Due east from the tourist beaches of the Canary Islands, 165,000 refugees live on an inhospitable plain in the Sahara desert. Temperatures range from the scorching to the freezing, water is scarce, access to the outside world is difficult. Yet for 30 years the people of Western Sahara have been forced to live here, struggling to return to a homeland where they can determine their own future.
On 31 October 1975, Morocco and Mauritania invaded Western Sahara as Spain (the former colonial power) looked on. The Saharawi people were expelled from their homes by force, including the use of napalm. Most fled to the Algerian desert.
Mauritania withdrew its claim to Western Sahara in 1979 and left. But Morocco stayed. The Saharawi people declared their own Republic in exile, which has been recognised by more than 90 other states. Yet the world still refuses to uphold international law and bring the Occupation to an end.
The Saharawi liberation movement, known as the Polisario Front, fought the Moroccan army for 16 years, reclaiming a small section of their country. In response Morocco built a 1,000-mile long wall, heavily fortified and mined, which divides the Saharawi refugees from those who still live in the Occupied Territories. In 1991 the United Nations brokered a ceasefire and agreed to organise a referendum in which the Saharawi people could vote on the future of Western Sahara. Yet 15 years later they are still waiting for the vote to take place.
Despite the International Court of Justice ruling that the Saharawi people have a right to self-determination, the political process has stalled. Morocco refuses to agree to a referendum plan, and Western powers have turned their backs on Western Sahara.
Living in a State of Siege Tens of thousands of Saharawi people still live under Moroccan occupation in Western Sahara. Although Saharawis have ruled out terrorism as a political tactic, their lives and activities are severely constricted by a harsh security state.
The Saharawi flag is banned and speaking out for an independent state is illegal. Merely calling for human rights is enough to get organisations closed down and their leaders imprisoned. Yet Saharawis continue to speak out.
Over 500 Saharawi are still ‘disappeared’ in Moroccan custody, possibly surviving as political prisoners. Many have not been heard from for nearly 30 years. Relatives have been imprisoned and tortured for campaigning to know the truth about their fate.
Saharawi workers face greater exploitation than Moroccan settlers. Those who campaign for independent trade unions have been violently mistreated.
Peaceful demonstrations since the summer of 2005 have led to harsh repression and an uprising in the Occupied Territories. Demonstrators were arrested in large numbers, some receiving over 10-year prison sentences.
Africa's last colony
Since 1975, three quarters of the Western Sahara territory has been illegally occupied by Morocco. The original population lives divided between those suffering human rights abuses under the Moroccan occupation and those living in exile in Algerian refugee camps. For more than 40 years, the Saharawi await the fulfilment of their legitimate right to self-determination.