Western Sahara History

Sahara Refugee Camps

Western Sahara is bordered by Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Atlantic Ocean – first fell under Spanish rule in 1884, becoming a Spanish province in 1934. In 1975, the colonial master signed an illegal pact – known as the Madrid Agreement – with Morocco and Mauritania, abandoning the North African territory to invasions. Following the pact, Morocco and Mauritania moved to annex the territory while Spain ensured its interests in the exploitation of natural resources in the region.

From 1975 to early 1980s, Moroccan air force rained Napalm and White Phosphorus on the Western Sahara people (Saharawi), killing thousands of men, women, and children, only because they rejected the illegal occupation of their land and tried to flee the zone in order to organize resistance. Following the massive killings, the Western Sahara liberation movement, Polisario, decided to seek refuge for the thousands of Western Sahara refugees in the only neighboring country that did not attack Western Sahara: Algeria.

In 1976, the refugees in Algeria formed the Western Sahara state in exile: the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, SADR. At present, SADR is a full member of the African Union and is officially recognized by more than 50 countries worldwide.

In 1979, when Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara, Morocco took control of the whole territory. Today, seemingly forgotten by the international community, Western Sahara remains illegally occupied by Morocco with its people divided between refugee camps in the Algerian desert and under occupation in their own land.

In 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that Western Sahara is a non-self-governing territory; therefore, it was to be decolonized through a process of self-determination conforming to the United Nations charter. The UN does not recognize Moroccan territorial claims over Western Sahara. The Security Council and the General Assembly have, to date, adopted around a hundred resolutions reaffirming the Western Sahara people’s right to self-determination. Yet, thirty-eight years on, Western Sahara people are still denied the legitimate and fundamental right to vote on the fate of their homeland. Meanwhile, international human rights organizations and bodies including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Front Line, Freedom House and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights routinely report that Morocco is responsible for systematic human rights violations in Western Sahara.

Today, Morocco controls two-thirds of this beautiful land by building a military wall called the Berm, which runs more than 1,690 miles, dividing Western Sahara and its people from north to south. More than 120,000 Moroccan troops are stationed along this wall of shame 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Beyond the wall, Morocco maintains live minefields and barbed wire fences, making it impossible for men and animals to move around in the once free desert.

In the occupied zones of Western Sahara, Morocco confines thousands of Western Sahara people in an open prison where they helplessly watch the “plundering of their country.” Peaceful demonstrations against the occupation are ruthlessly suppressed with arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment, torture, and indefinite imprisonment without any trial. On top of that, human rights monitors have documented 526 cases of enforced disappearance since the beginning of the occupation.

About 22 years ago, the Polisario gave up weapons, ending a 16-year war with the illegal occupier: Morocco. As part of the UN-brokered ceasefire, a referendum on Western Sahara self-determination was promised. While that promise still remains unfulfilled, 165,000 Western Sahara refugees continue to live in refugee camps in Algeria, and the rest of the population suffer under the ruthless illegal occupation.

The Western Sahara people have heard a myriad of false promises and excuses for the last 38 years. They have always, patiently and willingly, compromised for the sake of peace. Yet, over and over, they have been deceived by many of the leaders of the international community.