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 40 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.
Remaining colonies in Africa, according to the UN General Assembly. See the UN's list of remaining colonies here. Mauritania withdrew its claim to Western Sahara in 1979 and left. But Morocco stayed. The Saharawi people declared their own Republic in exile, which was later recognised by more than 80 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 more than 20 years later they are still waiting for the vote to take place.
Despite the International Court of Justice opinion that the Saharawi people have a right to self-determination, and the Morocco hold's no legitimate sovereignty claims to the terrutory, the political process has stalled. Morocco refuses to agree to a referendum plan, and Western powers fail to push Morocco to give up on its baseless claims.
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. Leading activists are sentenced to lifetime imprisoment by military courts.
Over 500 Saharawi are still 'disappeared' in Moroccan custody. Many have not been heard from for 40 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.
Since 1975, three quarters of the territory of Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco. A majority of the population is still living in refugee camps in Algeria. Those who remained in their homeland are subjected to serious harassment from the Moroccan occupiers. For more than 40 years the Sahrawis have been waiting for the fullfilment of their legitimate right to self-determination.
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