Causes and consequences
The events triggered by the Moroccan and Mauritanian invasions of Western Sahara at the end of 1975 are directly linked to the large displacement of the Saharawi population, most of whom live as refugees in south-west Algeria. The major bulk of Saharawis became refugees after Moroccan planes bombed civilian camps in the interior of Western Sahara with banned napalm and cluster bombs in the early months of 1976. At that point, it became evident that the Polisario resistance forces were ill equipped to protect ordinary Saharawis. The south-western desert region near Tindouf offered a potential safe region in Algeria.
The next Saharawi exodus, although on a smaller scale, took place in 1979 when Mauritania withdrew from the conflict and Morocco annexed the rest of Western Sahara. Exact figures cannot be provided for the numbers that fled the territory in those two waves, but the current size of the population in the refugee camps is believed to be in the region of 165,000. Used by the Algerian government, this figure is the most widely quoted by NGOs and is also used by the UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) to raise funds for food aid to the refugees. In the 2004 WFP meeting in Rome, the number of refugees was officially recognized at 158,000.
Apart from individual cases of Saharawis successfully escaping the repressive Moroccan occupation, there has been relatively little forced population movement since 1979. According to the Saharawi Red Crescent Society, relatively small numbers have arrived safely to the camps since 1976. Ironically, fear of Moroccan infiltrators and spies meant that these Saharawis were often initially treated with suspicion and hostility.
- World Food Programme (WFP) - http://www.wfp.org/index.asp?section=7_1
The Saharawi refugees in south-west Algeria
Like the vast majority of refugees in the world, the Saharawis in the camps are mostly made up of women, children, and the elderly. The main difference in this case, however, is that the Saharawi refugees themselves have been the ones running their own affairs and organizing camp life with little outside interference. This has been partly due to the willingness of their Algerian hosts to grant the Saharawis a degree of autonomy on their land. But equally important, the Polisario have, from the start of exile, set out to prepare the population for a future independent Western Sahara. As a result, much emphasis has been placed on developing human resources and striving for self-reliance. The refugees are indeed dependent on food and other essential aid for survival; however, organizations like the UNHCR that provide assistance to the camps have never run any programs there, in contrast to the case in Palestine, for example.
The Saharawi refugees are located in one of the most hostile and barren deserts of the world, in the remote south-western corner of Algeria, near the town of Tindouf. They are organized into four large camps called wilayas. Each wilaya is named after a main town in Western Sahara. These in turn are divided into six or seven dairas, which are each made up of four neighbourhoods. Every daira has its own primary school, health clinic, and administration. Between 6,000 and 8,000 refugees live in each daira. These days, most of the children are sent abroad to continue their studies after primary school. For the adults, there are numerous vocational centres, including three for women that offer training in subjects such as information technology (IT) and languages. Two centres for mentally handicapped children have been set up in recent years to help them become self-reliant and change negative attitudes towards them in the society. There are also reinvigorated efforts to cultivate food after a period of decline, and several new gardens have been established in the most distant camp, called Dakhla, which is more vulnerable to shortages.
Remarkably, in nearly thirty years of forced exile, the Saharawi refugees have managed to practically eradicate illiteracy, which stood at 95 per cent in 1975. Women have also made impressive strides. They have played a key role in running camp life from the earliest days when the men were away at the warfront. Over the years, they have acquired skills and training in a wide range of professions that go well beyond traditional female realms. This has been possible because girls as much as boys have enjoyed equal educational opportunities. Many girls have been sent abroad on scholarships, sometimes for long periods of time, to receive university degrees. For a historically conservative, nomadic, Muslim society, this is quite radical.
- New Internationalist: ‘Western Sahara: The Facts’ - http://www.newint.org/issue297/facts.html
- Bhatia, M. ‘Western Sahara under Polisario Control: Summary Report of Field Mission to the Sahrawi Refugee Camps (near Tindouf, Algeria)’ - http://www.arso.org/bhatia2001.htm
The darkest phase of the Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara was unquestionably between 1975 and 1991, when the practice of ‘disappearances’ was widespread. Men, women (including pregnant ones), children, and the elderly were targeted if they had either any known Polisario relatives or were suspected of harbouring pro-independence or pro-Polisario views. Major human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch believe that at least a thousand Saharawis were ‘disappeared’ in that period. The main Moroccan agents responsible for the disappearances have been the Forces of the Royal Army, the Department de Securite Territorial, the Gendarmarie Royale, and the Judicial Police. Following the large-scale wave of disappearances in the early years of the occupation, the last major one took place in 1987, when mostly Saharawi youth staged the first demonstration since Morocco annexed the territory in 1975.
In 1991, the 350 officially recognized Saharawi disappeared were released by Hassan II in a royal pardon. Until then the Moroccan kingdom had vigorously denied holding any Saharawi prisoners of conscious, much in the same way it had denied the existence of notorious secret detention centres such as Agdz, Kalaat Magouna, and one in Al-Auin, where hundreds of prisoners are known to have died under terrible conditions. Determining how many disappeared were released before 1991 has been problematic. What is known, however, is that at least 250 disappeared are still unaccounted for. Between 110 and 130 of them are from families that live in the occupied territory, and another 100 or so are from families who only have relatives in the refugee camps. The number is constantly being revised as more and more Saharawi families have begun to break the silence and speak about their disappeared relatives.
After 1991, the Moroccan authorities considered the question of disappearances a closed chapter. But the persistence of various campaign groups and organizations, such as AI, Bureau des Droits de l'Homme au Sahara Occidental (BIRDSO), and Asociación de Familiares de Presos y Desaparecidos Saharauis (AFAPREDESA), finally led to a small breakthrough in 1998 when the Moroccan government provided a list of 112 names of Saharawi disappeared. In no way did it admit to any wrongdoing or explain the reasons and circumstances for their disappearance. It was also wholly unsatisfactory in providing information about what had become of them. More recently, because of the efforts of a small group of Saharawi human rights activists in the Occupied Territories (OT), who are all former political prisoners, over 200 names were adopted by the UN agency Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) in 2002. Due to its rigorous standards, it had not previously taken up many Saharawi cases for lack of precise information. This channel has been yielding some results in getting more substantial responses from the Moroccan government about the fate of the Saharawi disappeared.
In 1998, Morocco pledged that forced disappearances would not recur. Indeed, since the new king, Mohammed VI, took the throne in 1999, there have been signs of positive developments in regard to Morocco’s willingness to address the claims of former disappeared Saharawis and to disclose as much information as possible on past cases. In the wake of setting up the Arbitration Commission of the Royal Advisory Council on Human Rights to provide preliminary compensation payments to affected Saharawis, the king approved the creation of the Justice and Reconciliation Committee on 6 November 2003. This is a non-judicial body to pursue out-of-court settlements of human rights abuses related to forced disappearances and arbitrary detention prior to 1999. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), the more progressive of the two national Moroccan human rights organizations, also included in its latest report the names of 118 Saharawi disappeared who remain unaccounted for. This figure only takes into account those persons whose families live in the OT.
- Asociación de Familiares de Presos y Desaparecidos Saharauis (AFAPREDESA) - http://www.derechos.org/afapredesa/
Human rights abuses
After 1991, the pattern of human rights abuses in occupied Western Sahara shifted from long-term imprisonment and disappearances to one of repeated arrests and shorter-term prison sentences. Indeed, no more than three cases of disappeared Saharawis have been reported since 1992. Nevertheless, the practice of torture during detention is still known to take place on a regular basis, and according to AI, the number of reported incidents appears to have risen sharply between 2002 and 2004. Many human rights abuses are believed to take place during the period of garde-a-vue (pre-arraignment detention). Human rights activists, both in Morocco and occupied Western Sahara, assert that the Moroccan state practices the policy of criminalizing all political activity.
Hundreds upon hundreds of Saharawis have been arrested since 1991 as a result of staging protests against high-level Moroccan visits to the territory or demanding improved economic conditions, which then became political in nature. The most prominent instances were in 1992, 1995, 1999, and 2001. In many cases, Saharawis have been tortured in order to extract false confessions and have been given prison terms of one to ten years. Vigorous international campaigning, especially by AI and other campaign groups, have often been effective in pressuring Morocco to release Saharawi prisoners well before the end of their terms. In 2001, the longest-serving Saharawi prisoner of conscious (for twenty-three years), Sidi Mohammed Daddach, was released and awarded the Norwegian Rafto prize in recognition of his sacrifice to the Saharawi cause of independence.
More subtle forms of human rights abuses, such as the lack of freedom of expression, association, and movement, are a constant feature of the Saharawi experience under occupation. Numerous Saharawis who are considered troublemakers, such as known human rights activists, are deprived of travel documents. The US State Department Country Report on Human Rights acknowledges that Saharawis are under much heavier surveillance than the rest of the population, and that access to the territory and to Saharawis remains highly restricted in many instances. Also, there is substantial evidence to suggest that Saharawis are systematically discriminated against in the workplace and in terms of obtaining job opportunities.
Morocco has consistently accused the Polisario of holding the Saharawis hostage in the refugee camps in south-west Algeria. The Polisario deny this, and no organization that has worked in the camps has corroborated this claim. Serious human rights concerns do exist, however, in regard to the Polisario’s ongoing detention of Moroccan POWs, some of whom have been held for more than twenty years. The third Geneva Convention stipulates that all POWs should be released upon the cessation of armed hostilities. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), AI, and the UN have vigorously condemned the situation. The criticism has led the Polisario to release 843 Moroccan POWs, although, as of June 2004, 414 are still being held.
- US State Department Human Rights Country Report: Western Sahara - http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/27941.htm
- Canadian Lawyers Association for International Human Rights (CLAIHR) - http://www.claihr.org/
- International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - http://www.icrc.org/Web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/htmlall/4CD4BDD827B7B464C1256C050045A252/$File/TUNIS_AR_2001.pdf?OpenElement
One of the major results of the occupation has been the overall trend of Moroccanization in Western Sahara. Aggressive integrationist policies have ensured that an overwhelming Moroccan presence is installed in the territory and dominates the sociocultural, political, and economic life.
Credible sources estimate that up to 200,000 Moroccans have settled in Western Sahara since 1991. The Moroccan government is adamant in treating Western Sahara as one of its southern Saharan provinces and tries to ensure, with each step it takes, that its de facto annexation is irreversible.
Saharawi human and political activists claim there is a process of gradual cultural genocide taking place. Hassaniya, primarily spoken at home, is dominated by the Moroccan dialect spoken in the streets, workplace, and schools. Cultural output is controlled and defined by the Moroccan authorities in collaboration with the pro-Moroccan Saharawis. The dispersal of Saharawi youth into the interior of Morocco for work opportunities and tertiary education is also perceived as an attempt to dilute and destroy Saharawi identity.
Over the course of the sixteen-year conflict, the Moroccans built up a massive military presence in Western Sahara, which continues to date. This process began in earnest in 1981, when war tactics changed and the Moroccan army undertook the construction of the first of six defensive walls, known as berms, which would stretch over a distance of 2,720 km (2,200 km of the which lies inside Western Sahara). With the final section of the wall completed in 1987, Morocco had consolidated all the areas held from the north to the south. The berm originates in south-eastern Morocco and ends near the tip of Mauritania’s north-western border. Built with substantial military and financial assistance from the USA and Israel, the berm has been fortified with an estimated 1–2 million anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines, and is manned by 100,000–200,000 soldiers. Stationed along the berm at around 10-km intervals are 240 heavy artillery units equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment.
The berm was meant to protect the economic interests of the Moroccan occupation. It also aimed to undermine the effectiveness of Polisario strikes that had succeeded in reaching the Western Sahara’s Atlantic coast, and to deter fishing activities. Nevertheless, the guerrillas learnt how to penetrate the wall and stage simultaneous attacks. The sitting-duck situation was demoralizing for the Moroccan soldiers, and many defected. A military stalemate developed. By the late 1980s the costs of the war and the limited effectiveness of the wall eventually convinced King Hassan II to seek a peaceful solution. From this emerged the OAU–UN-sponsored Settlement Plan, agreed to by both parties in1988 and adopted in a 1991 UN Security Council resolution.
- ICBL: Western Sahara Mine Ban Policy - http://www.icbl.org/lm/2001/western_sahara
- United Nations Security Council: Report by the Secretary-General, ‘The Situation Concerning Western Sahara’ - http://membres.lycos.fr/tomdsm/s22464.pdf
- La Nouvelle République: ‘Séparant les territoires occupés de ceux libérés par le Polisario’ - http://www.lanouvellerepublique.com/actualite/lire.php?ida=11594&idc=13
Had the OAU–UN Settlement Plan been implemented by now, the Saharawis would almost undoubtedly be an independent nation. A UN-organized referendum scheduled to take place in early 1992 was designed to give the Saharawis a choice between independence or integration with Morocco. The electorate would have been based on the Saharawi population as identified in a Spanish census of 1974. But this referendum has never taken place, and the UN mandate to continue the mission, known as United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), has been extended countless times. A mission that was projected to cost around US$200 million has now run over three times the original budget.
Morocco’s categorical unwillingness to consider the possible existence of an independent Western Sahara has presented endless obstacles to the process. Its intransigence, however, has also been coupled with a general lack of international will to enforce its own UN Security Council resolutions and pressure Morocco to co-operate with the Settlement Plan. For years the process was stalled; first, on interpretation over voter eligibility, then on appeals eligibility. When in 1997 former US Secretary of State James Baker came on board as Special Envoy, he got the two parties to sign up to the Houston Agreements, which entailed a code of conduct for the identification phase. A provisional list of eligible voters was finally published at the end of 1999, and the referendum seemed imminent. But Morocco, which had been opposed to the publication of the list, began clamouring for another lengthy round of appeals. The UN at this stage agreed to let Baker explore solutions outside the framework of the Settlement Plan in 2000.
- Human Rights Watch: ‘Keeping It Secret: The United Nations Operation in the Western Sahara’ - http://www.hrw.org/reports/1995/Wsahara.htm
- MINURSO - http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/missions/minurso/
- González, Ángel Pérez, ‘The Sahara Issue and the Stability of Morocco’, 2002 - http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/analisis/155.asp
- The Washington Institute - Policy Watch No. 401 (1999) - http://www.washingtoninstitute.org
Current situation and latest developments
Initially, in 2001, Baker came up with a vague one-page proposal known as the Draft Framework. It effectively subverted the letter and spirit of the referendum process, as it would allow the addition of Moroccan settlers to the voters’ rolls. The Saharawis rejected it outright. Experts, and certainly the Polisario, regarded it as a flagrant attempt to legitimize Morocco’s occupation.
In 2003, Baker returned with a fleshed-out version of the Draft Framework. This time, the main difference was a clarification that at the end of a transitional period of autonomy, under provisional Moroccan sovereignty, eligible Saharawis and the bulk of settlers would vote for either independence, continued autonomy, or complete integration. Also, both parties to the conflict would be barred from intimate involvement in the referendum process. To everyone’s surprise, Polisario accepted this revised Baker plan with some reservation. Now called the Peace Plan for the Self-determination of Western Sahara, it was also approved by the UN Security Council. Morocco, however, rejected it on the basis that it would lose control over the process and that independence had been included as an option. In mantra-like fashion, Morocco has since openly stated that it will only work towards a solution which does not either affect its national sovereignty or territorial integrity. This, of course, is a very different tune to the one it played for years when it appeared to go along with the OAU–UN Settlement Plan.
The latest moves have been to embark on confidence-building measures between the two sides. Under the auspices of the UNHCR, a five-day exchange of visits between close family members from both sides of the berm began in March 2004, to be continued under review for a period of 6 months thereafter. A phone service was also set up between the camps and the Moroccan-occupied territory, and there are plans to have a mail service too, if the Moroccans agree. The hope is that all these steps will generate a favourable climate for both sides to work towards an agreement based on the latest plan that the UN Secretary General considers the best way forward.
Baker’s resignation as Special Envoy to Kofi Annan, in June 2004, has cast yet more uncertainty onto the future of the UN mission in Western Sahara. Alvaro de Soto from Peru has been appointed to take his place. Various indications suggest efforts are being made by France, Spain, and Morocco to frame the conflict in Western Sahara as a bilateral problem that needs to be resolved between Algeria and Morocco. This approach is unlikely to succeed, as it would exclude the Polisario voice in negotiations and echo the distant events leading up to the Tripartite Madrid Accords in 1975.
- ARSO - http://www.arso.org/S-325-2004e.htm
- Middle East Report Online - http://www.merip.org/mero/mero080103.html; http://www.merip.org/mer/mer227/227_zoubir.html
To the knowledge of the author no disasters apart from severe droughts in the late 1960s and early 1970s have affected population movement in Western Sahara. At that time, significant numbers of Saharawi nomads, whose herds had been wiped out, were forced to settle in semi-squalid slums in the Spanish-built colonial cities to survive.
There is no indication so far that any development projects in Western Sahara, either in the occupied area or the liberated zone, have forced the population from their homes.