U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Western Sahara

An estimated 110,000 Western Saharan people were refugees at the end of 2002, 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 about 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 mediation efforts failed to end the voter eligibility impasse.

Impasse in 2002

Some 200 UN peacekeeping troops continued to monitor the cease-fire in Western Sahara while UN diplomats attempted to prod both sides toward a negotiated settlement, without success. A UN report in February described "a rather bleak situation with regard to the future of the peace process" and complained that "the parties have not been willing to fully cooperate with the United Nations."

As in previous years, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) engaged in negotiations with all parties in an effort to begin so-called "confidence-building measures," such as regular mail deliveries between Western Sahara and Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, as well as cross-border visits by Sahrawi families separated for more than two decades.

UNHCR remained unable to implement the programs, however, because the two sides disagreed about which families should be eligible to participate.

No refugees repatriated during 2002. With no visible progress toward a political settlement or large-scale repatriation, UNHCR increasingly questioned the usefulness of maintaining its presence in Western Sahara.


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