ANN ARBOR, Michigan — As Africa’s last colony, Western Sahara is a predominantly low-income nation with little access to clean water and sufficient nutrition. The short life expectancy of 54 years indicates poor health conditions. Western Sahara is the second-largest exporter of phosphate in the world, but the residents are unable to reap the economic benefits due to continued occupation by Morocco. Worldwide, people, countries and NGOs are fighting for the safety, prosperity and liberation of the Sahrawi people.
The Situation in Western Sahara
Morocco has occupied Western Sahara since 1975, meaning that the Sahrawi people must follow the laws set by the Moroccan Government without any democratic input. The U.N. has never recognized this occupation as it violates international laws outlined in the Geneva Conventions. Although Morocco purports to be moving toward a referendum where the residents of Western Sahara can vote on their own independence, an investigation by the U.N. reports that the Moroccan Government has been heavily interfering with the progress of this referendum.
The media ban in Western Sahara means that the Morrocan police arrest Sahrawis caught filming protests or other pro-independence activity and the Moroccan Government prevents journalists around the world from entering Western Sahara, often forcing reporters to delete any footage caught in the area.
Sahrawi independence activists caught protesting or holding the Western Sahara flag on the streets are beaten with batons by the Moroccan police and often arrested and subjected to torture including waterboarding, chemical burning and electrocution. Many have family members who disappeared years ago and still have not been found.
Reclaiming the Land
Western Sahara is divided by a wall separating Moroccan-controlled territory from that occupied by the Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s pro-independence militia. Landmines placed by the Moroccan military litter both sides of the wall, making the land unsafe and unusable.
In order to reduce this threat, the U.N. directs efforts to remove landmines and other explosive hazards as part of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Since 2008, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has reclaimed more than 147 million square meters of land by removing explosives. It also educated 73,044 locals on safety and hazard recognition.
UNMAS gets its funding of $3.2 million through the U.N. peacekeeping budget as well as an additional $60,000 from Denmark and $67,660 from Spain. In order to finish clearing landmines, UNMAS estimates an additional $3.4 million would be needed.
Western Sahara: A Thirsty Nation
Water is a scarce resource in Western Sahara and families often have to travel long distances to access it. Moroccan food companies are depleting underground water stores by using the territory to grow produce shipped around the world. Switzerland, Finland, Sweden and Norway boycott produce grown in Western Sahara in an attempt to bring water back to the Sahrawi people.
In 2018, MINURSO volunteer Clifton Shimega from Kenya traveled to a remote village in Western Sahara to install a water pump. That pump now provides clean water and sanitation to the people and animals in the area.
In addition to water extraction, oil extraction had been a problem. WSRW’s predecessor, the International Coalition for the Protection of Natural Resources in Western Sahara, was successful in 2002 at driving out oil prospecting companies when their use of the land was ruled illegal by the EU.
Fishing: Taking Back the Waters
Moroccan fisheries use unsustainable fishing practices off the coast of Western Sahara and the government makes deals with other nations to allow their fisheries access as well. A study released in 2011 by Océanic Développement predicted that if European fishing companies continued using these waters, the ecosystem of fish in that area would soon be completely depleted.
Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW), an NGO dedicated to addressing resource plundering in Western Sahara, conducted a “Fish Elsewhere!” campaign to popularize these findings and successfully convinced the EU to vote against continuing these fishing contracts with Morocco in 2011. However, some European boats still illegally fish in the waters.
Aid for Western Sahara
Driven out of their homeland, 200,000 Sahrawi refugees live in camps in and around Tindouf, Algeria. The camps are run democratically but have few resources and most of the men fight in the Polisario Front. The U.N. provides some foreign aid, but the U.N. Secretary-General recommends increasing this.
Though years of occupation and war have devastated the nation, there is hope for the future as movements of people around the world help to investigate the occupation of Western Sahara, deter unjust resource extraction and human rights violations and provide resources to support the Sahrawi people in their battle for freedom.
– Elise Brehob