Western Sahara’s four-decade conflict is one of the world’s most invisible crises. The territory lies between Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria, and its long coastline stretches along the Atlantic Ocean.
Western Sahara was historically populated by nomadic Berber tribes. In 1884 Spain colonized the territory and exploited its natural resources, turning it into a Spanish province. The United Nations called for decolonization in 1965 as anti-colonial movements spread across the African continent. In 1973, with Spain still refusing to leave the territory, Sahrawis created the Polisario Front to oust colonial rule. After a two-year guerrilla war, Spain agreed to hold a UN-sponsored referendum on self-determination in 1975, and in preparation, conducted a population census.
But before the referendum could take place, Morocco defied a ruling by the International Court of Justice in favor of Sahrawi self-determination and staged a march in November of 1975 by 350,000 Moroccan civilians to claim the territory. Following the Green March, as it was known, Spain transferred administrative control to Morocco and Mauritania, allowing each party to invade from the north and the south.
Thousands of Sahrawis, including many women and children, fled from the military attacks that followed and crossed into Algeria, where they were allowed to settle in refugee camps near the town of Tindouf.
With Algeria’s support, the Polisario Front went to war against Morocco and Mauritania. In 1979 Mauritania withdrew and Morocco annexed its share of the territory. After thousands of casualties and with an increasingly strained Moroccan economy, the war ended in 1991 with a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement that included the promise of a referendum on self-determination for Sahrawis and the return of the refugee population to the territory. The Security Council established the United Nation’s Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire and oversee the settlement plan.
To prevent the Polisario Front from entering the Morocco-controlled Western Sahara, Morocco built a 2,500km-long wall, separating the occupied territory from a portion of land controlled by the Polisario. Millions of landmines planted along the wall have made it one of the most heavily contaminated areas in the world.