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Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony whose status has been disputed since the Spanish left in 1975.

Morocco and Mauritania all claimed an interest in the territory, while the Polisario Front, a leftist national liberation movement, wanted independence and was backed by Algeria. Morocco took de facto control of most of the territory in the late 1970s, after armed conflict with Mauritania. The Polisario declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, from its base in exile in the town of Tindouf, in Algeria.

The UN called for a referendum on the territory’s future, but Morocco had encouraged immigration and the parties could not agree on who should be allowed to vote. The UN set up MINURSO, to monitor the ceasefire between the parties and help the UN High Commission for Refugees deliver humanitarian assistance to the tens of thousands of refugees living in large camps near Tindouf.

There have been clashes and confrontations between Polisario fighters and Moroccan troops. Meanwhile, NGOs say that both the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario commit human rights abuses, and the World Food Programme has had to cut rations by 20% and stop distributing special supplements to pregnant and nursing women and babies, because of a funding shortfall. Landmines and unexploded ordnance are also a major problem for civilians.

An important judgment of the European Court of Justice in December 2016 means that the Association Agreement between the EU and Morocco cannot apply to Western Sahara and that inhabitants must be consulted about economic activities in the territory. In January 2017, Morocco re-joined the African Union after leaving 33 years earlier in protest at the Sahrawi Arab Republic’s membership, part of a new strategy to look towards African neighbours. And high-profile statesman, Horst Köhler, was appointed as the UN Secretary General’s special envoy in 2017, and the UN called for a renewed effort to find a solution. A resolution to the problem will still be difficult, however.

The UK has taken a relatively low profile in the dispute and its policy is to support the UN line in seeking “a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution to the situation in Western Sahara, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in the context of arrangements consistent with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations.”

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