The sixteen-year war that broke out in 1975, when Morocco and Mauritania jointly invaded Western Sahara upon Spain’s rapid exit from its former colony, is the most important cause behind the large-scale displacement of the Saharawi population. Nearly thirty years later, most of them are still refugees in the desert of south-west Algeria. They live in camps run by the Polisario Front. The government-in-exile, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), also operates from the camps.
Exact figures for the size of the refugee population are difficult to obtain. The most consistent figure quoted by numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Algerian authorities is 165,000. Outside of Western Sahara, the refugees are the largest Saharawi community.
The topography is mostly made up of low, flat desert with large areas of rocky or sandy surfaces rising to small mountains mainly in the south and the north-east. The lowest point is the salt flat of Sebhet Tah at 55 m below sea level, and the highest (unnamed) point is 463 m. The climate is continental in the interior, with cold, dry winters and extremely hot summers with temperatures reaching 60 ºC (in the shade). Along the coastal area, cold offshore air currents produce fog and heavy dew. Rain is rare, and there are no permanent bodies of surface water.
Western Sahara is divided into two regions, Saguiet el-Hamra in the north and Wadi ed-Dahab (Rio de Oro) in the south. The northern zone is characterized by dry riverbeds. Saguiet El-Hamra (the ‘Red Canal’—the most important one) lends its name to the region and gathers rain during the brief rainy seasons, generally in the autumn. But because of the high temperatures, the water evaporates before it reaches the sea. Sufficient vegetation for grazing grows along its banks, and at Smara, barley and corn are cultivated. In Wadi ed-Dahab, the ground is too permeable to retain the autumn waters and too flat to allow it to flow; hence water accumulates in the subsoil, forming numerous wells which could sustain communities, but require economic investment to be any use
Western Sahara is considered rich in mineral resources, being phosphate and (rumored) iron ore. Seasonally, the fishing industry employs up to 12,000 people, although hardly any of them are Saharawi. The reasons are partly cultural. Saharawis have no experience of fishing as a way of life. Also, most cannot afford the initial capital investments required. In terms of the phosphate industry, a third of Morocco’s exports originate from Western Sahara, and the mines at Bu Craa employ the largest permanent workforce, of some 2,000. Again, of these, the Saharawis represent a minority and increasingly have been restricted to low-paid manual jobs.
On the whole, the territory is desperately underdeveloped. Its economic activity rate is the lowest for any region under Moroccan control. Due to an almost complete lack of private investment, employment is primarily provided for by the public sector. In 2002, the number employed in the public domain was around 20,000, versus a paltry 2,620 in the private sector. This is very costly, as the salaries paid out are at least 85 per cent higher than in Morocco proper: part of the economic incentive package to lure settlers. Other ‘benefits’ include widespread subsidies for a range of basic goods, and most importantly, large-scale building has been undertaken to provide free new housing for newcomers and to generate new jobs ( Shelley 2004 ).
Job opportunities are very limited. Official unemployment rates are dismal. Hovering at 25 per cent and above, it is well over the national average, which in recent years has stood at around 13 per cent. The figure is even higher for the indigenous Saharawis, according to the Association of the Saharawi Unemployed. It claims that 86–8 per cent of available jobs are occupied by Moroccans, and that employment generation is targeted at the settlers, to keep them in Western Sahara. It appears that Saharawis are all but excluded from state jobs with responsibilities or higher salaries. Such a situation has been the basis for widespread grievances among the Saharawis, and has led to sporadic manifestations and clashes with the Moroccan authorities.
As long as Morocco is unable to reap any significant economic profits from the territory, the costs to maintain its occupation in Western Sahara will remain considerable. The military costs alone amount to US$3–4 million per day. The price for not addressing rampant unemployment among the Saharawis is also likely to generate further social and political costs.
More and more Saharwis are dying, from general reasons such as lack of medicine, lack of water and proper care, and newborn fatality due to the harsh unforgiving nature of the camps and desert.
The natives of the land are suffering and slowly being spread out and being economically and literally, to the point where we have little to no idea of how many of them they are, or where they are: just where they are not. The Moroccan government has to be aware of, this, and it is an act of planned violence but the Saharwis are not given the aid needed, as they are in major debt to the US, in bad terms with Spain, but the UK tried but has divided attention between its own colonies and commonwealth.
There are multiple reasons for the low population density of the West Sahara, prim being war and conflict, disaster and development induced displacement, tribal warfare including Morocco, Spain and Algeria, the wide lack of available water to the communities and the halted trade development due to their resources being held and traded by Morocco.
CIA World Factbook: Western Sahara – https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/wi.htmlAssociation de soutien à un référendum libre et régulier au Sahara Occidental (ARSO) – http://www.arso.org/index.htmWestern Sahara Online – http://www.wsahara.netInfoplease: Western Sahara – http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0759052.htmlCIA World Factbook: Western Sahara Government – http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/wi.html#GovtInfoplease – http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0759052.htmlWestern Sahara Online: Legal Opinion of UN Office of Legal Affairs on the legality of the oil-contracts signed by Morocco – http://www.wsahara.net/legalcounsel.htmlCentre for International and Strategic Studies: ‘The North African Conventional Military Balance in 2000’ – http://www.csis.org/mideast/reports/nafricabalance2000.pdfNew Internationalist: ‘Western Sahara: The Facts’ – http://www.newint.org/issue297/facts.htmlWorld Food Programme (WFP) – http://www.wfp.org/index.asp?section=7_1Asociación de Familiares de Presos y Desaparecidos Saharauis (AFAPREDESA) – http://www.derechos.org/afapredesa/CBL: Western Sahara Mine Ban Policy – http://www.icbl.org/lm/2001/western_saharaUnited Nations Security Council: Report by the Secretary-General, ‘The Situation Concerning Western Sahara’ – http://membres.lycos.fr/tomdsm/s22464.pdfLa Nouvelle République: ‘Séparant les territoires occupés de ceux libérés par le Polisario’ – http://www.lanouvellerepublique.com/actualite/lire.php?ida=11594&idc=13
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