On September 23rd, 2020, the United Nations Security Council released a report concerning the situation surrounding the current ceasefire between the POLISARIO Front and the Kingdom of Morocco. This ceasefire, brokered by the UN in 1991, has existed in relative calm “on both sides of the berm” in Western Sahara, according to the report. West of the berm, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been relatively moderate. By August 31, 2020, 43 active cases were reported. No cases were reported among MINURSO personnel.
Tensions have been present since before the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, in 2019, infrastructure investment by Morocco west of the berm was described by the POLISARIO as the “military occupation and illegal annexation of parts of Western Sahara.” Although there have been demonstrations, most did not impact infrastructure and the flow of traffic. Of those that did, the MINURSO successfully negotiated and calmed protester activity.
The UN mission observed a total of 61 violations committed by the parties between September 2019 and August 2020: eight by the Royal Moroccan Army and 53 by the Frente POLISARIO military forces. Alongside these violations were regular reports of drug smuggling and human trafficking within the area. Meanwhile, the Frente POLISARIO has criticized the MINURSO mission for “the failure … to act robustly [which has] undermined the credibility of the United Nations and deepened the loss of faith amid the Sahrawi people” in regards to lacking dialogue between the two groups.
West Saharan Refugees
Despite ongoing support from the UNHCR and WFP, Sahrawi refugees continually suffer from malnutrition and anemia. Beginning in 2019, chronic shortages of vaccines alongside unpredictable funding flows amongst humanitarian actors bring about uncertainty for those in the region. The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt local incomes of most of those within the region while concerns surrounding food and supply shortages have deepened. In April 2020, the UNHCR, the WFP, and UNICEF issued an appeal for $15 million in funding and only received 60 percent of what they suggested is required to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the region.
The withdrawal of Spain from the Western Sahara, a claim which began in 1884 and ended in 1976, was followed by opposing visions of recovery of the Western Saharan region. Morocco, led by King Hassan II, pursued the region. In opposition, the Frente POLISARIO which wanted instead to implement an independent Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, pushed back against Morocco with support from Algeria and Libya. Throughout the 1970s, a series of coordinated attacks by the POLISARIO nearly pushed the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces out of most of the Sahara, but not fully out of the region.
In the 1980s, pushback by the Moroccan forces, in what was called a ‘Green March’ lead to the annexation of the region. This was followed by the creation of a Moroccan “Great Wall” : a series of long defensive walls enclosing the surrounding areas of the Sahara which greatly disadvantaged the POLISARIO’s position over the region. Half of the native Saharan population fled to Algeria in refugee camps while the Moroccan government relocated thousands of Moroccans into the region.
By August 1988, Moroccan King Hassan II accepted proposals for an “internationally supervised ceasefire” by the UN. This was observed by the UN in 1991 and lead to the creation of MINURSO. Since then, a number of demonstrations by Saharans against Moroccan occupation alongside POLISARIO’s continued press for self-determination within the region and Moroccans’ offer for limited autonomy for Western Sahara have characterized the peace process.