Chapter Two: The Strange Case of the Vanishing Refugees


Moroccan American Center for Policy, by Robert M. Holley (Washington, DC, July 23, 2012) — A few weeks ago I scribbled on these same pages a somewhat astonished lament that the State Department, in its latest report to the US Congress on the state of human rights in the world, seemed to have lost (though more likely just ignored) several tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees who have been involuntarily sequestered in camps in southern Algeria for better than three decades and denied even the most basic liberties while living under the authoritarian control of a group of dubious Polisario “refugee leaders” (as the State Department referred to them — without using the word “Polisario” of course) claiming to represent their interests.

In its report on human rights conditions in Western Sahara, the State report focused at some length on events in that part of the territory under Moroccan administration (the content of which I will, in the interest of space today, leave without commentary – though a more objective critique is certainly merited).  However, there was nary a single word in the report on the atrocious abuse of the most basic human rights in the Polisario-run camps.

Now comes Freedom House this month with its annual report on human rights in the world.  When I got to the section on Western Sahara, I said to myself, somebody will finally decide to expose the Polisario for who they really are on the human rights issue. No such luck! Instead, Freedom House chose to give the Polisario a mostly free ride, giving  no more than passing attention to the plight of the Sahrawi refugees. This still leaves me shaking my head in disbelief.

Let’s get some facts straight here. In the Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria, there are:

  • no free elections (the same “leader,” who claims to be the legitimate President of a fictional state, has run the place for three decades);
  • no right (it’s actually written into the “constitution”) to change the form of  “government;”
  • no political parties (except the Polisario – also enshrined in the “constitution”);
  • no freedom of association (i.e., no civil society organizations with opposing political views);
  • no access to judicial process in the host country (Algeria) beyond the summary judgments of Polisario officials;
  • no free press of any variety;
  • no freedom of speech;
  • no freedom of movement;
  • no travel documents (Polisario “leaders” travel on Algerian official or diplomatic passports);
  • no international documentation of their status or issuance of international  individual identification as such;
  • no right to work in the local host country economy;
  • no right to live anywhere in the host country except in the camps (unless you happen to be a senior Polisario official);
  • only the most limited access to host country educational institutions;
  • and no right, as specified in international law, to establish businesses in the host country.

Indeed, none of the most basic human rights established in international law concerning refugees are accorded to those in the camps, nor have they been respected by either their Polisario “leaders” or authorities in Algeria (which, by the way, has signed and ratified the international refugee conventions and is thus bound under international law to their terms).

Over the years, more than 7,000 of these refugees have managed to escape this authoritarian regime, surely as Freedom House might find out for itself if it took the trouble to go visit these camps or conduct some extensive individual interviews with people who have fled their oppressors there these last few years. Personally, I have talked with several hundred of them over the last four years. They paint a pretty grim picture of life under the Polisario’s “leadership.” One that certainly deserves closer examination by international human rights organizations.

If you decide to investigate further, my suggestion is that you either: (1) go to the camps, spend at least a week and ask some tough questions about my “facts” yourself (good luck – be sure to take your own translator and try to escape your Polisario “minder” while you are there so you can interview some random refugees rather than the ones they provide you); (2) go to southern Morocco and talk to those refugees who have managed to successfully escape the Polisario camps (and especially those who failed and got caught on their first attempt); or (3) read the 2009 report of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) on this subject.

USCRI is the oldest (they celebrated their 100th anniversary last year) and most reputable refugee rights organization in the world. They have been to the camps and asked the tough questions. They have also conducted extensive interviews with former refugees who succeeded (and some who first failed) to flee the oppression there. You can read their report here “USCRI: Stonewalling on Refugee Rights – Algeria and the Sahrawi.”

After your trip, give me a shout-out let’s talk about the rights of the Sahrawi refugees and what we can do to ensure that they are respected. -RMH

Robert M. Holley is a Senior Policy Adviser for the Moroccan American Center for Policy.

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