Skip Navigation

Forty Years Forgotten in the Western Sahara

Photo: Giovanna Sodano un temporale improvviso ci sorprende sulla via del ritorno. la pioggia e il vento trasformano immediatamente il paesaggio assolato mentre le nostre amiche cercano di proteggersi l'una con l'altra...

For more than 150,000 Sahrawis, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the start of their life as refugees in the Western Sahara. There has been no fighting in the last 24 years, and a growing number of second-generation Sahrawi refugees have no memory of the original flight the Sahrawi people made under the 1975 Moroccan bombardment. And yet, in the six refugee camps spread across a 200-square mile slice of desert, an oppressive sense of waiting lives on.

Referred to as “nowhere land,” “forgotten people” and the “refugee situation you know nothing about,” the Western Sahara conflict and the plight of the Sahrawi refugees has amounted to nothing more for many than a dotted line drawn on our world maps. And although stories of Syrian and Palestinian refugees are frequently displayed on the front pages of Moroccan newspapers, awareness of the humanitarian issues brought about by the Western Sahara conflict have largely been eliminated by the dominant Moroccan narrative.

But perhaps most crucially, for most Sahrawis hoping to make it back on the world stage, the goal is not to simply to garner attention as victims in a pressing humanitarian crisis. Rather, they seek recognition for their political cause. In 1991, they were promised a referendum and a shot at winning their independence. Twenty-four years later, they’re still waiting.

The Western Sahara conflict and territory dispute is predictably rooted in a colonial legacy. The territory and political jigsaw puzzle now called the Western Sahara was a Spanish protectorate from 1884 until 1974, when Spain’s military dictator, General Francisco Franco, fell gravely ill. As Spain withdrew and Spanish authorities fled, Morocco jumped at the possibility of taking control over the vast, sparsely inhabited territory, which the monarchy declared its “southern provinces.”

Morocco sought an International Court of Justice advisory opinion in 1974, asking the ICJ to examine whether the Sahara had been terra nullius — territory that belonged to no one — prior to Spanish colonization, and to determine whether the territory’s citizens had legal ties of sovereignty to the Kingdom of Morocco. When the ICJ issued a 1975 decision that ruled negatively on both questions and instead upheld the right of self-determination for Western Sahara’s Sahrawis, the monarchy responded defiantly.

Shortly after the decision was made public, the late King Hassan II announced the Green March, inspiring about 350,000 Moroccan men and women to march into the Sahara in mass protest of the decision and in favor of the monarchy’s irredentist claim to “Greater Morocco,” which was first championed by nationalist parties rising up against French colonial power in the 1950s.

“Tomorrow, God willing, you will step on a part of your territory, touch the sand of your Sahara and kiss the soil of your beloved nation,” the King said in his address. In response, armed Sahrawi rebels in the “Polisario Front,” a Cold War Latin-American style socialist guerilla movement, gained support from Cuba, Libya, Algeria and dozens of other countries, declared the region the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and fought back to demand independence. In this 16-year war, thousands of Sahrawis died, hundreds more disappeared and 400 remain unaccounted for to this day.

The armed conflict ended in 1991 with a United Nations-brokered ceasefire, including a promise for a free and fair referendum for Sahrawis to vote on their independence. But a political deadlock that arose over issues such as who would be allowed to vote has left thousands living in refugee camps on the other side of the 1,600-mile sand berm that was originally built to fortify their front line. So although the armed fighting has been suppressed, the conflict simmers persistently on.

According to Oxfam International, 31.6 percent of Sahrawi refugees are underweight, and 31.4 percent suffer from chronic malnutrition. At the mercy of international aid, they rely on donated rations, and their canvas tents cannot shield them from frequent sand storms and summer temperatures of over 120 degrees in the region of the Sahara known as “The Devil’s Garden.” According to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, they are among the longest-warehoused refugee groups in the world. But what makes the situation uniquely challenging is arguably not the length of their wait, but the manner in which they have waited. Those in the refugee camps in Algeria are unwilling to consider integration and are determined to stay until they can return to the Western Sahara with their independence.

The question is: Will the waiting pay off? Reconsideration of the referendum by Morocco certainly seems unlikely. Remembrance of the Green March is celebrated annually as a national holiday, and current King Mohamed VI, widely considered to be quite progressive, vowed in a November speech that the territory would be a part of Morocco for eternity. The debate could also be driven partially by natural resources, with the Western Sahara providing strategic Atlantic Ocean ports and access to prime fishing waters and great potential for mining phosphate, an key ingredient for fertilizer. And Morocco has embarked on politically strategic economic development of the area, increasing job opportunities and training and pumping millions into building Laayoune’s first university, swimming pools and commercial complexes. According to Human Rights Watch, when protests and clashes have arisen in the region, Morocco has managed to flood the media with propaganda or restrict access to any information that might invite feelings of solidarity with Sahrawis among Moroccans.

But while little was expected from Morocco, the rest hinges on the international community. Though US officials say they are committed to finding a political resolution and ending human rights abuses, the United States withdrew a proposal for human rights monitors after Morocco lobbied against it and cancelled a joint U.S.-Morocco military exercise. A Dallas-based energy company is slated to start drilling off the coast of the Western Sahara, and trade between Morocco and the United States has grown since their free trade agreement in 2006, reaching $3.79 billion in 2011. Overall, the issue has reached a stalemate with members of the Security Council, the United States and France in particular, protecting interests on both sides of the issue with Morocco and Algeria, and therefore remaining hesitant to try to resolve it.

Amidst a predicament of international neglect and UN hypocrisy, the Sahrawis have limited paths to recapturing recognition on the world stage. With severely limited resources, and restricted information, their voices are rarely heard beyond the circles that already know their struggle. Some who have witnessed rumblings of extremism among the growing number of frustrated, unemployed and impatient Sahrawi youth have argued that the threat of extremism in the region — whether real or perceived — might be the only way to take back the spotlight and garner the attention of the international community that was seemingly lost more than 20 years ago.

The stakes are high, and not only for Sahrawi refugees. Scholars Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy have argued that Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara is “one of the most egregious yet most underchallenged affronts to the international system in existence today.” Attention spans can be short when it comes to humanitarian crises, particularly in the MENA region where they unfortunately seem to arise with some frequency. But for refugees who have protested and waited 40 years for their promised right to self-determination, international law and a long-anticipated vote should determine their fate, not their ability to attract attention through a perceived rise of extremism.

About the Author

Katherine Lamb '16 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review, concentrating in International Relations and Middle East Studies.