What the reignited Western Sahara conflict has to do with the revival of the deadly Atlantic migration route to the Canary Islands.
There is mourning again in Senegal. Migrants are seeking the way from Africa across the Atlantic to the Canary Islands in greater numbers than at any time in the last fourteen years – around 20,000 this year, with around 400 confirmed drownings. The sea route to the Spanish archipelago is about 1,500 kilometers long. It is still a proud 800 from the port of Nouadhibou in Mauritania, the nearest collection point.
Actually, the Canary Islands are only 150 kilometers from Africa’s coast. So why this eternally long sea route? The reason can be seen at once on any world map. There, on Africa’s northwest coast opposite the Canary Islands, lies a gray or white spot: the Western Sahara. It begins 55 kilometers north of Nouadhibou and blocks the way to the north.
Administratively, Western Sahara belongs to Morocco. But under international law, the UN defines it as the continent’s last undecolonized territory, and its status has been in limbo since the withdrawal of colonial power Spain in 1975. Neighboring Morocco has annexed Western Sahara, but a government-in-exile of the armed independence movement Polisario, based in Algerian refugee camps, claims Western Sahara as its national territory. A 2,700-kilometer military barrier under UN supervision separates the Moroccan-controlled bulk of Western Sahara from where the Polisario has free rein.
Weapons have been silent there since 1991, but now there is movement in the conflict. In November, the Polisario called off its cease-fire with Morocco. Last week, the U.S. became the first major state in the world to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.
The desert area was once one of the last remnants of “Spanish West Africa,” a relic of Catholic Spain’s campaigns of conquest in North Africa. When Spain’s dictator Franco died in 1975, Morocco saw its reclamation as a continuation of its anti-colonial resistance. The Polisario, founded in 1973, on the other hand, insisted on the “Sahrawis'” right to self-determination and proclaimed their own state.
Morocco prevailed militarily, the Polisario diplomatically. Since then, two irreconcilable anti-colonial liberation logics have clashed in Western Sahara. The peace solution envisaged by the UN in 1991 – a referendum among the Sahrawis – is becoming more and more obsolete with each passing year. Today, most of the Moroccans living in Western Sahara were born there, but they would not have the right to vote.
Most of today’s residents of refugee camps in Algeria have never seen Western Sahara, but they would decide. As many years have now passed since the end of Spanish rule as from the loss of Germany’s “eastern territories” in 1945 to German unity in 1990-only die-hards demanded that the clocks be set back 45 years in 1990, but that is exactly what the Polisario wants in Western Sahara today.
Reality has long since overtaken the conflict. The Sahrawis are not passively waiting in tents to be repatriated to the Promised Land. Those who can, have Algerian papers to give their children a normal life in a city. They also have Mauritanian papers so that they can visit Western Sahara.
Today, Mauritanian Nouadhibou on the Atlantic is not only a migration hub, but also a meeting place for Western Sahara residents and Western Sahara refugees. From here, business is done in the direction of the north. As is so often the case, people overcome entrenched fronts by means of multiple identities.
Morocco grasped this first. Since 2002, Morocco’s “National Road One” has been running in stages from Tangier in the north 2,379 kilometers to Western Sahara’s border with Mauritania, where it connects to the West African road network. It is no coincidence that the current conflict ignited at the Guerguerat border crossing. Morocco began closing the last gap in the road in the 3.8-kilometer-wide no man’s land between the Moroccan and Mauritanian border posts a few years ago. The Polisario is trying to prevent this – arguing that the Guerguerat crossing did not exist in 1991, although this is just as true for most Sahrawis. In November, Morocco sent in its army, and the Polisario called off the cease-fire.
Guergerat was once a bolt separating Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. In this century, it has become a thriving borderland, bringing together Arab and black Africa. West African traders are expanding their businesses northward, and Morocco is connecting with West Africa, where its banks offer major investments and its religious institutions provide a counter to radical Islamism.
On the other hand, the cease-fire line in the Western Sahara, which is highly armed and mined on both sides, is the Polisario’s livelihood – and at the same time a defense against flight and migration to Europe. This makes the Polisario a useful building block of Europe’s refugee defense. No wonder Europe is not trying to resolve the Western Sahara conflict. In German asylum law, Western Sahara is part of Morocco’s “safe country of origin” and Sahrawis can be deported, but Germany does not officially recognize Morocco’s rule over the territory.
It is also in Europe’s interest to close Guerguerat again. Because migrants had also recently discovered the open gate, and more and more West Africans were settling in Western Sahara – until the Corona crisis. Now everything is being reversed. Mauritania closed all land borders for months on March 13, shifting routes back into the sea. And with the new dispute over Guergerat, the conflict is fulfilling its tried-and-true function: It is keeping Africa divided and thus keeping Africans out of Europe. (MN)
by Basit Abbasi