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The Forgotten Conflict in Western Sahara and its Refugees | North Africa |

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The Forgotten Conflict in Western Sahara and its Refugees

Dr. Irantzu Mendia Azkue

/ 7 Minuten zu lesen

In 1975, the conflict in West Sahara forced ten thousands of Sahrawi to flee. 45 years later, it is still not solved – and the Sahrawi remain a geographically scattered people waiting to be able to one day return to their own country.

Sahrawis watch soldiers march in a parade during the celebrations marking the 45th anniversary of the declaration of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the southwestern Algerian city of Tindouf (© picture-alliance/AP)

Historical Background to Explain the Present

The protracted conflict in Western Sahara is a problem of decolonization and the denial of the right of self-determination of the Saharawi people. With an area of 266,000 km2, Western Sahara remains a Non-Self-Governing Territory , which has important natural resources such as phosphate and other minerals, as well as one of the largest fishing reserves in the world.

The territory of Western Sahara was allocated to Spain in the so-called Congo Conference in Berlin, which took place from November 1884 to February 1885. Spain began then the colonization of the region, although it did not exercise effective control over the territory until 1934. Spanish forces repressed during decades the Saharawi anti-colonial movement that had emerged and in 1973 the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front) was created. At the same time, the neighbouring countries Morocco and Mauritania made claims to the territory. In November 1975 Morocco's King Hassan II called 350,000 Moroccans to cross the border in the framework of the so-called "Green March". Beforehand, Moroccan military forces had entered the north-eastern border area. The invasion of Western Saharan territory from the north marked the beginning of the exodus of thousands of Sahrawi to the desert, fleeing the murders, torture, forced disappearances and bombings carried out by Moroccan military forces. This population eventually reached the Algerian province Tindouf, where they settled in refugee camps. Soon after Morocco's invasion of Western Saharan territory from the North, Mauritania began to invade it from the South. On 14 November 1975, the Tripartite Agreements (also known as Madrid Accords) were signed in Madrid – a pact whereby Spain abandoned Western Sahara and enabled Morocco and Mauritania to divvy it up. Spain officially withdrew from Western Sahara on February 26, 1976.

These events led to the outbreak of an armed conflict in Western Sahara in which Morocco and the Polisario Front were the central actors. On 27 February 1976, the Polisario Front proclaimed the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and only a few days later formed a government in exile based in Algeria. Mauritania withdrew from the territory in 1979 and Moroccan troops occupied this southern part of the Saharan territory as well. The war between the Polisario Front and Morocco continued until 1991, when a Ceasefire Agreement was signed. It included the deployment of a United Nations mission (MINURSO) with the task of carrying out a self-determination referendum in 1992 to decide the status of the territory. During more than one decade the disputes over the electorate allowed to decide on the future of Western Sahara prevented the celebration of such a referendum. In July 2003, the United Nations Security Council endorsed the Baker Plan (Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara), which contained a new census proposal. While the Polisario Front reluctantly accepted it, Morocco rejected the Plan and stated that it would no longer agree to any referendum that included independence as an option. As a result, 30 years after the Ceasefire Agreement, the referendum on the status of Western Sahara is still pending. Morocco regards Western Sahara as Moroccan territory and continues to exploit its natural resources. Resource extraction in Western Sahara is a lucrative business both for Moroccan authorities and for foreign companies, which benefit mainly from phosphate extraction and fishing along the Saharawi coast.

A People Divided in Four and Surviving 45 Years of Refuge

During the war, Morocco started to build a 2,700 kilometres long, mined and fortified sand and stone made wall (berm) that divided Western Sahara in two. Today the Saharawi people are forcibly dispersed in four population groups: those living in territory occupied by Morocco, those residing in areas under control of the Polisario Front, those who fled to refugee camps in Algeria, and the Saharawi diaspora in other parts of the world, mainly in Europe.

Following data published in 2014, of the 530,000 inhabitants of the Western Sahara territory occupied by Morocco, 180,000 (34 percent) are members of the Moroccan military, 245,000 are Moroccan civilians (46 percent) and 105,000 are Sahrawi (20 percent). Since the Green March, Morocco has sustained a policy of incentives to encourage Moroccans to settle in Western Sahara by building new homes and offering jobs. This strategy has had a major impact on the social and demographic characteristics in the area, generating a situation in which the Sahrawi population has become a minority in their own country. Their presence in the occupied territories has become confined to certain areas and neighbourhoods in the cities.

In the territories liberated during the war and now under Polisario Front control (so-called "Free Zone"), there are an estimated 49,000 inhabitants, while the Sahrawi Diaspora, settled mainly in Europe, mostly in Spain, comprises 50.000 people. In addition, there are over 170,000 Saharawi refugees in the Algerian province Tindouf, close to the Mauritanian, Western Saharan and Moroccan borders.

Upon reaching Tindouf more than 45 years ago, Sahrawi refugees established themselves in four big camps or wilayas: El Aaiun, Smara, Dajla and Auserd, named after the major cities of Western Sahara, and a fifth camp, 27th of February (now called Bojador), established to house the institutions of the government in exile. Each wilaya was divided into several municipalities or dairas, and each daira was divided into four neighbourhoods or groups of haimas (tents). This administrative division continues until today. The camps are managed by the Polisario Front and the government in exile. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic is a full member of the African Union and has established its own police and army, religious as well as legal system, and other public infrastructure. Therefore, a particularity of the Sahrawi case is that it is a camp-based state in exile.

The Role of Women in the Sahrawi Refugee Camps

Ever since the establishment of the camps, Sahrawi women have played leading roles in civilian organization and the maintaining of the camps. This has contributed to making the Sahrawi in exile one of the most internationally highlighted examples of refugee women’s organizational capacity. Women organized and took on management positions in the five basic service committees present in each neighbourhood: Education, Health, Distribution and Food, Production, and Justice and Social Affairs. The National Union of Sahrawi Women (Unión Nacional de Mujeres Sahrauis, UNMS), created in 1974 as a fundamental part of the structure of the Liberation Movement, promoted women’s organization during and after the war against Moroccan occupation. It seeks to organize international support for the Saharawi case and promotes women's rights and women's influence in political decision-making in the SADR. During the 2000s the UNMS managed to open the Houses of Women, one in each wilaya or camp. These Houses are used as meeting and training centres for women with the objective to reinforce their social, political and economic participation in Saharawi society. One of the current challenges for the UNMS is to strengthen ties with organized women in the occupied territory. This could help to better articulate the activism of Sahrawi women for human rights.

Self-determination as the Only Perspective

In the Sahrawi camps, dependence on foreign aid is very high in such fundamental sectors as food, water, education and health. As the camps are located in the desert, agricultural activity is practically impossible. Over the years, commercial activity has grown, although on an informal basis and without enough weight to guarantee the self-sufficiency of the population. Some families survive thanks to remittances and support from their relatives living abroad. Poverty and vulnerability might be two defining characteristics of everyday life in the camps, along with collective political awareness and resistance.

The resolution of the Western Sahara conflict is far from being a priority in the international agenda and foreign aid for Saharawi refugees has been progressively reduced, especially during the last decade. As a result, the Sahrawi people confront almost on its own the harsh living conditions of refuge in a desert. Two generations of Sahrawis were born in the camps and they know no other life than that of exile. Humanitarian aid and development projects help sustain life in an environment where refugees do not have the opportunity to decide on their lives.

Since the 1970s, refugee camps have emerged as supposedly the best temporary solution to manage and administer forced migrations, control refugee populations and deliver aid. However, the protracted Sahrawi refugee situation shows that refugee camps might also function as a form of "political containment” that in this case delays the most viable solution to this conflict: self-determination. There is an urgent need to approach the conflict in Western Sahara not only as a humanitarian problem but as a political and human rights one. The occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco, the militarized wall built in the desert and the blockade of the self-determination referendum are the main factors that prevent Sahrawi refugees from returning to their country, which should be the guiding objective of any aid policy.

This article is part of the Interner Link: Regional Profile North Africa.

Die deutsche Übersetzung des Artikels finden Sie Interner Link: hier.

Quellen / Literatur

Harrell-Bond, Barbara E. (1986). Imposing aid. Emergency Assistance to Refugees. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hegoa & Aranzadi (2014). Voces del desierto. La resistencia frente al olvido. Bilbao: Hegoa Institute & Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi. University of the Basque Country. Externer Link: (Zugriff: 21.12.2020).

Martin Beristain, Carlos & González Hidalgo, Eloísa (2013). The Oasis of Memory. Historical memory and human rights violations in the Western Sahara. Vols. I and II. Bilbao: Hegoa–Institute of Development and International Cooperation Studies. University of the Basque Country. The executive summary can be consulted in English at: Externer Link: (Zugriff: 21.12.2020).

Mendia Azkue, Irantzu & Guzmán Orellana, Gloria (2016). In occupied land. Memory and resistances of women in Western Sahara. Bilbao: Hegoa–Institute of Development and International Cooperation Studies. University of the Basque Country. Externer Link: (Zugriff: 21.12.2020).



  1. The United Nations included the Western Sahara in the Non-Self-Governing Territories list in 1963. See: Externer Link:

  2. Known as the "Black March” by the Saharawi people.

  3. For details about human rights violations committed by Morocco in Western Sahara since 1975, see Martin Beristain & González Hidalgo (2013). For information about human rights violations specifically against Saharawi women in the occupied territories, see Mendia Azkue& Guzmán Orellana (2016).

  4. On 13th November 2020, the Ceasefire was broken in the southern area of Guergerat. Sahrawi civilians had been demonstrating there since October 21. Morocco sent its military forces to disperse demonstrations and the Polisario Front opened fire against Maroccan military positions.

  5. Since 2006, the European Union has signed successive trade and fishing agreements with Morocco which encompass Western Saharan territory. In 2018, the European Union Court of Justice ruled that these agreements may not be applied to Western Sahara since the territory does not belong to Morocco. However, the European Parliament approved again in 2019 a new trade and fishing agreement with Morocco that includes the waters of Western Sahara.

  6. Hegoa & Aranzadi (2014).

  7. The United Nations Statistics Division estimates that the population in Western Sahara in 2019 is 582,000. See: Externer Link: However, it does not offer data on the Saharawi population.

  8. Hegoa & Aranzadi (2014).

  9. See Press Release by Oxfam International, 2020: Externer Link: (accessed: 3-11-2020).

  10. Examples of comercial activity in the refugee camps are: grocery stores, clothing stores, rugs and blankets stores, home furnishings stores, hairdressers, car repair shops, sale of handicrafts, fuel supply points, or trade in animals such as goats and camels.

  11. Harrell-Bond (1986).


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Dr. Irantzu Mendia Azkue is professor of Sociology and Social Work as well as researcher at Hegoa–Institute of Development and International Cooperation Studies at the University of the Basque Country. Her work focuses on feminist analysis of armed conflicts, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and historical memory.