Mon Dec 4, 8:19 AM ET MADRID (AFP) – More than 200 people from the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara have asked Spain for political asylum after reaching the Canary Islands in small boats.
The Sahrawis are young people who in the previous 18 months took part in demonstrations demanding the independence of the Western Sahara and say they fled repression by Morocco’s security forces, the Spanish daily El Pais reported Monday.
A team from Spain’s Office for Asylum and Refugees will soon go to the Spanish-owned islands off the coast of the Western Sahara in the Atlantic Ocean to decide what to do with the immigrants.
“Their accounts tell of detentions, torture, rape, jail and police harassment,” the paper said, after its reporters met some of the Sahrawis at an immigration centre on Grand Canary island.
Those interviewed said that if their asylum request is turned down, they do not want to be sent back to the Western Sahara, but would rather go to Sahrawi refugee camps around Tindouf in southern Algeria.
Morocco annexed the Western Sahara across Algeria’s western border after Spanish settlers pulled out in 1975 and considers the region, believed to be rich in phosphates, an integral part of Moroccan territory.
An Algerian-backed independence movement, the Polisario Front, went to war with Moroccan troops until a 1991 ceasefire, which was followed by repeated UN bids to bring about a settlement.
The UN Security Council on October 31 unanimously passed a resolution in which it reiterated its support for a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people, a long-standing proposal that has always stalled on the issue of who gets the right to vote.
The Rabat government says it wants to give the Western Sahara “considerable autonomy”, but as a part of Morocco’s sovereign territory.