U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Western Sahara

An estimated 110,000 Western Saharan people were refugees at the end of 2000: some 80,000 in Algeria, about 25,000 in Mauritania, and approximately 5,000 in other countries.

Pre-2000 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. 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. 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 late 1990s.

Impasse in 2000

No Sahrawi refugees repatriated during 2000. Negotiations over voter eligibility remained deadlocked. Some 230 UN military observers remained in Western Sahara throughout the year, at a cost of about $4 million per month.

UN officials warned that the tortuous peace process took a step backward during 2000. Negotiations between the Moroccan government and the Polisario during the year "deepened the differences between the parties" because "there still existed a high level of animosity," the UN secretary general reported in June. The negotiation process "is in the ditch," a UN special envoy to Western Sahara concluded.

Procedures to identify eligible voters dragged on during 2000. UN and local officials have interviewed 198,000 people since 1994 to determine whether they qualify to vote in a referendum. By the end of 2000, the UN's voter identification program faced some 133,000 appeals from applicants who either protested their exclusion from voter eligibility rolls or protested the inclusion of others. UN officials, clearly discouraged, offered no timetable for completing the appeals process.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) continued its prolonged planning for eventual refugee repatriation. Some 107,000 Sahrawi refugees have pre-registered for repatriation, but most indicated that they would prefer to repatriate to the eastern portion of Western Sahara, rather than to the western side, for security reasons. Moroccan authorities indicated that they opposed repatriation to eastern zones of Western Sahara.

UNHCR has identified sites for two of the four reception camps that will temporarily shelter returnees should repatriation eventually occur.

UN efforts to build trust between the two sides through a pilot program of cross-border visits into Western Sahara by refugee families failed. Refugees expressed concern that visits into Western Sahara would be dangerous, and the two sides were unable to agree on proper procedures for the visits or how refugee visitors would be selected.


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