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“You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee” — Robert M. Holley

Robert Holley, Senior Advisor, Moroccan American Center for Policy (Washington, DC, March 20, 2012) — I was driving around town this past weekend doing the usual errands and listening to my favorite classic rock station when an oldie from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers came on the radio, where he sings “You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee.” It made me think of the just concluded, but as usual inconclusive, ninth round of informal talks on Western Sahara and something I thought Peter Van Walsum had said in his last report as the UN’s Personal Envoy that had never gotten the attention I felt it deserved.

In voicing a sentiment that clearly came from his heart about the human costs of this continuing 35 plus year old tragedy, Van Walsum offered this poignant observation: “The main reason why I find the status quo intolerable is that it is too readily accepted, not only by uncommitted onlookers in distant lands, but also by deeply involved supporters of the Frente Polisario, who do not live in the camps themselves but are convinced that those who do would rather stay there indefinitely than settle for any negotiated solution that falls short of independence.”

Over the past four years, I have interviewed as many as 400 of the roughly 7,000 people who have managed, by one means or another, to escape the camps over the years and return to their families in Morocco.  The one thing they all share, despite the diversity of their individual stories, is the common desire to see this issue resolved and be re-united with their families and loved ones.  When I ask them, as I always have, what would you like me to tell people at home about your story when I return, invariably I get the same answer. Something needs to be done to help us get our families back together.

But rather than look for creative ways to reunite these families who have been painfully separated for so long, the international community and its responsible institutions seem content to “readily accept,” as Van Walsum put it, that nothing more can be done until the larger political issue of Western Sahara is resolved. Nothing could be farther from the truth!  There are remedies already at hand if the community will simply reach out and use them.

The UN Convention on Refugees makes clear that the objective in such circumstances it to seek to find “durable solutions” for refugee situations – not to warehouse them for decades at a time, leaving them no hope for a future for themselves and their children.

So what are durable solutions? The first is to repatriate the refugees to their place of origin if the conditions permit. And here is where the international community should be taking positive steps to allow families to re-unite. Van Walsum was right. It is high time that the refugees in these camps be offered the option to choose to rejoin their families in Morocco. The key word here is “options.” It is simply unconscionable to continue to deny these families the free opportunity to exercise this right under international law on the pretext that nothing can or should be done until the larger political issue is settled. Let’s give them the opportunity to choose a future for themselves. If they choose to stay in the camps, that is also an option. But, it long past time that these refugees were allowed to decide freely for themselves. They don’t have to live like a refugee. Unless we continue to ignore them and deny them their right to choose.

 Robert M. Holley is Senior Advisor at the Moroccan American Center for Policy

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