Saharawis in Spain and their personal strategies to accept, redefine, or negotiate top-down categorisations of ‘stateless’, ‘citizen’, ‘Saharawi’ or ‘Spanish’, and how this influences their understanding of belonging in profound ways, shaping personal engagements. This lens, that centers their voices, needs to be privileged to comprehensively address the issue of statelessness. 

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The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR).