At the beginning of August 2009 students aged between 17 and 24 from Morocco, Western Sahara and the refugee camps in the Algerian desert set off to attend a residential conference in Oxford organised by the EU’s Youth In Action programme sponsored by the British Council. The initiative was intended to help foster greater trust and mutual understanding between young Saharawis and Moroccans enabling them to explore possible solutions to the conflict in Western Sahara, one of the worlds’ longest running disputes.
Ironically of the three groups of students, it was only those from the remote refugee camps who ultimately made it to England. On the evening of 5th August eight Moroccan students in Casablanca airport and six Saharawi students in Agadir airport were told that they could not travel. Although their tickets and visas were all in order and they had already checked in, the Moroccan authorities refused to let them board their planes. No reasons were given and the students who had been preparing for this trip for many months were understandably angry and disappointed. Whilst the Moroccan students made their way back to their homes, the Saharawi students decided to stage a hunger-strike protest in the airport terminal. In a country where protest and dissent is often violently suppressed and over 500 Saharawi political activists have ‘disappeared’, this hunger strike was a bold action.
That evening the police arrived entered the terminal, beat the students and drove them away in a convoy of vehicles. Thanks to the swift action of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, the six students, dubbed the Oxford Six, were release within 36 hours. All had suffered severe beatings. On 27th August, one of the Oxford Six 19-year-old Hawassi Ngiya, was picked up by police in El Aaiun. According to her testimony she was blindfolded, beaten, stripped naked and threatened with rape. After five hours the police left her naked and shaken on the outskirts of the town. Days later, on 2nd September, another member of the Oxford Six, Razouk Choummad aged twenty was also picked up by police. He was blindfolded, stripped and covered in a liquid which he was told was petrol in an ordeal that lasted several hours.
On 7th September a delegation of MP’s and campaigners visited 10 Downing Street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to call on the British government to communicate their concerns about the well-being of the Oxford Six to Rabat. It is felt that only through political and diplomatic pressure will the Moroccan's recognise that the Oxford Six must not be victimised any further.
Free Western Sahara Network