Last Updated: Monday, 18 December 2017, 09:48 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Western Sahara

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2000
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Western Sahara , 1 June 2000, available at: [accessed 18 December 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.

Western Sahara

An estimated 110,000 Western Saharan people were refugees at the end of 1999: some 80,000 in Algeria, about 25,000 in Mauritania, and approximately 5,000 in other countries.

Pre-1999 Events

Residents of Western Sahara, known as ethnic Sahrawis, began fleeing to Algeria in the mid-1970s because of a war for control over Western Sahara.

The war 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 eventually 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 incorporated into Morocco.

A United Nations peacekeeping force arrived in Western Sahara in 1991 to monitor the cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario and to supervise preparations for the scheduled 1992 referendum.

Preparations for the referendum became seriously 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 on voter eligibility in 1997 temporarily raised hopes that Sahrawi refugees could repatriate and vote in a referendum during 1998. Additional disagreements regarding voter eligibility blocked progress, however.

Impasse in 1999

No Sahrawi refugees repatriated during 1999. By year's end, UN officials announced that continued disagreements over voter eligibility would likely delay the referendum until 2002.

Procedures to identify eligible voters, a process that began in 1994, resumed during the second half of 1999 after an eight-month suspension. UN officials screened more than 40,000 people during the year; some 190,000 persons have been screened since 1994.

The UN published a provisional list of 85,000 eligible voters in July. Some 40,000 persons judged ineligible by the UN screening process filed appeals to have their cases reconsidered. The large number of appeals overwhelmed UN staff in the region.

"The prospect of holding the referendum within a reasonable period of time, instead of becoming closer, has become even more distant," the UN secretary general lamented in December.

The UN Security Council grudgingly extended the 300-strong peacekeeping and monitoring force in Western Sahara throughout the year, at a cost of $4 million per month.

Continued paralysis in the peace process left Sahrawi refugees preparing for a repatriation that many realized would not occur soon. The UN Security Council, in a futile effort to create momentum toward a solution, urged Morocco and Polisario in March "to move ahead with the necessary discussions" to repatriate refugees.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) continued its prolonged planning for eventual repatriation. Moroccan officials granted official recognition to UNHCR in January so that the agency could begin repatriation planning inside Western Sahara.

UNHCR conducted two assessment trips to Western Sahara during the year to collect information about schools, hospitals, and housing facilities in returnee areas.

In July, UNHCR recommended that refugee leaders should make cross-border visits to Western Sahara and urged a mass information campaign to help prepare Sahrawi refugees for their eventual return home. Sahrawi refugees reportedly supported the recommendations but expressed concern that their cross-border assessment visits into Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara might be dangerous.

By the end of 1999, some 87,000 Sahrawi refugees in neighboring countries had pre-registered for eventual repatriation. Most indicated that they would prefer to repatriate to the eastern side of Western Sahara, rather than to the western side, for security reasons.

Despite the planning for repatriation, the UN secretary general reported at year's end that "tangible progress has yet to be made" toward Sahrawi repatriation.

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