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"When they learn about it they're shocked," she said of her recent chance to talk to New Zealanders about the situation.
Ms Ahmed Saleh was born in a Saharawi refugee camp in southwest Algeria and heads an African Union-linked health operation supporting the camps.
During a visit to Dunedin yesterday, she said Western Sahara was the size of Great Britain and was rich in minerals and fisheries, but had been illegally invaded and occupied by Morocco in 1975.
The United Nations had long sought to hold a referendum to achieve self-determination for Africa's last colony, but there had been lengthy delays.
New Zealand co-operatives Ravensdown and Ballance Agri-Nutrients were the only western companies to import phosphate rock from Western Sahara, effectively financing the occupation, she said.
She urged the New Zealand Government to act more strongly to support UN efforts, and also to end phosphate imports from the area.
Many Saharawi people were not benefiting from the phosphate trade, including the 173,600 people living in miserable conditions in exile in southwest Algeria, she said.
Ravensdown Group communications manager Gareth Richards said the company was acting legally under the UN framework and was mindful of the humanitarian situation of all the Saharawi, including those in the Algerian camps.
"As an industry we speak to representatives of the Polisario Front as well as to the many Saharawi who benefit from the trade because they work for the company, which is the largest employer of local people in the area," he said.