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Statelessness and Western Sahara

This article was written by STAND’s Programs Intern Michael Mansheim, a senior at American University studying International Relations. 

In the western deserts of Algeria live about 90,000 refugees from the disputed area known as Western Sahara. These refugees are the Sahrawi people, the people of the farthest western reaches of the Sahara desert. The region they have fled has been mired in conflict since the 1970’s, and despite a UN mandated peacekeeping force, shows no signs of escaping the long and protracted fight.

Despite being an incredibly drawn out conflict, reporting on the conflict has been very sparse, perhaps due to the inaccessibility of the remote desert battlegrounds and the complicated nature of the conflict. Beginning in the early 1970’s when the area was still under the control of Spain’s colonial empire, the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi liberation military organization backed by Algeria, began their fight for independence. However, as the fascist government in Spain began to crumble, control of Western Sahara wasn’t handed over to its native occupants as planned; instead it was split into thirds, with Morocco controlling two and the remaining third controlled by Mauritania.

The Polisario Front, outraged by the agreement, as well as the “Green March,” a movement of Moroccan civilians into Western Sahara, declared war on Morocco. After devastating attacks on the Mauritanian army, the third of Western Sahara controlled by Mauritania passed into Sahrawi hands. Morocco subsequently extended its reach south, and succeeded in creating a stalemate in the conflict through the creation of the “Moroccan Wall”, a 2,700 km long embankment fortified with frequent strong points and the world’s longest minefield. In 1991, the UN arrived to enforce a ceasefire, but the truce has been uneasy with both sides maintaining the status quo.

Due to the placement of the minefield, the Sahrawi have been forced into abandoning their traditional nomadic bedouin lifestyle. In the four huge camps in Algeria, economic and even subsistence opportunities are few and far between. Most families in the camp have at least one member working abroad, or fighting in the Polisario Front, which pays a wage of $55 a month. The dry, rocky nature of the surrounding desert means that any sort of farming is nearly impossible, making refugees dependent on cash earning relatives or western agencies such as USAID for food. Membership in the Polisario Front is increasing, due to the unrest and lack of opportunity young men have in their Algerian exile.

The conflict in Western Sahara has the possibility to destabilize the region, both due to the high numbers of refugees it creates and regional trends of the violent nature of post-independence states. Numerous human rights violations have been alleged, and western organizations have condemned the way Morocco has fought the insurgency.

For more resources on understanding this conflict, check out the BBC profile of the conflicthere, an article on the situation as of April from Vice Magazine here, and the homepage of the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara here.

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