Western Sahara has been ruled by Morocco since 1975 when, after Franco's death, the Spanish left and allowed Morocco and Mauritania to enter. An International Court of Justice advisory opinion issued at the time did not find "any tie of territorial sovereignty" between Western Sahara, Morocco, and Mauritania, though it also noted the "difficulty of disentangling the various relationships existing in the Western Sahara region at the time of colonization".
By 1979, internal resistance had forced Mauritania out, but Morocco's King Hassan II was committed to the Sahara as "bilad al-siba", part of a "Greater Morocco" that would eventually cover all of Mauritania as well. Hundreds of thousands of Moroccan settlers were encouraged to enter Western Sahara with state-subsidised property and employment, under the army's protection.
Morocco then fought a war against an indigenous Sahrawi group of fighters, the Frente Polisario, which ended in 1991 when the UN brokered a ceasefire and pledged to hold an independence referendum within six months.
The referendum has still not been held. Morocco retains control of Western Sahara and its lucrative phosphate and fishing resources. The country is now the last United Nations-designated "non-self-governing territory" in Africa, and is home to between 100,000 and 140,000 Moroccan military personnel (despite a total population of just 500,000).
Morocco's reigning King Muhammad VI has said that "the issue of our Saharan provinces is central" in order "to complete our territorial integrity".
The fighting drove much of the indigenous population of Western Sahara into refugee camps in Tindouf in southern Algeria, but some remain as a minority within the territory, west of the 2,600-kilometre separation wall that Morocco built during the war with the Polisario.
The UN peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, has limited jurisdiction: unusually for such missions, the UN Security Council has not given it a mandate to monitor rights abuses. Nor is it sufficiently staffed: the mission has only six police officers and 237 military personnel covering an area larger than Britain. MINURSO staff said they need an additional 10 civilian police just to monitor their own compound.
Media access in Western Sahara is extremely restricted: almost no foreign journalists are given permits to enter, and the occasional groups of journalists who are allowed in have their movement controlled by the state. Accordingly, little is known about the lives of the Sahrawi in the disputed territory.
"Our group is underground," Fatima Tobarra, president of the Sahrawi Observatory for Women and Children, told Al Jazeera. "We tried to make an official organization, but the authorities refused even to receive our application, so we can have no premises."
Neither the Moroccan police nor the Moroccan government's human rights department responded to requests for comment for this article.
Life expectancy is just 54 years in Western Sahara, tellingly lower than Morocco's 72. The Observatory says discrimination and abuses against the local population are rampant."The police here guard the schools, and intimidate the Sahrawi children, then inside they are discriminated against by the teachers who are almost always Moroccans, so attendance drops," said Tobarra...
...There are clear parallels between the situations in Western Sahara and in Palestine, campaigners say. Both involve the exit of former imperial powers, the arrival of forces from outside, alleged repression of the indigenous population, and the protection of the status quo by permanent members of the UN Security Council.
France actively supports Morocco's position, and although the US nominally supports holding the referendum, it has made no moves to resolve the conflict or to push for monitoring of human rights abuses. The UK, China, and Russia have largely remained silent.
But while the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most high-profile news stories in the world, that in the Western Sahara remains little-known.
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