Western Sahara was a colony belonging to Spain until 1975, and was annexed by Morocco after the withdrawal of the Spanish, although this annexation is not recognized by most states. For 46 years, the Polisario movement there has been fighting for independence from Morocco and its policy. Until recently, Spain supported the demand for a referendum in Western Sahara, but in March 2022 Spain changed its policy and suddenly sided with the Moroccan government, which wants to prevent its independence.

Morocco has always resisted independence for Western Sahara and is seeking international support for a proposal made in the year 2007. It envisions limited autonomy through a decentralized government in Western Sahara that would have tax collection and budgetary powers. However, the important areas of foreign policy, security, and defense would remain with Morocco.

The Polisario Front, the political representation of the Sahrawi people, rejected this proposal. They demand complete independence from Morocco. Over the past 46 years (that is how long the territory of Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco), proposals to resolve the situation have been put forward repeatedly by both sides in the UN-led political process. Until now, these proposals had been without result. Morocco prevented the UN referendum on the independence of Western Sahara. This UN referendum has been requested for decades. The Polisario, on the other hand, advocate a fair vote for their country.

To get an idea of the situation on site, an EU delegation recently traveled to the camps and stayed with families for a week. It consisted of MEPs from four different political groups and three different party factions. The EU-SPÖ delegation leader Andreas Schieder, chairman of the Western Sahara Working Group in the EU Parliament, and Hannes Heide from Bad Ischl represented Austria.

“While the humanitarian situation in the refugee camps in increasingly deteriorating, attempts to find a solution are moving too little. Above all, there is a lack of international media publicity for the conflict.”

Andreas Schieder

Political meetings: lack of care, health personnel and food

In addition to the official political meetings with Algerian government representatives and the parliament and president of the Polisario, the agenda also included exchanges with the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the UN Western Sahara Mission MINURSO and the World Food Programme. There is a lack of proper care in the camps due to a lack of funding but also a massive shortage of health personnel. The distributions of the already meager food rations is not possible. With only half of what should be provided per person is actually being distributed. These are only basic supplies, such as fresh food and fruits and vegetables, which are important for a balanced diet. As a result, malnutrition for children often begins in the womb.

Impressive political organization, grassroots-democratic and feminist

Nevertheless, it has been possible to build up civil society structures such as a government-in-exile proving democratic, precise, and grassroot manner. More than a third of the members of the Sahrawi parliament are women. One of them is Abida Hadia, who lived in Vienna Floridsdorf for three years and completed her education there. Now she works in the Sahrawi Ministry of the Interior and was excited to be able to use her German skills again during the visit of the EU delegation.

Political women's representatives of the Sahrawi women's organization in the camps
Political women’s representatives of the Sahrawi women’s organization in the camps

The Sahrawi live openly, organized according to Western Saharan standards of democracy. They have the right to freedom of speech and lived gender equality. Nevertheless, we must publicly question why they courted the oppressor Morocco is on political stages and rewarded Morocco with trade agreements. The “political change of direction” of the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was “not a political change of direction of the European Union”, Schieder affirms. The EU should also have an interest in ending the conflict, he said. An EU court had recently suspended an association agreement with Morocco because of unresolved issues and policies in Western Sahara. The Polisario Front proves right such as the rulings in 2016 and 2018. The EU heads of state appealed the ruling. Next autumn the ECJ will announce a new decision.

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