The Western Sahara Scandal: The Forgotten Emergency

The Western Sahara scandal. The last colonial war in Africa is still unresolved, in spite of over 40 years of efforts on the part of the United Nations.  A people has been destroyed,  its rights to its native soil confiscated,  half of its people living in refugee camps – three generations now that have never known a normal, free life – while the rest barely ekes out a living in the barren eastern part of the country, just beyond a Berlin-like wall built by the occupant, Morocco.

And all the riches of the country from ocean fisheries and phosphate mining go to Morocco, leaving  not a cent for the native people of the Western Sahara, the Sahrawis.


The Berm divides the country: Morocco controls the area to the West, the Polisario to the East.  Source: Kmusser

Morocco has brought into the country some 350,000 Moroccan immigrants; they help exploit the phosphate mines and have even set up modern agricultural infrastructures producing tomatoes, while the exploration rights to oil recently discovered in the ocean have been sold to Americans. The Moroccan tomatoes bought by Europeans are often in fact grown in the Western Sahara.

Who knew?

Actually, nobody knows. Or cares. This is an international scandal, one of the worst offenses against human rights and human dignity. And a conspicuous United Nations failure.

How did it all start?

With a war in the Western Sahara when the former colonial power, Spain, withdrew, handing over the administration jointly to Morocco and Mauritania. War started when the Polisario, seeking independence for the country,established in 1976 a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government-in-exile in Tindouf, Algeria.  The Polisario bravely fought on, until Mauritania was pushed back and a cease-fire was brokered by the United Nations in 1991 and a referendum planned to enable the Sahrawi to chose between independence or integration with Morocco.

So far, the vote hasn’t taken place and Morocco remains put, occupying the whole western half – some 80 percent of the country – where the only sources of income are located, fisheries, phosphates and recently, oil. Thus, the Sahrawis are left totally destitute and over 100,000 fled in refugee camps in Algeria, near Tindouf. According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Organization, there are presently some 165,000 refugees in five camps that offer little opportunities for the young. They even lack playgrounds:

Western Sahara playground

In the picture: MINURSO Officer Meets Western Sahara Locals – A member of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)’s Military Liaison Office chats with a group of local Western Saharans. 17 June 2010 – Western Sahara – Credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret

 Refugees thus barely survive with a minimum of aid from the World Food Programme, mostly grains, no vegetables or fruits with, as a result, a large number of children suffering from stunted growth.

And the international aid diminishes each year, as the world’s attention is deflected to other more “sexy” emergencies, like the continuing one in Syria or the earthquake in Nepal that has recently filled headlines. Aid to Sahrawi refugees now stands at some US$30 million.

Thirty million. That’s as much as Morocco is getting for the rights to the Western Sahara’s fisheries  it has managed to sell to the European Union.

And that’s half the yearly cost of MINURSO, the UN force set up in 1991 to watch over the cease-fire – some 250 soldiers camped near the wall that divides the country. MINURSO’s mandate has just been renewed by the UN Security Council on 28 April 2015 for another year – yet without any modification to its mandate which is simply “reporting” if it sees any cease-fire violation with no ability to intervene. And worse, no requirement to report and intervene in the case of human rights violations  – something that in principle should be possible because Morocco has signed all the human rights international agreement and is supposed to respect them. But the question does not even arise since MINURSO’s mandate doesn’t cover this kind of situation.

A blatant injustice.

Western Sahara landmine

In the picture: UNOPS Contracts Specialists to Eliminate Mines in Western Sahara – Women Battle Area Clearance (BAC) operators from non-governmental organization Action on Armed Violence, working under a contract from the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), use a large loop detector to locate mines in Mehaires, Western Sahara. 17 June 2010 Mehaires, Western Sahara – Credits: UN Photo/Martine Perret
How to resolve it? In fact, the solution had been found forty years ago, in 1975, when the International Court of Justice called for a referendum to decide the destiny of the country. But the voting, in 40 years, has never been organized: it seems that the UN has never been able to get the belligerents to agree to a definition of who should have the right to vote – no doubt due to the large Moroccan immigration that muddied the waters, giving the locals the sense of losing control over their own land.

Forty years. That’s how long it has taken the United Nations (and the international community) to get exactly nowhere.


UN incompetence? No, UN staff, when interviewed in the media (for example by ARTE TV in a film released in April 2015) express their dismay and desire to see the situation resolved.  In fact, the United Nations classifies the Western Sahara as a “non self-governing territory.”

The blame must be laid where it belongs.

One, general indifference. The media doesn’t talk about the Western Sahara, it’s a boring subject when Libya and Syria are falling into chaos, flows of immigrants are dying in the Mediterranean, refugees are over-running Europe and Nepal is shaken by an earthquake milling thousands of victims and destroying UNESCO heritage sites. And yet, human rights organizations are far from silent, dozens have accused Morocco of human rights violations, from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch. It is true that the Polisario has also been accused of mistreating Moroccan prisoners by France Libertés, but attempts by Morocco to get the Polisario classified as a terrorist organization by the United Nations have never worked. Still, indifference in the international community prevails.

Two, private interests. For example, it suits the European Union to pay those (rather modest) fishing rights to Morocco and European fishing fleets are going at it with a vengeance: the ocean in front of the Western Sahara is now seriously over-fished. And America has to think of exploiting the newly discovered oil fields. And the phosphate mines are among the most important in the world. Also, Morocco has a strong international presence and is a traditional partner protected by France.

In short, two of the countries that hold veto power at the UN Security Council, the United States and France have absolutely no interest to see any change to the situation in the Western Sahara. Nor does the European Union.

A conspiracy of silence.

For how long?

The ARTE TV documentary suggested that the young generation of Saharawis is losing patience. These are young men and women born in the refugee camps, those who have never known anything else since their fathers and grandfathers were the first refugees. They are often highly educated, some 10 percent of the young are reportedly managing to get university degrees in Europe. This is a little like the Palestinians, also born in refugee camps and often highly educated.

In fact, the Sahrawis distinguish themselves in Africa for being a well educated population (95% is alphabetized vs. 50% of Moroccans). They also practice a soft, liberal form of Islam, with women playing a strong role. It seems this is a Sahrawi tradition, perhaps reinforced by the experience in refugee camps where women call the shots; they are the ones who organize the distribution of aid, making sure it is fair and that no family goes hungry. Finally, the Polisario army is still active and training daily: the Sahrawis haven’t given up on their military tool yet but they – for the time being – prefer diplomatic tools and hope that some day soon, the international community will wake up and help them solve the problem. The Polisario has won formal recognition for the SADR from 86 states including South Africa, it maintains diplomatic relations with 40 states, and is a member of the African Union.

For the time being, the only European citizens who seem to worry about the Sahrawis and publicly side by them are the Spaniards:


In the photo: The Spanish actress Veronica Forqué at the Sahara Film Festival, waving the Sahrawi flag

How long can we make them wait before the situation blows up?

The UN Secretary General is well aware that the clock is ticking. On 4 November 2015, he called on all concerned, within the region and the wider international community, to take advantage of the “intensified efforts” of his Personal Envoy to facilitate the launching of true negotiations in the coming months. Morocco’s King swiftly reacted, stating in the course of a surprise visit to Western Sahara’s Laayoune (his third visit since he succeeded to the throne in 1999) that he would not compromise on Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over the Western Sahara and vowing that he would offer no more than autonomy.

In short, they are back to square one.

Cover Photo: Western Sahara – Along the road from Laayoune to Smara, North Sector. 20 June 2003 – UN Photo/Evan Schneider
About the Author /

Claude Forthomme is a writer and an economist. A graduate of Columbia University, Claude held a variety of jobs before starting a 25-year career at the United Nations (Food and Agriculture), ending as Regional Representative for Europe and Central Asia. She authored many fiction books under various pen names in both English and Italian; she is considered a prime exponent of Boomer literature and has founded the Boomer Lit Group on Goodreads. Her poetry has been included in "Freeze Frame", an international poetry anthology curated by British poet Oscar Sparrow (Gallo Romano Media, 2012).


  • ditikisahara

    February 23, 2016

    Would you help give a push for a fair solution? Our general indifference is equally responsible with their economic interests – it doesn’t make sense! We do not WANT to keep this injustice. Let’s do our half; start by signing the petition to the UN and spreading the word!!

  • Claude Forthomme

    February 23, 2016

    Thanks Sahrauia and Ditiki Sahara for commenting (and Ditiki, I noticed you went on Thingser too) and drawing attention to the petition. I have just signed the petition, it is organized by the SUKS, the Swiss Committee for Support of the Sarahawi, they will send the letter with all our signatures to the UN Security Council with the following text: “The signatories call upon the UN Security Council to organize a Referendum for self-determination among the Saharawi population, in fulfilment of the 1991 roadmap for peace. The Saharawi people are entitled to self-determination, as foreseen by the Charter of the United Nations.”

    They are MOST certainly entitled to self-determination! Here’s the link to the petition:

  • Claude Forthomme

    February 23, 2016

    Thank you Ahmed Salen Amr Khaddad for this clarification. I agree that Algeria has to support the motion and the Saharawi have a clear, incontrovertible right to self-determination.

    • Khalil

      February 23, 2016

      This Ahmed Salem Amer Khaddad is a fake name of a fake long time known Moroccan propagandist who can’t pronounce a correct sentence of Saharawi dialect! To say that you are a Saharawi is sim

      • Khalil

        February 23, 2016

        …. simply a pure and simple lie! Hey, you’re not supposed to be afraid of the oppressive regime of Rabat since you claim you are a unionist, why then can’t we see you from 2008 till now,? It is a long time lie that may be only you who believes in it in dint of repeating it all the while!

  • Khalil

    February 23, 2016

    Just a note on the story of eligible voters on the referendum at James Baker time. The list was finalized and ready for the referendum, but it is Morocco that weirdly brought down from its remote mountains other tens of thousands of Moroccans to participate in a referendum they themselves never heard about! Morocco made demon-like tricks to stop the process of an eminent vote! Morocco, instead, has kept propagating the impossibility of the referendum due to the difficulties of eligible voters! Plz don’t fall in Morocco trap

  • Claude Forthomme

    February 23, 2016

    Khalil, you are right but don’t worry, that aspect is well known and nobody’s falling in the “Morocco trap”! And I’m sure that if the international community woke up and brought this to the UN, in particular to the UN Security Council as that petition is intended, we would all be on our way to solve this problem!

  • Ahmed Salem Amr Khaddad

    February 23, 2016

    Khalil Asmar, the fake algeria agent misleading internet readers & pretending living in the Western Sahara Territory but refusing to give its identity fearing what? persecution he said! FUNNY guy. What about the well known few separatists living in the Western Sahara Territory?

    Denying our existence and sovereignty south Morocco is simply supporting status quo. If status quo fits the agenda of the algeria military regime, it doesn’t fit the Western Saharawi agenda to make more progress and development. Besides, we need to reinforce security and protection of our land from terrorist attacks coming from south algeria. There are many issues actually that implies more committment of the international community to find mutually acceptable solution to the absurd WS issue legacy of cold war. The Western Saharawi are real south Morocco but they are not in tindouf gulags because the majority of Saharawi there are from algeria and Mauritania. Mohamed Abdelaziz is maybe the sole real Western Saharawi among polisario leaders. We are real, we deal with our local affairs and we have the right to deal with international companies for the benefit of the local community. Anything else is about the usual propaganda of algeria and its agents on Internet.


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