Last Updated: Friday, 22 September 2017, 11:21 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Western Sahara

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 10 June 2002
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Western Sahara , 10 June 2002, available at: [accessed 25 September 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 110,000 Western Saharan people were refugees at the end of 2001, including some 80,000 in Algeria, about 25,000 in Mauritania, and approximately 5,000 in other countries.

Pre-2001 Events

Residents of Western Sahara, known as ethnic Sahrawis, began fleeing to Algeria in the mid-1970s to escape 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 do Oro). Mauritania eventually renounced its claim to Western Sahara, while 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 UN 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.

The referendum did not occur, however, after 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.

UN efforts to mediate an end to the voter eligibility impasse continued throughout the 1990s and 2000.

Impasse in 2001

A UN mediator for Western Sahara offered a draft proposal to break the deadlock between Morocco and the Polisario, but the proposal failed to make headway during the year.

The plan offered political and economic autonomy to Western Sahara for five years, coupled with Moroccan control over Western Sahara's foreign relations and military. The proposal called for a referendum on Western Saharan independence at the end of the five-year autonomy period, offering to grant voter eligibility to all individuals who were full-time residents of the territory one year prior to the referendum.

Moroccan authorities indicated their tentative acceptance of the plan because it would make recent Moroccan migrants to Western Sahara eligible to vote in the referendum. Polisario leaders "categorically rejected" the proposal because, they contended, it virtually ensured that Western Sahara would be ruled by Morocco.

About 230 UN peacekeeping troops continued to monitor the cease-fire, at a cost of $4 million per month. Six past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize issued a rare public statement urging the UN to insist on a fair referendum vote because, they asserted, "the credibility of the United Nations is at stake in Western Sahara."

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees continued its efforts to negotiate with all sides to organize visits to Western Sahara by Sahrawi refugees living in Algeria. The visits did not occur, however, in part because of security concerns among refugees and political leaders.

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