The Strange Case of the Vanishing Refugees – Robert M. Holley



Moroccan American Center for Policy, by Robert M. Holley (Washington, DC, July 12, 2012) — Earlier this month, I finally got around to reading the State Department’s latest human rights tome but despite my astonishment I decided to hold off saying anything about until today — World Refugee Day.”  While reading, I scratched hard, and in vain, at my ever widening bald spot trying to discover whatever might have happened to the Sahrawi refugees (90,000 of them according to State – though I advise you take that number, or the 150,000 that the Polisario Front often claims, with several healthy tablespoons of Morton’s, or enough of your favorite libation to alter your appreciation for facts).

The report, normally released to Congress in February each year, finally appeared in May, much later than usual – how curious.  I fancied perhaps someone at State might have noticed and delayed the report while they too searched the various Maghreb-interested offices at the Department for the vanished refugees.  They evidently had no better luck than I. Of course, the first place I looked was in the report on Western Sahara. That’s where one normally finds some fleeting mention of their existence. Not so this year. Nary a word about their existence or whatever human rights one might expect refugees have coming to them. I read it twice just to make sure I hadn’t missed the annual nano-remark they sometimes merit. Nope, not there. Finally, I found them. Buried in the report on Algeria there was indeed a brief mention that they still exist and that neither Algeria nor the “refugee leaders” (why not just say Polisario officials?) will allow the UN High Commission for Refugees to go count them. You know, they’ve been there for 35 years without a head count, so why now? Just keep sending your tax dollars for assistance for 90,000 and let us figure it out, right?

After I breathed a sigh of relief that they had not entirely vanished from the attention of the State Department’s office of Middle Eastern affairs and its Bureau of human rights and democracy stuff, I went back to scratching my, by then, raw and reddening bald spot wondering why the State Department did not see fit to devote even the first word covering the appalling human rights conditions of these refugees – neither in the report on Western Sahara nor in the one on Algeria where they are located. After all, there was extensive coverage of human rights related to Western Sahara, but none of it concerned the refugees, or the behavior of their Polisario jail-keeps. By the way, the 1951 UN Convention on Refugee Rights is widely considered to be the very first human rights treaty ever ushered into international law by that august body. It covers the same kinds of rights issues as later treaties.

There is something dreadfully wrong here. You will have to forgive me for saying that, but I have to tell you the State Department made me do it. I thought someone at the Department had finally awakened from their long slumber this year and rediscovered that refugees have human rights too. In February, the Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit of the Refugee Bureau released a new policy statement claiming that State was making “protracted refugee” situations (i.e. refugee warehousing) a new priority. That announcement was complete with a snazzy new chart that suggested that “protracted” meant anything more than 25,000 refugees who had been stuck in camps for more than five years. I went “whoopee” when I saw it. The several tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees have been stuck in the world’s most horrific scorching Saharan camps where their long ignored human rights have been abused for better than 35 years. I was just sure they were finally going to get some attention — and from the State Department no less. I had already lost hope that UNHCR would do anything for them. For the first time in over a quarter century the UN High Commissioner paid them a visit a couple of years ago and made some fine promises of better things ahead – and then promptly forgot about them again. Most international human rights NGOs do no better by them. Not since the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants took Algeria and the Polisario Front to task in 2009 over their ill treatment has any international NGO really made a serious case for paying attention to them.

The truly sad part of all this is that these warehoused refugees are perhaps the only ones in the world for whom an easily available solution is ready to hand.  They have a place to go. They have families and a country ready, willing and able to welcome them home in Morocco if/if UNHCR and concerned governments, like maybe the United States (?), would pressure the Polisario Front to allow those who wanted to leave to freely do so. Over the years, roughly 7,000 of the refugees have escaped their Polisario keepers and returned to their families in Morocco. I have talked to hundreds of them. You should hear the stories of their escapes and the risks they had to run – infuriating and heart wrenching.

In the meantime, it would help enormously if the State Department would stop “vanishing” these poor souls and at least attempt to do something to protect their human rights. It seems to be able to muster a substantial energy to investigate and write page after page about other human rights issues in Western Sahara, but not a sentence for this question. How is that possible? Polisario – can you say “free ride” to go along with the perpetual free lunch we keep over-supplying you? – RMH

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