The berm visible from the air
Protesters carrying Polisario flags in front of the Western Sahara berm (2011)

The Moroccan Western Sahara Wall or Berm is an approximately 2,700 km-long (1,700 mi) sand wall or berm running south to north through Western Sahara and the southwestern portion of Morocco. It separates[1] the Moroccan-controlled areas (the Southern Provinces) on the west from the Polisario-controlled areas (Free Zone, nominally Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) on the east. The main function of the barriers is to exclude guerrilla fighters of the Polisario Front, who have sought Western Saharan independence since before Spain ended its colonial occupation in 1975, from the Moroccan-controlled western part of the territory.[2]

According to maps from the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)[3] or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),[4] in some places the wall extends several kilometers into internationally recognized Mauritanian territory.[5]


The Moroccan Western Sahara Wall is also called the Western Sahara berm and the Western Sahara separation barrier.

Physical structure

The fortifications lie in uninhabited or very sparsely inhabited territory. They consist of sand and stone walls or berms about 3 m (10 ft) in height, with bunkers, fences, and landmines throughout. The barrier minebelt that runs along the structure is thought to be the longest continuous minefield in the world.[6] Military bases, artillery posts and airfields dot the Moroccan-controlled side of the wall at regular intervals, and radar masts and other electronic surveillance equipment scan the areas in front of it.

The following is one observer's description of the berm from 2001:

Physically, the berm is a 2 m (6 ft 7 in) high wall (with a backing trench), which rides along a topographical high point/ridge/hill throughout the territory. Spaced out over every 5 km (3.1 mi) are big, small and medium bases, with approximately 35–40 troops at each observation post and groups of 10 soldiers spaced out over the distance as well. About 4 km (2+12 mi) behind each major post there is a rapid reaction post, which includes backing mobile forces (tanks, etc). A series of overlapping fixed and mobile radars are also positioned throughout the berm. The radars are estimated to have a range of between 60 and 80 km (37 and 50 mi) into the Polisario-controlled territory, and are generally utilized to locate artillery fire onto detected Polisario forces. Information from the radar is processed by a forward-based commander, who contacts a rear-based artillery unit.[7]

In all, six lines of berms have been constructed.[8] The main ("external") line of fortifications extends for about 2,500 km (1,600 mi). It runs east from Guerguerat on the coast in the extreme south of Western Sahara near the Mauritanian town of Nouadhibou, closely parallelling the Mauritanian border for about 200 km (120 mi), before turning north beyond Tichla. It then runs generally northeastward, leaving Guelta Zemmur and Smara, again crossing Mauritanian territory and reaching Haouza in Moroccan-held territory, before turning east and again closely following the Algerian border as it approaches Morocco. A section extends about 200 km (120 mi) into southeastern Morocco.[9][10]

Significant lines of fortifications also lie deep within the Moroccan-controlled area.[11] Their exact number and location are a source of some confusion for overseas commentators.[12]

All major settlements in Western Sahara, the capital Laayoune, and the phosphate mine at Bou Craa lie far into the Moroccan-held side.



System of the Moroccan Walls in Western Sahara with chronology of their construction

The fortifications were progressively built by Moroccan forces starting in 1980, with help from South African, South Korean, and Israeli advisors and formally ending on 16 April 1987.[8] The wall was built in six stages, and the area behind the wall was expanded from a small area near Morocco in the north to most of the western and central part of the country gradually. The walls built were:

2005 expulsion incident

Sahrawi women hold a protest in Western Sahara on the eastern side of the wall

In the summer of 2005, the Moroccan Army accelerated the expulsion (begun in late 2004) of illegal immigrants detained in northern Morocco to the eastern side of the wall, into the Free Zone. The Polisario Front and the MINURSO rescued several dozen lost in the desert, who had run out of water. Others died of thirst.[14] By October, the Polisario had received 22 immigrants in Mehaires, 46 in Tifariti and 97 in Bir Lehlu. They were from African countries (Gambia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, etc.), except a group of 48 who were from Bangladesh.[15][16]

The Thousand Column demonstration

Since 2008, a demonstration called "The Thousand Column" is held annually in the desert against the barrier by international human rights activists and Sahrawi refugees. In the 2008 demonstration, more than 2,000 people (most of them Sahrawis and Spaniards, but also Algerians, Italians, and others) made a human chain demanding the demolition of the wall, the celebration of the self-determination referendum accorded by the UN and the parts in 1991, and the end of the Moroccan occupation of the territory.[17]

During the 2009 demonstration, a teenage Sahrawi refugee named Ibrahim Hussein Leibeit lost half of his right leg in a landmine explosion.[18][19] The incident happened when Leibeit and dozens of young Sahrawis crossed the line into a minefield while aiming to throw stones to the other side of the wall.[20][21]


Effectively, after the completion of the wall, Morocco has controlled the bulk of Western Sahara territory that lies to the north and west of it, calling these the kingdom's "Southern Provinces". The Polisario-founded Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic controls the mostly uninhabited "Free Zone", which comprises all areas to the east of the barrier. Units from the United Nations mission MINURSO separate the two sides, and enforce cease-fire regulations on their troops.

External reactions and opinions

Western attention to the wall, and to the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara in general, has been minimal, apart from Spain. In Africa, the annexation of Western Sahara by Morocco has attracted somewhat more attention. Algeria supports the Polisario Front "in its long-running desert war to oppose Moroccan control of the disputed area".[22][23] The Organization of African Unity/African Union (AU) and United Nations have proposed negotiated solutions.

The AU's stance on Western Sahara led to Morocco's exit from the organization. After a 33-year absence, Morocco rejoined on 30 January 2017, despite 9 member states voting against, but 39 supporting.[24] Morocco was re-admitted with the understanding that Western Sahara will remain an AU member. The membership of relatively wealthy Morocco was welcomed by many members, as the AU has been criticized for being overly dependent on non-African donor funding.


See also

References and notes

  1. ^ Saddiki, Said (October 2017), "5. The Wall of Western Sahara", World of Walls: The Structure, Roles and Effectiveness of Separation Barriers, Open Book Publishers, pp. 97–120, doi:10.11647/obp.0121.06, ISBN 9781783743681, However, with the completion of the Moroccan separation wall in the 1980s,...
  2. ^ Maclean, Ruth (22 September 2018). "Build a wall across the Sahara? That's crazy – but someone still did it". the Guardian. Archived from the original on 24 September 2018. Retrieved 25 September 2018.
  3. ^ Deployment of MINURSO Archived 27 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ "Western Sahara Atlas Map – June 2006". Archived from the original on 28 July 2011. Retrieved 14 September 2010.
  5. ^ MINURSO
  6. ^ McCoull, Chad. "Country Profiles – Morocco and Western Sahara". Journal of Mine Action. ISSN 2154-1485. Archived from the original on 29 August 2012. Retrieved 27 November 2010.
  7. ^ "ARSO Website". Archived from the original on 18 October 2017. Retrieved 13 April 2008.
  8. ^ a b Milestones of the conflict Archived 21 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine, page 2. Website of the United Nations MINURSO mission.
  9. ^ United Nations Map No. 3691 Archived 23 August 2017 at the Wayback Machine Rev. 53 United Nations, October 2006 (Colour), Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Cartographic Section. Depicts the deployment of the MINURSO mission, as well as the wall location.
  10. ^ See also e.g. this satellite montage at Google Maps Archived 12 July 2023 at the Wayback Machine for a section of the wall in Moroccan territory. The northernmost fort that is clearly distinguishable can be seen here [1] Archived 12 July 2023 at the Wayback Machine. (Google Maps, as of 30 November 2006)
  11. ^ For example, a sand berm with fortifications much like on the main external line can be seen here [2] Archived 12 July 2023 at the Wayback Machine, reaching the coast near Imlili, over 200 km (125 miles) north of the main external berm along the southern border. (Google Maps, as of 30 November 2006)
  12. ^ (in Dutch) Marokkaanse veiligheidsmuur al twee decennia onomstreden Archived 9 February 2005 at the Wayback Machine, CIDI Israel website, Nieuwsbrief (2004)
  13. ^ Eljechtimi, Ahmed (17 November 2020). "Morocco PM says Western Sahara wall at centre of dispute completed". Reuters. Archived from the original on 20 April 2022. Retrieved 20 April 2022.
  14. ^ "Patada al desierto" (in Spanish). Diario de Córdoba. 17 October 2005. Archived from the original on 21 July 2011. Retrieved 28 May 2010.
  15. ^ "El Polisario busca desaparecidos" (in Spanish). El País. 18 October 2005. Retrieved 28 May 2010.
  16. ^ "De Bangladesh al desierto del Sáhara" (in Spanish). El País. 19 October 2005. Archived from the original on 12 July 2023. Retrieved 28 October 2010.
  17. ^ Una cadena humana de más de 2.000 personas pide el derribo del muro del Sáhara Archived 17 March 2014 at the Wayback Machine El Mundo (EFE), 22 March 2008 (in Spanish)
  18. ^ Demonstration in Western Sahara against Moroccan Army Wall Archived 23 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine Demotix, 9 April 2009
  19. ^ Ibrahim Hussein Leibeit Archived 17 March 2014 at the Wayback Machine Focus Features, 28 May 2009
  20. ^ Screenings in The Devil’s Garden: The Sahara Film Festival Archived 3 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine, New Internationalist, Issue 422, 20 May 2009
  21. ^ The Berlin Wall of the Desert Archived 3 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine New Internationalist, Issue 427, 10 November 2009
  22. ^ "Security Problems with Neighboring States" Archived 21 November 2010 at the Wayback Machine, Country Studies/Area Handbook Series, Library of Congress Federal Research Division (retrieved 1 May 2006).
  23. ^ Williams, Ian and Zunes, Stephen, "Self Determination Struggle in the Western Sahara Continues to Challenge the UN" Archived 9 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Foreign Policy in Focus Policy Report, September 2003 (retrieved 1 May 2006).
  24. ^ "Morocco rejoins the African Union after 33 years". Al Jazeera. 31 January 2017. Archived from the original on 24 June 2017. Retrieved 23 June 2017.