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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Western Sahara

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 16 July 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Western Sahara, 16 July 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a66d99e37.html [accessed 31 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front (the independence movement of Western Sahara) resumed in March 2008 in New York, with Mauritania and Algeria also attending. However, they quickly stalled. Representatives from the government of Morocco and the Polisario Front have now met four times since August 2007 to negotiate the status of Western Sahara, but there has been no progress since the UN envoy to the territory stated in April 2008 that independence is unrealistic.

The exiled government of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is based at the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria, which it controls. It also claims to control the part of Western Sahara to the east of the Moroccan Wall, known as the Free Zone. The area has a very small population, estimated to be approximately 30,000. The Moroccan government, however, views this area as a no-man's land patrolled by UN troops. The SADR government whose troops also patrol the area regard it as the liberated territories and have proclaimed a village in the area, Bir Lehlou as SADR's provisional capital.

The conflict in Western Sahara has resulted in many serious human rights abuses, including the displacement of tens of thousands of Saharawi civilians from the country and the expulsion of tens of thousands of Moroccan civilians by the Algerian government from Algeria.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attempted to break the impasse between the two sides during a visit to North Africa in September 2008 (while still in office), but the pursuit of al-Qaeda networks in Morocco and Algeria instead dominated her visit. A Human Rights Watch report released in December 2008 claimed that Morocco was violating 'the rights to expression, association and assembly in Western Sahara'. The report also said that human rights had improved in the Saharawi refugee camps managed by the Polisario Front in Algeria, although it claimed that the Polisario marginalizes those who oppose its leadership. The population of the camps is vulnerable because of the camps' isolation, the lack of any regular independent human rights monitoring and reporting, and Algeria's claim that the Polisario, rather than Algeria itself, is responsible for protecting the human rights of the camps' residents. The UNHCR's plans for voluntary repatriation of Saharawi refugees have had to be repeatedly put on hold, due to the continuing political deadlock.

The status of education in the refugee camps has improved in recent years. Although teaching materials remain scarce, literacy has received welcome attention and the Polisario Front claim that nearly 90 per cent of refugees are literate, compared to less than 10 per cent in 1975. Thousands have also received university education in foreign countries as part of aid packages (mainly in Algeria, Cuba and Spain).

The Moroccan government has also invested in the social and economic development of Western Sahara. El-Aaiun in particular has been targeted, and has grown quickly. Several thousand Saharawis study in Moroccan universities and literacy rates are estimated at some 50 per cent of the population.

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