Fighting for the 'Forgotten': Oscar-Winner Javier Bardem Takes Up Cause for Western Sahara

PHOTO: Spanish actor Javier Bardem addresses the General Assembly on the issue of Western Sahara at the United Nations headquarters.
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Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem is fighting to raise awareness about the thousands of refugees being driven from their homes in Morocco-occupied Western Sahara, an "injustice," he says, that has been ignored by the rest of the world.

"They are really, really kind of forgotten, in the middle of nowhere," Bardem told ABC News' Christiane Amanpour. "That's what hurts the most, I would say."

More than 165,000 refugees have fled their homes in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, he said, and many are living in "very, very poor conditions" in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria.

Bardem took his cause to the United Nations General Assembly's decolonization committee on Tuesday, where he demanded the international organization take action to end human rights abuses in the disputed territory. Morocco, Bardem said, has been "blocking" the U.N. from sending in human rights officials.

Morocco began occupying the Western Sahara in 1975 as the Spanish colonists moved out. Polisario Front guerrillas waged war against Moroccan forces until the U.N. brokered a ceasefire in 1991. A referendum was part of the deal but has never been upheld, and attempts to establish peace have floundered.

For the past last three years, the "Eat, Pray, Love" movie star has been filming a documentary in the region about the humanitarian crisis. Invited by the Sahara International Film Festival, Bardem spent 10 days living among the refugees as they trickled in over the border shared by Algeria and Western Sahara. He said he was shocked by the conditions he discovered when visiting the refugee camps.

"I realized how much injustice are [sic] in the refugee camps, and, unfortunately, I haven't had to go to the occupied territory because it's very difficult for us to go there, especially with a camera," he said.

A Madrid native, Bardem told Amanpour that, as a Spaniard, he felt the need "to do something for these people."

"I don't know if it's guilt," he said. "It's more. It's more responsibility.

"When you are in the refugee camps, you feel some sense of shame of what we did to them," he said, "and you want to help them in any way you can."

He described the Saharawis as "patient" and "very peaceful" people who are demanding solutions. Western Saharawis born into refugee camps are now willing to take up arms for the cause of their independence, Bardem said, but he cautioned that armed conflict would be a "disaster for everybody."

Bardem has also criticized his home country's government for bowing to Morocco, an ally, rather than taking a stand for the Saharawis' human rights. Married to fellow Hollywood star Penelope Cruz, Bardem is using his celebrity status to bring lots of attention to the situation.

"What I'm trying to do is to really have the right to do what any other citizen has, which is the right to speak and say what I think about certain things," he said. "Of course, you will bring more media attention. In that case, it's good to use that attention in order to help others."

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