Moroccan Wall: The Berm of Western Sahara

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One of the most ambiguously-mapped jurisdictions on the planet is Western Sahara. Since 1975, it has appeared on most Western maps as a disputed territory; a polygon shoved between Morocco and Mauritania on the northwest African coast. On the ground, however, the solution is actually much clearer, although still politically ambiguous. 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 Sahrawi people, which has proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR); the SADR claims the territory’s largest city of Laâyoune as capital, but sits in Tindouf, Algeria. Both groups have claimed the territory since Spain abandoned the area in 1975 (Spain’s original plan was to partition the country between Morocco and Mauritania in exchange for resource rights; eventually Mauritania conceded its claim to the Polisario). 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 portions of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco are directly incorporated into the kingdom and function as such (a large portion of the territory’s population now consists of Moroccans who have moved into the area). 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). The wall was constructed in six progressive waves from 1980 to 1987, with the wall system slowly moving south from Morocco until it eventually reached Mauritania, fully marginalising Polisario to the far east of Western Sahara (all major towns in the area lie along the coast, well within the Moroccan side). All along the berm lie forts, airfields, artillery ports, and radar stations to detect artillery fire from the other side. A military stalemate was created that has mostly remained to this day. While the wall was built to keep out guerrillas forced, 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 Algeria 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.

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Progressive construction of the Moroccan-built walls separating Moroccan-controlled territory from Polisario-constrolled territory. Source: Roke, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Western_sahara_walls_moroccan.png .Used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licence, Version 1.2.


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A fort sits along the wall.


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A small southern portion of the wall is actually built in Mauritanian territory. Notice the fort in the middle.

MINURSO, the UN organisation tasked since 1991 with developing a referendum process for Western Sahara regarding independence, continue to monitor both sides of the berm with numerous team sites located around Western Sahara. A major hazard for civilians remains the large number of land mines buried in the sand along the berm. While neither Morocco nor the Polisario employ land mines these days and their stockpiles are destroyed, dozens are still maimed or killed every year by the older mines still lying underneath.Only about 20 percent of the 7 000 000 mines have been cleared. MINURSO has been placing mine warning signs around the desert to warn travellers. In the meantime, Morocco and the Polisario continue to negotiate every few years; while an immediate solution is unlikely, the matter is revisited quite frequently. In the meantime, the wall across Western Sahara will remain.

Further Reading

Bhatia, M. (2001). Western Sahara under Polisario Control: Summary Report of Field Mission to the Sahrawi Refugee Camps (near Tindouf, Algeria). Review of African Political Economy 88(6). Available at http://www.arso.org/bhatia2001.htm. Accessed 24 January 2011.

BIPPI (2008). Dispute for control of Western Sahara – 1975/1991 (to present day). Available at http://www.bippi.org/bippi/menu_left/conflicts/WSahara/WSahara.htm. Accessed 24 January 2011.

Brown, I. (2009). The Moroccan Wall. Google Sightseeing, 23 March 2009. Available at http://googlesightseeing.com/2009/03/the-moroccan-wall/. Accessed 24 January 2011.

Ghandour, A.-R. (2010). Algeria’s forgotten refugees: After 35 years, conditions in Sahrawi camps remain harsh. UNICEF, 24 June 2010. Available at http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/algeria_54061.html. Accessed 24 January 2011.

McCoull, C. (2008). Morocco and Western Sahara. Journal of Mine Action 11(2). Available at http://maic.jmu.edu/journal/11.2/profiles/mccoull/mccoull.htm. Accessed 24 January 2011.

Parry, T. (2007). Clearing the Sahara’s bombed berm. Daily Mirror, 7 November 2007. Available at http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2007/11/07/clearing-the-sahara-s-bombed-berm-115875-20074655/. Accessed 24 January 2011.

UNHCR (2005). 2005 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook Country Data Sheet – Algeria. 2005 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook. Available at http://www.unhcr.org/statistics/STATISTICS/4641835bb.pdf. Accessed 24 January 2011.

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2 thoughts on “Moroccan Wall: The Berm of Western Sahara


  • I've been thinking about posting on this for awhile. Tracking the wall along Google Earth is fun…and time consuming!

    Good stuff as always.


  • This is such an informative blog. I am busy doing a children's book on Africa and stumbled across your blog – and am stuck here as it is all so fascinating…

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