What do you know about Western Sahara?

Half a million people are waiting in Western Sahara for a referendum of self-determination which the United Nations agreed in 1991. In the meantime, they survive at the occupied and liberated territories as well as refugee camps. The situation in Western Sahara concerns not just Spain, Marocco and Algeria but also the rest of the world since human right abuses have been reported.

Everybody knows Sahara for having the largest subtropical hot desert which is also the third largest after Antarctica and the Arctic, but nobody cares about the 500,000 people who are living, or surviving, on its west side. What is the story of this part of the world? It‘s one of oblivion, shame and injustice since an entire village is claiming freedom and self-governance for decades.

Western Sahara is a disputed territory in the Maghreb region of North Africa and the most sparsely populated area in the world.

In the late 19th century West Sahara was occupied by Spain, but in 1967 the UN General Assembly recommended to the Spanish government to expedite decolonization, which actually happened 10 years later. Two years before decolonization, in 1973, the political and military movement Polisario Front of National Liberation was created and proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976 in order to support self-governance and the rights of Sahrawis.

In 1975, when the Spanish dictatorship ended with the death of Franco, Spain left the territory, but the colonization continued, going from the political control by Spain to the military control by Marocco, which was requesting the land since 1957, and Mauritania. The main consequence was a war between them and the Polisario Front, and in this context Sahrawis were forced to flee to the Algerian region of Tindouf. That area contains right now about 175,000 civilians, mostly women, children and elderly who are trying to survive as refugees.

After 16 years war, the UN Security Council created a Peace Plan in 1991 and a special Commission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, which should have taken place in 1992, but Marocco has been delaying it again and again. Actually, Morocco still controls two thirds of the territory, including most of the Atlantic coast line. The rest is controlled by the SADR.

At this point we should ask ourselves what seems more important than the civil rights and self-governance of West Sahara. Well, the key is the exploitation of the fishing resources and its phosphate deposits, the largest in the world, which are in the side controlled by Marocco. That´s why Spain, France, United States and even the UN have taken an ambiguous position in order to keep a good relationship with Marocco. Although the UN have released some non-mandatory resolutions, nothing has changed.

The Sahrawi area is separated from the rest of Morocco by a 2,700 kilometres wall, which is surrounded by barbed wire and minefields and guarded by more than 25,000 armed soldiers. This wall is 60 times longer than the Berlin Wall, becoming the second largest one in the world after the Great Wall of China.

The result: a population struggling between occupied and liberated territories as well as refugee camps. Who is responsible? We could begin pointing to Morocco and Spain and end with the EU, UN and so many other countries interested in this region.

In fact, after Israel, Morocco is the second biggest violator of UN resolutions, and it has been repeatedly criticized for its actions in Western Sahara by international human rights organizations, but nothing has changed.

Some movements in Spain support the right of Western Sahara to make a referendum of self-determination and social inclusion of Sahrawis as a story of success in Spanish society. Actually, every summer since so many years ago thousands of kids are coming from the Sahara to spend a few weeks in Spain and there are many NGO´s which are working on this
issue, so the Spanish civil society engagement with Western Sahara is pretty high. However that is not enough to change this situation, the governments and the international organisations are the powerful ones to solve this conflict, but the economic and political interests seem more important than the rights of Sahrawis.

Isabel Barragán Vera

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