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Department of Law

EUI researcher Sebastian von Massow on his fieldwork in Algeria

Sebastian von Massow, researcher at the EUI Department of Law, describes his research topic and his fieldwork in the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria.

02 May 2024 | Research

02.05.24_Sebastian von Massow

Could you please tell us about your research at the EUI?

I work on the right to self-determination of colonial peoples, specifically how the rightsholders litigate this right when decolonisation fails.

My focus is on two situations. The first is the UK's detachment and forcible depopulation of the Chagos Archipelago in the course of Mauritian independence. The second is Morocco's invasion and occupation of the Western Sahara before the Saharawi people could exercise their right to decide the status of their territory. Various actors have litigated these situations at the national, European, and international levels in a bid to reassert their right to self-determination. I seek to understand how these actors see their right to self-determination, how the available legal processes shaped what this right came to mean in court, and what this can tell us about the relationship between international lawyering and decolonisation.

Where and why have you done fieldwork in the context of your research?

In October 2023, I spent a month living with Saharawi families in the Boujdour and Smara refugee camps in the Sahara Desert. The camps are semi-permanent settlements that were established in 1975 on Algerian territory after the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Since then, the Saharawi have built a state within a state in the Algerian desert – complete with a multi-level administrative system, ministries, and local elections. It is from here that the Front Polisario – the Saharawi national liberation movement and UN-recognised representative of the Saharawi people – coordinate their struggle for self-determination.

I hoped to gain an impression of what daily life is like for this community and speak to some of the officials behind the Saharawi's international legal campaign. I wanted to know how this community views its right to self-determination, how this relates to the strategies of their political representatives, the officials of the Front Polisario, and how these in turn relate to the lawyers I spoke to in the UK and France who took on their cases.

What did you do during fieldwork? What are the main results from this experience?

During my time in the camps, I was able to gain an impression of daily life, visiting schools, libraries, health clinics, the Saharawi TV station – and above all, spending time with my hosts, chatting, drinking tea, and sharing experiences. I helped to cook meals, go to market, and make preparations for the Day of National Unity celebrations. With the help of my host families, local contacts, and translators I was able to conduct over sixty informal interviews with members of the Saharawi community: shopkeepers, soldiers, taxi-drivers, nurses and doctors, carpenters, schoolteachers, local administrators, and more. In addition, I conducted formal interviews with various Saharawi ministers, presidential legal advisors, diplomats, chief negotiators, and a number of human rights activists.

These interviews helped me form a picture of how different members of the Saharawi community think about their right to self-determination, how they see the courts where it is litigated, as well as their impression of the lawyers that speak for them. The interviews also provided me with detailed insights into the strategic considerations of legal and diplomatic decision-makers within the Front Polisario.

How has being a researcher at the EUI facilitated your experience of fieldwork?

The EUI has facilitated my fieldwork in two main ways: funding and preparation. The funding for my trip to Algeria was provided by the Early Stage Researcher Fund, without which I would not have been able to complete my fieldwork. And my preparation was aided by various courses and workshops offered at the EUI; in particular, a workshop on risk assessments and a formal review of my proposed fieldwork by the EUI Ethics Committee. These encouraged me to think through a number of issues, from how my research might affect the people I would be speaking with, to what obligations I have to my research subjects in telling their stories, and how – if at all – I can give something back to their community. As much as these considerations were a necessary practicality in preparing for my trip, they have also become a part of my research in their own right, shaping how I analyse my findings and think about my write-up.

What do you believe is the added value of being a PhD researcher at the EUI?

The EUI is a unique place. Around 120 doctoral candidates in law alone, and not a single undergraduate. The result of having so many doctoral candidates is a Law Department that enjoys an enormous breadth of post-graduate projects and research interests. To accommodate and encourage this breadth, the department has been very open in supporting researchers wishing to explore other fields, and a number of researchers now work with non-legal methodologies. This provides a great environment to share experiences and exchange with other researchers on the practical challenges of conducting this kind of fieldwork. It is also very useful when it comes to the write-up, as there are a number of researchers grappling with the different ways of writing interview-based research into a more traditional legal analysis.

Sebastian von Massow is a researcher at the EUI Department of Law, where his PhD thesis will be on ‘Litigating Colonial Self-Determination’. Sebastian is also a coordinator of the International Law Working Group and Executive Editor of the European Journal of Legal Studies.

Last update: 02 May 2024

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