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Assessment for Saharawis in Morocco

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Saharawis in Morocco, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 19 February 2018]
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.
Morocco Facts
Area:    458,730 sq. km.
Capital:    Rabat
Total Population:    29,347,000 (source: U.S. Census bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Saharawis enjoy high levels of territorial concentration and group organization and cohesion. These factors combined with continued government repression make the continuance of rebellion likely (REB00 = 3, REB01-03 = 1 and PROT00-03 = 3). While the ceasefire has held with only minor skirmishes marring it over the past decade, the continued delay of the referendum increases the likelihood that widespread violence will break out again. Factors inhibiting the intensification of the conflict include transnational support for settlement, including international pressure to conduct the referendum and honor its outcome.

The Moroccans seem unwilling to allow a referendum unless they can stack the deck in their favor (by including resettled Moroccans on the voter rolls) and the POLISARIO Front opposes this. Also, the Moroccan government continues to act periodically in bad faith by repressing demonstrations, engaging in mass arrests and probably torture, sending warplanes which occasionally open fire over the Western Sahara, illegally moving people across the borders, strengthening its defenses within the region during cease fires, moving troops into the region, and intimidating the inhabitants of the Western Sahara.

The death of King Hassan II in July 1999 sparked hope for a final settlement of the dispute. Hassan, who led the so-called Green March of Moroccan citizens into Western Sahara, made the Western Sahara issue a foundational issue of his rule and legitimacy. His son, King Mohammed VI, has not done the same. As his legitimacy, both internally and internationally, is likely to rest more on democratization and economic development, continued delay of the referendum may be seen as harmful. However, Mohammed has maintained that Morocco has a legitimate claim to Western Sahara even while pledging that the referendum will take place. Should the referendum, when held, decide on independence, Morocco's government may not recognize its legitimacy. If this happens, observers can expect an almost immediate return to violent rebellion by the Polisario Front. As of 2002, the Moroccan government and the POLISAIRO front were still unable to agree on a potential referendum.

Analytic Summary

The Saharawi of the Western Sahara are members of one of 22 nomadic tribes, one fifth of whom regularly move across the country's nominal borders. They are the result of the fusion of Sanhaja Berbers, Bedouin Arabs known as the Beni Hassan, and black African slaves. The predominant religion is Sunni Islam. They speak a dialect of Arabic known as Hassinya and their traditional livelihoods are based upon pastoral nomadism, trade and marginal agriculture. Their society was divided horizontally and vertically into tribe and caste systems.

Saharawis, and Western Sahara, have not been subject to centralized rule for most of their history (TRADITN = 1). The area of Western Sahara fell under nominal Spanish control in 1884; however, the interior retained its autonomy until the 1930s. From 1934 to 1975, Spain ruled the territory. In the 1960s, a self-determination movement began among Saharawis (PROT65X = 2). In 1966, Spain told the United Nations it would allow self-determination. However, when this promise was not kept, a Sahawari militarized movement calling itself the POLISARIO Front (The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguiet el Hamara and Rio de Oro) mobilized (REB65X = 6).

The question of Western Saharan independence was further problematized when King Hassan II of Morocco laid claim to the territory, marching across the border with 350,000 of his citizens in November 1975. Despite Spain's promise to grant self-governance (and an International Court of Justice ruling in favor Saharan independence), Spain, Morocco and Mauritania signed the Madrid Accords, which divided Western Sahara between Morocco and Mauritania.

The signing of the Madrid Accords sparked a civil war in Western Sahara, with the POLIXARIO Front fighting both Moroccan and Mauritanian forces (REB75X, REB80X, REB85X = 7). By 1979, Mauritania had withdrawn from Western Sahara. Fighting continued on the Moroccan side until 1988, when both sides agreed in principle to a UN peace plan calling for a cease fire, an exchange of prisoners, and a referendum designed to give the inhabitants of the Western Sahara a choice between independence or integration into Morocco. The original date for the referendum was set for 1992; however, more than a decade later, the referendum has not been held. The UN mission responsible for organizing and monitoring the referendum, MINURSO, has spent most of that time presenting voter registration lists to Morocco and the POLISARIO Front. However, Morocco has raised repeated objections to the voter lists.

The prolonged civil war and the continued presence of the Moroccan military has resulted in a large Saharawi refugee population. According to most counts, the population of Saharawi refugees in POLISARIO-controlled camps in Algeria now exceeds the number of Saharawis living in Western Sahara. Furthermore, refugees who wish to repatriate must agree that Western Sahara should be integrated in Morocco to gain permission from Moroccan authorities. Refugees with known nationalist pasts are not allowed to repatriate to the area, although they are allowed to resettle in Morocco proper.

Saharawis do enjoy high levels of cohesion (COHESX = 5), which has probably been enhanced with their concentration in the refugee camps (GROUPCON = 3). The POLISARIO Front, the primary Saharawi political party of Saharawis, is recognized as the legitimate government of Western Sahara by approximately 40 countries and was admitted to the Organization of African Unity (an act that caused Morocco to withdraw from the OAU).

The primary grievance of the Saharawis is political independence from Morocco (AUTOGR303 = 1). Virtually all Saharawi grievances – which include delays in the holding of the referendum, the settlement of Moroccans in Western Sahara, continued military occupation, restrictions on movement, and economic disadvantages – are intrinsically linked to the question of independence.

The POLISARIO Front's most consistent ally has been Algeria, which has pushed diplomatic recognition and hosted Saharawi refugees. In the late 1990s, that support became less strident as Morocco and Algeria began to reconcile long-standing political differences. However, Algerian support remains important. Furthermore, the POLISARIO Front has been consistently supported in its demands (if not always its methods) by the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity, both of which have placed substantial pressure on the Moroccan government to proceed with the referendum.


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