Western Sahara is a resource-rich territory in North Africa that hugs the Atlantic Coast, stretching between Morocco to the north and Mauritania to the south. Since 1975, eighty percent of the territory has been violently occupied by Morocco — its indigenous Sahrawi population subjected to enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest, torture, surveillance and other forms of repression.

Moroccan authorities exercise power arbitrarily in occupied Western Sahara through the use of police and military forces in order to control the activities of the indigenous Sahrawis and repress support for their right to self-determination. Sahrawis are subjected to systemic and systematic persecution by the Moroccan occupying forces, resulting in numerous human rights violations and violations of humanitarian law. 

For decades, Morocco has tried to ensure that there are no international witnesses to its human rights violations in Western Sahara. The UN peacekeeping force in Western Sahara, MINURSO, set up to oversee the promised referendum on self-determination, does not have human rights monitoring within its mandate, despite numerous calls by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In addition, there is a de facto Moroccan ban on international human rights monitors and media in the territory, resulting in a reporting blackhole, a term used by Reporters without Borders in an extensive report. Sahrawis who try to fill this void, including citizen journalists and human rights defenders, are particularly targeted for harassment, arbitrary arrest and judicial harassment.

Through images captured clandestinely at great risk to their lives, and via frequent reports through social media and other means, Sahrawis share information on these abuses and plead for help from the outside. Media activists sometimes must go into hiding or flee the territory after police raid their homes; others are arrested and imprisoned for years on false charges. A one-year review of over 100 citizen videos published in 2017 by our project Watching Western Sahara showed widespread non-violent protests claiming a wide range of rights taking place all over the territory, many of which were met with police violence and abuse.

Moroccan agents also regularly deploy gender violence to terrorise, intimidate, harass and silence women activists who are at the forefront of peaceful resistance.

Since early 2020 Morocco has also weaponized COVID-19, targeting Saharawi human rights defenders and political prisoners by using pre-existing COVID-19 legislation and rules to limit the movement of civilians or justify human rights abuses including house arrests and sieges.  

The end of the 29-year ceasefire

On 13 November 2020, Moroccan forces launched a military intervention in Guerguerat, a buffer zone in the Southwest corner of Western Sahara, targeting nonviolent Sahrawi protesters who had blocked a Morocco-built road in the zone since 20 October. The road, paved by Morocco in 2016 in contravention of the UN-sponsored ceasefire and military accords between Morocco and the Polisario Front, was a strategic route for Morocco to import and export goods, included those plundered from Western Sahara, towards Mauritania and West Africa, and the blockade had resulted in long lines of backed up traffic in both directions. The civilians were whisked to safety by Polisario vehicles and armed conflict resumed along the 2.700km separation wall between the Polisario and the Moroccan militaries.

On 13 November, corresponding with the end of the 29-year-long ceasefire, the occupied territories of Western Sahara witnessed a wave of military, gendarmerie, police and intelligence forces entering the cities, further strengthening the military siege that already existed.

Saharawi activists, journalists and human rights defenders found themselves effectively under house arrest, with their houses besieged by Morocco’s occupying forces. Houses of prominent activists were attacked by Moroccan forces throwing rocks and knocking on their doors, trying to enter, terrifying and intimidating the activists and dozens of people were arbitrarily arrested.

Since then, Morocco has maintained its ironclad repression against Sahrawis and international human rights monitors and journalists are prevented from entering.   

NomadsHRC and the Norwegian Support Committee issued several human rights reports in this period, as did Human Rights Watch, Front Line Defenders and Amnesty International.



“To those who endure the wait, the shade will come” Sahrawi proverb.

Refugees from Western Sahara often refer to their lives as “Gurba” – a collective sentence imposed on their people forcing them to live in endless banishment, permanently homesick for a homeland they cannot reach and far from loved ones they cannot embrace. The Hassanyia language defines “Gurba” as a collective condemnation against Sahrawis in exile who are on an endless search for their promised land, meanwhile living on borrowed land.

Decades after their exodus to Algeria, Sahrawi refugees still await a diplomatic solution to the Western Sahara conflict that will allow them to return home. Most are so young that they have never been to their land.

The Sahrawi refugee camps are in Northwestern Algeria near the town of Tindouf, in an area of the Sahara Desert commonly known as the Hammada or “Desert of deserts” because of its unforgiving climate. Sahrawis have lived there since they were forced to flee their homes in the Western Sahara in 1976, after Morocco and Mauritania invaded. (Read more about the conflict)

While most men went to fight in a war against Morocco and Mauritania, Sahrawi women built basic structures to house schools, clinics and community centres and ran the camps themselves. Women continue to have a central role in Sahrawi society and politics.

Separated for decades from family members who have remained in their occupied homeland, Sahrawi refugees have created a parallel society and government-in-exile known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Although in Algerian territory, the Sahrawi exiles established a system of self-rule, with a constitution and an independent government administration that includes a president, a prime minister and ministries handling areas such as education, health, transportation, culture and security. The SADR government is a founding member of the African Union and is recognised by dozens of countries around the world.

The main refugee camps, known as wilayas, are named after the main occupied cities in the Western Sahara: Dajla, El Aaiún, Ausserd, Smara and Bojador. Rabuni, the administrative center, is home to the SADR government and international NGO’s working in the camps. The camps are subdivided into dairas (towns with mayors) and each has several neighbourhoods mostly run by women. There are also numerous community organisations and cooperatives that work on youth, women, culture and other areas.

The refugees depend on dwindling international humanitarian aid for food, medicine and other goods and services. These resources are administered through the Sahrawi Red Crescent and the Cooperation Ministry. Women community leaders are charged with distributing the aid to families.

The camps suffer from a scarcity of drinking water, sanitation, food and electricity. Medical centres and hospitals are barebones, although the Sahrawi and Cuban medical professionals staffing them are well trained. The extreme climate and lack of basic services are especially hard on the children, who suffer from parasitic, respiratory and skin ailments and many of whom are malnourished. Among the adult population there are high levels of diabetes, asthma and other chronic illnesses, and many pregnant women suffer from anemia. Over half of the refugee population is under the age of 18 and there is chronic unemployment.

The government-in-exile has prioritized education and culture as survival tools to endure the years of waiting and with the hope that these skills will prepare the refugees for an eventual return to their homeland. All the camps have pre-schools and primary schools, and there are several secondary schools. The camps also have post-secondary education and technical programs for various trades. Primary school children spend summers with families in Spain and become fluent Spanish speakers through a program called “Holidays in Peace”.

There is practically a 100% literacy rate in the camps — a monumental feat for a population that was 95% illiterate when the camps were first built. Many youth study abroad through secondary and university levels, primarily in Algeria and Cuba. Cuba-educated Sahrawis are bilingual and are known as “Cubarawis”; many are doctors and schoolteachers but some graduate in careers such as engineering. A significant amount of Sahrawis also study in Spain.

In addition to international country donors, large NGO’s and the UN, support for the refugees comes from the vast solidarity movement in Spain and other countries. Hundreds of solidarity associations send humanitarian aid, and volunteers are constantly traveling to the camps to conduct trainings and support projects. Most of these organisations are based in Spain but there is a large network of support groups from many other parts of the world.

There are several schools in the camps specialising in culture and the arts that operate within the realm of the Sahrawi Ministry of Culture: The Abidin Kaid Saleh Audiovisual School, often referred to as the Sahrawi film school, trains the very first generation of Sahrawi filmmakers, while students at the Sahrawi Arts School are trained in visual arts such as painting and sculpture and the Sahrawi Music School trains young musicians.

Scores of international events take place annually in the camps, including FiSahara, ARTifariti, the Sahara Marathon and the International Theatre and Circus Festival.

The refugee camps have community radios and a TV station known as RASD-TV. Both center on educational and community programming.



“Words uttered at night are erased by day” Sahrawi proverb.


The story of the Western Sahara conflict is filled with heartache and loss. For over a century and a half, its indigenous population, the Sahrawi people, have been colonised and invaded, massacred and separated; persecuted and disappeared. Ultimately, they have also been betrayed by promises not fulfilled. But above all, the story of the conflict in Western Sahara is one of struggle against colonialism and occupation, and of extraordinary resilience and resistance in the face of international neglect.

Western Sahara suffers from one of the world’s most protracted and invisible conflicts. After Spanish colonial rule, a brutal invasion by Morocco, a 16-year war and a 29 year-old ceasefire, Sahrawis still wait for a long-promised referendum on self-determination that the United Nations fails to deliver. For the past decades, they have used diplomacy and creative non violent resistance against an illegal, violent occupation.

On 13 November 2020, the 29-year ceasefire brokered by the UN came to an end. Following a military operation carried out by Morocco against a group of peaceful Sahrawi civilians in a buffer zone located in the southern tip of Western Sahara, a grave violation of the ceasefire accord, the Polisario Front proclaimed the end of the UN-led peace process, and consequently the resumption of war. With the escalation of war between Morocco and Polisario, there was a serious crackdown against Sahrawis in the occupied territories of Western Sahara. Weeks later on December 10th, International Human Rights Day, former president Donald Trump issued a proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in contravention of International Law, becoming the first country in the world to do so.

Spanish colonization and the Moroccan invasion

A century and a half of Spanish colonialism partially destroyed Sahrawi culture and traditions, as nomadic groups were corralled into new colonial cities and forced into sedentary life and the territory’s vast phosphate reserves were exploited by the Spanish. Those who resisted colonialism were detained, tortured, killed and disappeared. At a time when other parts of Africa were decolonized, in 1973 the Sahrawi organised into a national liberation guerrilla force known as the Polisario Front in opposition to entrenched Spanish rule.

As Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lay dying in late 1975, Spain finally withdrew from the territory. But instead of giving way to a process of decolonization, Madrid allowed neighbouring Morocco and Mauritania to invade. Aspiring to expand its borders to create a “Greater Morocco”, Rabat accompanied the military invasion with a large-scale re-population campaign known as the Green March, with hundreds of thousands of Moroccan civilians lured to the territory by King Hassan II and settling there with the promise of financial incentives. The invasion was supported militarily by the United States and France, Morocco’s Cold War allies.

Moroccan forces began a campaign of killing and persecution against Sahrawis and thousands of people, including pregnant women and children, fled into the desert by foot, camel and jeeps, leaving family members and homes behind. Morocco bombed the fleeing Sahrawis with napalm and white phosphorous using French-built warplanes. Many more died in the exodus.

Exhausted and terrified, survivors eventually arrived in Southwestern Algeria, where they built and settled in refugee camps in the heart of the Sahara Desert. While the men went to war with Morocco and Mauritania, the women ran the camps and created a society and government in exile known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a founding member of the African Union that has been recognized by over 80 nations.

Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara in 1979. The war between the Polisario and Morocco ended in 1991 with a UN-brokered cease-fire accord and a promise of a “free and fair” referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people.

Current situation and return to war

Since then, Morocco has blocked attempts to organize the population census and the vote, and the UN Security Council has refused to implement its own referendum plan or allow its peacekeeping mission, known as MINURSO, to monitor the human rights situation in the territory —a key demand of Sahrawis and international human rights organizations. Economic and geopolitical interests have kept the world’s major powers from allowing Western Sahara’s people to choose their own future through a democratic vote on self-determination.Today, Western Sahara legally remains a non self-governed territory pending decolonization.

The last resolution approved by the Council on a plan for self-determination called for a five-year autonomy under Sahrawi political leadership followed by a referendum that would allow Sahrawis to choose between remaining under Moroccan rule, becoming an autonomous region or full independence. Known as the Baker Plan (named after former US Secretary of State James Baker, who was then the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Western Sahara), it languishes since 2003, when it was approved. Morocco has refused to allow the plan to go forward and insists that the option of independence is off the table.

As a stalwart Moroccan ally, France has been a major obstacle to a resolution and blocked all attempts for human rights monitoring by the UN peacekeeping mission. Spain has also refused to assume its responsibilities as a former colonial power and has repeatedly sided with Rabat in its proposed plan for autonomy for Western Sahara, which the Polisario rejects. The UN Security Council convenes each year to renew MINURSO’s mandate with little additional debate, a time when Sahrawis usually take to the streets to demand the adoption of human rights monitoring and the celebration of the referendum.

On November 13, 2020, Moroccan forces launched a military intervention in Guerguerat, a buffer zone in the Southwest tip of Western Sahara, targeting nonviolent Sahrawi protesters who had blocked a Morocco-built road in the zone since 20 October. The road, paved by Morocco in 2016 in contravention of the UN-sponsored ceasefire and military accords between Morocco and the Polisario Front, is a strategic route for Morocco to import and export goods, including those plundered from Sahrawis, towards Mauritania and West Africa, and the blockade had resulted in long lines of backed up traffic in both directions.

Reports on the ground indicated that the Moroccan military entered the buffer zone by making a breach in a wall built by Morocco that separates the Polisario-controlled Western Sahara from the territory occupied by Morocco, and that Polisario whisked the civilians to safety. The Polisario responded to the Moroccan intervention stating that it was a serious breach to the 29-year-long ceasefire between the two parties and declaring it to be over.

On November 13, the same day as the end of the 29-year-long ceasefire, a wave of Moroccan military, gendarmerie, police and intelligence forces entered the cities of the occupied territory, imposing an unprecedented siege and an initiating a crackdown against the Sahrawi people that last to this day.

The culture of impunity reigning in occupied Western Sahara has put Sahrawi human rights defenders and journalists at particular risk for gross human rights violations by police and military agents that act without fearing consequences. This sense of impunity increased with the December 10, 2020 proclamation by Donald Trump that recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and put the United States at odds with International Law, including rulings by the International Court of Justice denying Moroccan aspirations over Western Sahara. Trump’s proclamation, a deal that included the resumption of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel as part of the Abraham Accords, was widely condemned by US politicians from both political parties, international legal experts and human rights organizations.