About the Western Sahara
The Western Sahara is a territory rich in natural resources that lies South of Morocco, North of Mauritania and West of Algeria. Its long coastline stretches along the Atlantic Ocean. Since 1976 it has been under Moroccan military occupation.
Natives of the Western Sahara are referred to as "Sahrawis". Their mother tongue is Hassānīya, a variation of Arabic.
The Western Sahara is home to one of the least known and most invisible political conflicts in the world. Often referred to as Africa's last colony, it was under Spanish rule until 1976, when Madrid withdrew from the territory and allowed Morocco and Mauritania to invade.
Thousands of Sahrawis fled the brutal military invasion and the repression that followed, leaving family members and homes behind. The exodus took them to a remote area of the Sahara Desert in Southwestern Algeria, near the town of Tindouf, where they remain today. Read more about the refugees.
The military invasion was accompanied by a repopulation campaign that brought thousands of Moroccan settlers to the territory, and led to a war between Morocco and the armed Sahrawi group Polisario Front that lasted until 1991. Mauritania withdrew in 1979.
As a result of the 1991 United Nations-brokered cease-fire, Morocco agreed to allow a referendum on self-determination in the Western Sahara so that its residents could vote on whether they wished to remain under Moroccan rule or become independent.
Over three decades later and despite numerous United Nations resolutions calling for the vote, Morocco continues to refuse to hold the referendum. Two of its powerful allies at the UN Security Council, the United States and France, are reluctant to force Rabat to comply with its international obligations. A long-term solution seems more remote than ever.
The decades-old stalemate has generated a protracted humanitarian crisis for the refugees, who are mostly dependent on humanitarian aid for survival. The camps suffer from chronic food and water shortages, a lack of basic sanitation and high unemployment rates.
Today, the Western Sahara continues to be under full military occupation. International journalists are mostly barred from reporting from the territory. Sahrawi pro-independence activists and human rights advocates are subject to detention, torture and forced disappearances.
Despite this stark political landscape, Sahrawi refugees continue to wait and hope for a return to their homeland.