One of the most ambiguously-mapped jurisdictions on the planet is Western Sahara.  The western 75% of Western Sahara is controlled by and de facto incorporated into Morocco, while the eastern 25% (the ‘Free Zone’) is controlled by the Polisario Front, the United Nations-recognised representative of Sahrawie people,, which has proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).  The SADR claims the territory’s largest city of Laayoune as capital, but sits in Algeria. Both groups have claimed the territory since Spain abandoned the area in 1975. Both sides share some degree of international recognition for their claims: Morocco’s historical claims to the territory date back hundreds of years; the Polisario assert that the traditionally nomadic people of Western Sahara have a right to a referendum on independence.

The boundaries of the regions of Morocco intentionally subvert the boundaries of Western Sahara as a result. A large part of the international community remains neutral on the issue, holding out for some sort of peaceful resolution. 58 countries currently recognise the SADR (including neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania), and 82 recognise Sahrawi rights to self-determination. 44 countries support Moroccan claims on Western Sahara, including France, the United States, Russia and China. The African Union recognises the SADR as a full member; consequently, Morocco is not a member of the union.

Since the 1980s, a 2.700-km long, one-to-three-metre high earthen wall backed by a trench and surrounded by bunkers, fences and landmines has separated the portion of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco from the eastern Free Zone (considered by Morocco to be a buffer zone; in turn, the Moroccan-controlled territory is considered by the SADR to be occupied territory).

While the wall was built to keep the Polisario Front, the Western Sahara liberation movement, out of the territory, it has also served to keep Sahrawis from accessing the bulk of Western Saharan land. This has led to 165.000 displaced Sahrawis living in Argelia in refugee camps.  90 000 of which are of concern to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, unable to return to lands they occupied before the end of Spanish rule and the initial 1976-1977 invasion of the region. Another 20.000 refugees live in Mauritania.




The Berlin Wall of the desert by Stefan Simanowitz – 2009 – New Internationalist Magazine

BIPPI (2008). Dispute for control of Western Sahara – 1975/1991 (to present day)

McCoull, C. (2008). Morocco and Western Sahara. Journal of Mine Action 11(2)

UNHCR (2005). 2005 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook Country Data Sheet – Algeria. 2005 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook.