As World Refugee Day approaches on June 20, the international community still has much to do to relieve the humanitarian crises affecting more than 10 million refugees worldwide. At this moment, tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees are being held under inhumane conditions in camps run by the Polisario Front in southern Algeria. The exact number of refugees in the Polisario camps is not known because the Polisario Front and Algeria will not permit a census of the refugee population, despite numerous requests from the international community, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For more than three decades these refugees, subsisting entirely on international humanitarian aid, have been denied the most basic human rights mandated by international law-including the right to leave the camps and resettle elsewhere.
In 2009, the Inter-University Center for Legal Studies and the Moroccan American Center for Policy published Group Rights and International Law: A Case Study on the Sahrawi Refugees in Algeria. The report is a case study of the violation of refugee rights resulting from the three-decade long warehousing of Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. Drawing on international refugee and human rights law, it outlines both the legal rights of Sahrawi refugees and the legal responsibilities of UNHCR and the host country, Algeria. The report seeks to call international attention to the problem of refugee warehousing and to offer realistic suggestions for further international action that is urgently needed to improve the lives of the Sahrawi refugees and guarantee their rights under international refugee law.
(For more about the case study, see below.)
Unlike refugee situations elsewhere in the world, there is a simple solution to the Sahrawi refugees’ plight. Sahrawi refugees can be repatriated and resettled in Morocco. To date, nearly 7,000 Sahrawi refugees have escaped the Polisario camps and returned to Morocco.
UNHCR’s theme for World Refugee Day 2012 is “Refugees have no choice. You do.” That’s right. Please encourage your elected and civil society leaders to do what we must for those denied the power to make the choices themselves.
Inter-University Center for Legal Studies and the Moroccan American Center for Policy
More than 30 years ago, Spain gave up its colonial rule of the Western Sahara, and the Kingdom of Morocco claimed the area based on historic ties to the tribes that live in the region. Morocco’s claims were then-and still are today-opposed by the Polisario Front, which had previously engaged in hostilities over the region with Spain and challenged Morocco’s desire to reunite with the Western Sahara. As a result of the ensuing conflict and uneasy ceasefire, tens of thousands of refugees have become sequestered in refugee camps in southwest Algeria near the town of Tindouf since 1991. As refugees and as people warehoused on “foreign soil,” the Sahrawi refugees have a substantial number of rights under international law, which, unfortunately, have not been protected by the parties with direct responsibility for their welfare: Algeria, the Polisario Front, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Now is the time to take action. UNHCR must:
- Monitor the Sahrawi situation more effectively to ensure accountability and transparency in aid distribution.
- Call for an immediate census.
- Establish a significant presence in the camps to ensure the protection of refugee rights, especially freedom of movement.
- Establish an intimidation-free, voluntary repatriation program for those Sahrawi refugees who wish to return to their previous homes and families in Morocco or otherwise leave the camps to settle elsewhere.
- Prevent the militarization of the camps.
- Reconstitute its humanitarian approach into a rights-based approach that bridges the gap between relief and development to ensure the realization of all refugee rights.