In the region there are four large refugee camps for Sahrawi refugees from Western Sahara: El Aaiun, Awserd, Smara, and Dakhla (not to be confused with the cities after which they are named). There are also some smaller satellite camps, such as the "February 27", serving as a boarding school for women. The headquarters of Polisario Front, with the government in exile of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), are headquartered in Rabouni, a camp dedicated to administration. The refugee camps are part of the Sahrawi republic's system of government. According to Polisario, Algeria does not intervene in their organization, treating the area as effectively under Sahrawi self-rule, though statements by former Polisario responsibles contradict that.
The Polisario has attempted to modernize the camps' society, placing emphasis especially on education, the eradication of tribalism and the emancipation of women. The role of women in camps was enhanced by their shouldering of the main responsibility for the refugee camps and government bureaucracy during the war years, as virtually the entire male population was enrolled in the Polisario army; however, since the cease-fire in 1991, some observers argue that Sahrawi men, returning from the front, have begun reasserting control in the organization of the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, women are active on several levels of administration, and a 2007 appraisal of the situation underlined their importance in camp administration and social structures.
Education was also assisted by refugee life. While teaching materials are still scarce, the "urbanization" of the refugee camps and the abundance of free time for camp dwellers (after the situation normalized circa 1977) greatly increased the effectiveness of literacy classes. Today, nearly 90% of refugee Sahrawis are able to read and write, the number having been less than 10% in 1975, and several thousands have received university educations in foreign countries as part of aid packages (mainly Algeria, Cuba, and Spain).
The exact number of refugees in these camps is hotly disputed and politically sensitive, since the UN has argued for a referendum to determine Western Sahara's future status, and the refugees' numbers will determine their political weight in such a referendum. The Algerian government has put forth a figure of approximately 165,000. This has been supported by Polisario, although the movement recognizes that some refugees have rebased to Mauritania, where the UN now counts approximately 20,000 Sahrawis with refugee status. Morocco contends that the figure is much lower, and has at various times suggested numbers between 15,000 and 50,000. Morocco argues that Polisario and Algeria overestimate refugee numbers to attract both political attention and additional foreign aid, while Polisario accuses Morocco of attempting to restrict human aid as a means of pressure on civilian refugee populations.
Outside, non-partisan estimates of refugee numbers have been scarce. The UN's Minurso mission in 1998 registered some 40,000 voting-age adults between the camps and Mauritania, counting only those who had contacted the mission's registration offices and subsequently been able to prove their descent from pre-1975 Western Sahara; the registration did not include children, people of non-provable Western Sahara descent, and made no attempt to estimate total numbers in the camps. The UNHCR and WFP are presently engaged in supporting what they describe as the "90,000 most vulnerable" refugees, giving no estimate for total refugee numbers.
The refugee population is plagued by the lack of vegetables, nutritious food and medicines. According to the United Nations and the World Food Program, 40% of the children suffer from lack of iron, and 10% of the children below five years of age suffer from acute lack of nutrition. 32% are suffering from chronic lack of nutrition. 47% of the women suffer from lack of iron.
Heavy flash rains and floods destroyed much of the camps in 2006, prompting a crisis response from the UNHCR and the World Food Program (WFP), to replace destroyed housing with tents and provide food to cover for lost storages.
The WFP has repeatedly expressed its concern over a shortage of donations, and warned of dire health consequences if needs are not met. Refugees International has noted that the situation is especially precarious in the most inaccessible of the four wilayas, or main camps, the Dakhla camp at Algeria's southern border with Mali. The UNHCR warned in early 2007 that demands were not being met in the Sahrawi camps, and that malnutrition was severe.
During the war years (1975-1991) Sahrawi women ran most of the camps' administration, with the men fighting at the front. This together with literacy- and professional education classes produced major advances in the role of women in Sahrawi society, although the return of large numbers of Sahrawi men since the cease fire has again hindered this development. Women still run a majority of the camps' administration, and the Sahrawi women's union UNMS is very active in promoting their role.
Six years of schooling are guaranteed and obligatory for all children. After that, many go to Algerian schools, and some pass on to universities in Algeria, Cuba, Spain or other countries that provide scholarships for Sahrawi students. Camp-wide literacy programs and education efforts directed specifically towards women have improved the literacy rates tremendously. According to a study by the Belgian branch of OXFAM, some 90% of the refugees are now considered literate, compared with below 10% in 1975, and the regional average of about 50%.
Men perform military service in the armed forces of the Polisario; during the war years, at least some women were enrolled in auxiliary units guarding the refugee camps.
A simple monetary economy began developing in the camps during the 1990s, after Spain decided to pay pensions to Sahrawis who had been forcibly drafted as soldiers in the Tropas Nomadas during the colonial time. Money also came from Sahrawis working in Algeria or abroad, and from refugees who pursue a traditional bedouin and tuareg lifestyle, herding cattle in Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario-held areas of Western Sahara. The private economy however remains very limited, and the camps continue to survive mainly on foreign and Algerian aid. However, the development of a market economy - a stated goal of the Polisario - is hampered by the realities of refugee life.
While the Polisario complains of repression of Sahrawi human rights activists in the Moroccan-held parts of Western Sahara, the government of Morocco, dissident groups inside Polisario, as well as former members of Polisario, have stated that the camps occasionally are the scene of human rights abuse against the refugee population by the Polisario.
Polisario has acknowledged reports of mistreatment in the seventies and eighties, but deny the accusations of on-going abuse. Reports of beatings and torture, in many cases leading to death, of Moroccan prisoners of war who were formerly held in the camps were backed by some human rights organizations, which seems to have contributed to the release of the last of these POW's by the summer of 2005. There are complaints of limitations on movement between the camps, with Morocco describing them as completely shut off from the outside world, but camp authorities maintain that this is untrue, and that they are simply engaged in registering movements for aid allocation purposes. Visiting human rights organizations have concluded that the conditions are troublesome with regard to basic subsistence, but that the human rights situation is satisfactory.. An OHCHR (United Nations' human rights monitors) visit to both Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps in 2006 documented no complaints of human rights abuse in the camps, but stressed the need for more information. However, the report, which severely criticized Moroccan conduct in Western Sahara, was slammed as biased and partisan by the Moroccan government. It should be noted that the International Red Cross and the UNHCR have never been allowed by the Polisario to conduct a population census.