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                     November 1997
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A referendum on the future of Western Sahara, sponsored by the United Nations, is promising to alleviate the sufferings of some 120,000 refugees who have been living in four tent cities in the desert, in the Tindouf border region of southwestern Algeria, for over two decades. 

The refugees had fled their country during a war between Moroccan troops and the Polisario Front independence movement. An entire generation has grown up in the camps, never setting foot on the land their parents had left. They raised crops on salty farmland to supplement food provided by international aid agencies. 

Arid but mineral-rich 

 Western Sahara is an arid but mineral-rich area about the size of Italy. When Spain withdrew from its former colony in 1975, Morocco sent in its troops, claiming that Western Sahara had belonged to the Moroccan kingdom before the Spaniards arrived a century ago. The Algerian-backed Polisario opposed the move and a long war ensued. The Moroccan army eventually sealed off four-fifths of Western Sahara. The two sides fought a 15-year war up to a U.N.-monitored ceasefire in 1991. U.N. observers were sent in to maintain peace and to organise a referendum on the region's future. The mandate for the 228-member U.N. military force expired in September. 

 Voter eligibility 

 The most controversial aspect of the negotiations concerned voter eligibility. Previous attempts to hold a referendum failed over disagreements on who was entitled to vote. Polisario accuse Morocco of settling its many Moroccans in Western Sahara and want to limit voting to the 74,000 inhabitants who lived in the region before 1975. The Moroccans want to include all the 120,000 people of Saharan origin they claim currently live in the area. 

A breakthrough was achieved in September after long peace talks mediated by former US Secretary of State James Baker. The two sides agreed on holding a referendum on whether Western Sahara should become independent or be absorbed by Morocco. Morocco also agreed to U.N. control of the territory during the referendum and unrestricted access for foreign observers and journalists. Moroccan troops and Polisario's estimated 2,000-3,000 guerrillas are supposed to stay in their barracks before and during the vote. 

Under the accord, tribal chiefs are to help the UN determine who is a genuine resident of Western Sahara and thus eligible to vote. The territory's population was largely nomadic before Morocco took over. Morocco agreed to delay identification of almost 60,000 people whose nationalities are in doubt. The Polisario Front agreed to allow the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to begin work in settlement camps as well as potential resettlement areas. Mr Baker, predicts the referendum could be held as early as next summer. 

 Divided families 

 Thousands of refugees still have family members on the Moroccan-occupied side whom they have not seen for 20 years. Despite the 6-year-old truce, many refugees remained in the refugee camp. Some felt that returning would be tacit acknowledgment of Morocco's sovereignty. Others feared reprisals by Moroccan authorities. Dozens of Western Saharans suspected of being Polisario sympathizers have been arrested or have disappeared in Moroccan-controlled areas. Some Polisario refugees say they will renounce living in Western Sahara if voters choose to make it part of Morocco. World Reference -- Western Sahara 


Western Sahara Home Page 

Food Assistance to vulnerable groups among Western Sahara Refugees 

 U.N.'s Baker to chair Sahara talks: 

 Baker Opens Talks on Western Sahara Conflict 

UNHCR - information on: 
Western Sahara

Refugee News: More on Western Sahara