Creating new perspectives since 2009

Western Sahara explainer

About 570,000 Sahrawis live in the region, the vast majority in refugee camps along Algeria’s border for the last 26 years.

January 3, 2018 at 6:24 pm

The Western Sahara is a region on North Africa’s Atlantic coast that borders Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania and which has been the subject of contention for the last 42 years.

About 570,000 Sahrawis live in the region, the vast majority in refugee camps along Algeria’s border for the last 26 years.

But why is this small region such a contested territory? Who exactly is fighting over it and why hasn’t the conflict been resolved in the last 26 years?

The Western Sahara was colonised by Spain in 1884 and remained part of the Spanish kingdom for more than a hundred years until it was annexed by Morocco in 1975 after a peaceful procession of 350,000 Moroccans, known as the Green March, walked into the region and claimed it.

Spain then transferred control of the region to Morocco and Mauritania and the Western Sahara has since been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Saharawi people lead by the Polisario Front.

Read: Algeria expels 950 sub-Saharan migrants

Founded in 1973, the Polisario Front campaigns for the independence of Western Sahara, declaring the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic in 1976 with a government-in-exile in Algeria which has been its main backer. This declaration was followed by a guerrilla struggle against what it saw as an illegal occupation of its indigenous land.

During the conflict, Mauritania renounced its claim to the territory in 1979 and Morocco annexed two-thirds of it by building a wall and leaving a buffer zone which is now dotted with landmines that separate the two conflicting sides patrolled by a UN monitoring force.

The conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front lasted until 1991, when the UN brokered a ceasefire, and caused the displacement of thousands of Sahrawis into refugee camps across the Tindouf province in Algeria, where they still live today.

Morocco wants Western Sahara to remain as an autonomous, self-governing part of its sovereignty. But the Polisario Front, supported by Algeria, demands a referendum on the region’s independence which the UN has failed to deliver since the ceasefire 26 years ago.

Read: Algerian PM receives UN envoy to Western Sahara

Large parts of the Western Sahara are currently controlled by the Moroccan Government, known as the Southern Provinces, whereas around 25% of the territory remains controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with limited international recognition.

The peace process is driven by whether or not a Sahrawi state is established and what the best solution is for the large numbers of displaced Sahrawi refugees but the peace process has been shaky since 1991, which means it is likely one of the world’s most neglected disputes may continue to fester on.