Two groups of students from North Africa were prevented from traveling to the UK last week after attempting to make their way to an Oxford-based conference on conflict resolution.
Six students from Laâyoune, a city inside the disputed territory of Western Sahara, were told they could not board their flights from the Agadir airport in Morocco on Wednesday 5th August. The students then mounted a hunger strike in protest against the Moroccan authorities and refused to leave the airport.
In a video seen by the organisers and participants of the conference, the students describe how after 30 hours they were forcibly removed from the airport and driven in a police convoy back to Laâyoune. The students were then reportedly beaten in three different locations, including the home of one of the six.
Amnesty International has expressed concern for the safety of the students, and has written to the Moroccan Interior Minister requesting that the ban on travel be lifted immediately for those attempting to attend the conference. Amnesty has thus far received no response from the Moroccan authorities.
Seven Moroccan students on their way to the conference were also unable to board their flight to London Stansted. The Moroccan embassy has informed the organisers of the conference that
‘family problems’ meant the students would be unable to attend.
The territory of Western Sahara is disputed between Morocco, which has occupied much of the area since 1975, and the Polisario, an indigenous resistance movement. An estimated 170,000 from the region currently live in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, many separated from their families and reliant on handouts for subsistence.
The conference, organised by Talk Together, is currently being held in St Edward’s school, Oxford, with the intention of introducing young people from both sides of the conflict to encourage communication, consider different perspectives on the situation and to learn conflict resolution skills such as negotiation and team building.
Andrew Brown, co-ordinator of the conference, confirmed reports that the students had not reached the UK, adding that members of both groups had been heard from since last week. The group of Sahrawi students from Laâyoune had previously informed the organisers that they had been identified by the police when applying for British visas, yet “there was never any indication that they would be prevented from traveling, or that they would be stopped by the police,” said Brown. Several Moroccan students have managed to attend the event, however Brown points out that these are all “Moroccans who are not currently residential in Morocco”.
This is the first conference of its type organised by Talk Together, and preparations have spanned four years. The event is funded by several sources, including an EU grant. The conference is due to run until the 18th August.