Western Sahara: Caught in the European Union's Net


Last month the European Union (EU) voted through an agreement which allows European ships to fish off the coast of Western Sahara, illegally occupied by Morocco for the past 30 years.

This vote highlights once more the plight of the people of Western Sahara, the Saharawis, who find that the leaders of world's democracies are largely uninterested in the theft of their right to sovereignty. Christian Hogsbjerg spoke to Sidi Omar, the London based representative of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.

In a few years time many countries will be celebrating 50 years without foreign colonial presence in their country. Yet Western Sahara remains the last colony in Africa, despite the fact that there were many resolutions passed by the United Nations before the occupation. It is ironic that the international community cannot tolerate some forms of colonialism, for example Iraq occupying Kuwait. The only difference between us is that Kuwait had economic interests for the major players of the international system. So they mobilised the UN and got Saddam out of Kuwait.

Morocco has occupied Western Sahara for 30 years. But instead of trying to convince Morocco to end the occupation, the world's powers have actually helped the occupiers. The Moroccans will not have any major economic gain out of this fishing agreement. It is all about political gain. Morocco will use it to legitimise its presence in Western Sahara, and so gain the right to plunder the resources with impunity.

The bulk of those who are involved in fishing off the coast of Western Sahara are Moroccans. The few Saharawis who engage in fishing are outnumbered by the Moroccans. This new deal is about exploiting the resources of a non self-governing territory, and there is no doubt that this is incompatible with the principles of international law.

Despite the arguments of many within the EU that their main aim is to benefit the population of Western Sahara, it does not mean that the deal is not illegal. And which population are they talking about benefiting? Is it the population living within Western Sahara, or is it the refugee population? Nobody is explicit about this. The refugees in south west Algeria are also Saharawis, and they are entitled to the revenues of this agreement. But I doubt that the European leaders are even aware of these people-they simply do not exist.

Illegal invasion

The refugees have no chance to go back to their homes, and they depend on international aid just to exist. They are not refugees as the result of some natural disaster. They are refugees because they were forced to leave their country when a foreign power invaded illegally. They are living in their own makeshift tents, not because they haven't been treated hospitably by the Algerian government, but because they don't want to be permanently settled. One day they want to go back to their home, a free Western Sahara.

Their problem is less a humanitarian problem than a political one. Since the 1980s Morocco has been building a "defensive" sand wall which divides Western Sahara in half. It is not only a sand wall - it has been fortified by seven million landmines, and is one of the longest walls in the world. Its purpose is to be a de facto demarcation of the territory and it has divided families for decades. We know about the Berlin Wall and the wall Israel has constructed in Palestine, but this wall has been totally absent from the international media. It is there, and it weighs very heavily on the Saharawis on both sides of it.

I don't know how long the fish from Western Sahara will last, but I know Morocco has been plundering all of our resources since 1976. It is not just fish, but other natural resources too, like oil and gas. Even our sand is now being transferred to Portugal and Spain for their beaches. For the last two years there has been a campaign against international oil companies. We want them to recognise that, despite the fact that they explore under a contract with the Moroccan government, they are prospecting resources that belong to the Saharawis.