U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Western Sahara

  More than 85,000 Western Saharans were refugees at the end of 1997, including at least 80,000 in Algeria and an estimated 5,000 in Mauritania. During the year, negotiations between Morocco and pro-independence Western Saharans produced the first real progress in recent years in resolving the dispute over control of Western Sahara, setting the stage for the planned repatriation of refugees to Western Sahara in 1998. Pre-1997 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 (the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro). Mauritania subsequently renounced any 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 several hundred-strong monitoring force 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, when Morocco argued that people claiming to have ancestral ties to the territory should be added to the list of eligible voters. The Polisario and many international observers charged that Moroccan leaders were attempting to add voters favoring Moroccan control over Western Sahara. Peace Process in 1997 The peace process remained stalled until early 1997, when James Baker, the newly appointed UN special envoy, revived discussions with Morocco and the Polisario. Those discussions produced an agreement in September to reinvigorate the referendum process. The agreement included a compromise on the critical issue of eligible voters, and called for the referendum process to be completed by December 1998. In October, the UN Security Council extended the MINURSO mandate until April 1998. Repatriation Plan Under the settlement plan, UNHCR is to register Sahrawi refugees willing to repatriate prior to the referendum. Repatriation registration is slated to last from January through June 1998. UNHCR estimated that some 120,000 Sahrawis may choose to repatriate. MINURSO is to assume transitional authority in the territory on June 7, 1998, maintaining control until results of the voting are announced at year's end. MINURSO is to publish the final list of eligible voters on July 26, 1998. UNHCR is to begin repatriating refugees in August 1998. Because of concerns about landmines in Western Sahara, UNHCR expected about 90 percent of the refugees to repatriate by air from Tindouf, Algeria. UNHCR hopes to complete the return movements by mid-November, in time for the scheduled three-week referendum campaign leading up to the voting on December 7. UNHCR reported that the high cost of air transportation would drive the repatriation budget to about $50 million.

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