Last Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2017, 11:48 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Western Sahara

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Western Sahara , 1 January 1999, available at: [accessed 20 October 2017]
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.

An estimated 105,000 Western Saharan people were refugees at the end of 1998, including some 80,000 in Algeria, about 20,000 in Mauritania, and approximately 5,000 in other countries.

Pre-1998 Events

Ethnic Sahrawis began fleeing to Algeria in the mid-1970s because of a war for control over Western Sahara.

The war in the former Spanish colony initially pitted both Morocco and Mauritania against armed Sahrawis known as the Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro). Mauritania subsequently renounced its claim to Western Sahara, but Morocco and the Polisario continued to fight for control of the territory.

In 1988, the two sides agreed to support a national referendum in Western Sahara to determine whether the territory should be independent or formally incorporated into Morocco.

In 1991, the United Nations stationed a monitoring force of soldiers and police in Western Sahara. The force, known as the Identification Commission of the United Nations for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), supervised preparations for the referendum scheduled for 1992 and monitored the cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario.

Preparations for the referendum stalled, however. Moroccan authorities and the Polisario disagreed over which populations should be eligible to vote. The Polisario and many international observers charged that Moroccan leaders were attempting to pad the voter list with non Sahrawis to tilt the referendum in Morocco's favor.

A UN-brokered agreement in late 1997 appeared to break the impasse over voter eligibility and raised expectations that the long delayed referendum would occur in 1998.

Impasse in 1998

The year began with optimism that MINURSO could finish the voter eligibility list by June and refugees would repatriate to Western Sahara in the last half of 1998. Therefore the referendum vote was scheduled to occur in December.

By mid-1998, MINURSO managed to screen 147,000 persons to determine their eligibility to vote. But the two sides still disagreed over the eligibility of an additional 65,000 people. The disagreement, unresolved at the end of 1998, forced yet another suspension of the planned referendum.

The persistent delays frustrated international officials attempting to mediate the dispute in Western Sahara. The UN Security Council grudgingly voted to prolong its MINURSO peacekeeping operation into early 1999, at a cost of nearly $5 million per month. The UN trimmed MINURSO from 520 soldiers and police to about 350.

Although refugee repatriation did not occur during the year, UNHCR began to lay the groundwork for repatriation when political conditions permit. UNHCR submitted a draft repatriation plan to regional governments in November and assessed suitable repatriation routes to identify potential problems with landmines. The agency preregistered more than 50,000 Sahrawi refugees in neighboring countries for eventual repatriation.

Because of the paralyzed peace process, UNHCR chose not to appeal to international donors for repatriation funds during the year.

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