AllAfrica.com, Moroccan American Center for Policy, ANALYSIS by Jordan C. Paul (Washington, DC, Sept. 5, 2012) — If the Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria are too dangerous for aid-workers, then they are too dangerous for the Sahrawi refugees who have been trapped there for more than three decades.
On July 19, three European aid workers-two Spanish and one Italian-were released in exchange for a hefty ransom nearly nine months after being kidnapped from the Polisario-run refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria by a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), reportedly with help from Polisario insiders. The release was followed by threats of more kidnappings which proved so convincing that Spain deemed the situation too dangerous and ordered the immediate evacuation of its aid-workers from the refugee camps.
Spain’s Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, said the decision was based on “well-founded evidence of a serious increase in insecurity in the region” and that northern Mali had become “a platform for terrorism.” The unfolding political turmoil in Mali is exacerbating a worsening regional refugee crisis and underscores the urgent need for peaceful solutions to end the conflict and promote stability.
During a joint press conference on August 3 with US State Department officials, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres cited “a very serious threat for peace and security” with “global implications” from “actors that are intervening” in the Sahel and called on the international community to focus on “the drama that is being felt and lived by the people of Mali and the neighboring countries.”
These ‘actors,’ including AQIM and the Polisario Front, are taking advantage of the present vulnerability to threaten more violence and put more lives at risk. Earlier this year, an expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded that “if AQIM strengthened its alliance of convenience with the Polisario […] a formidable terrorist organization could emerge.”
European aid workers have now been rescued from this dangerous situation. But the Sahrawi refugees are still stuck.
The tragic irony of the Sahrawi refugee crisis is that it is one of the oldest in the world, yet one of the few where durable solutions for relocation and repatriation have been readily available for years. In a scathing critique contained in his last report to the Secretary General, former UNSG Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Peter Van Walsum called the refugee crisis both “intolerable” and a “moral dilemma” in which “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 full independence.”
Rather than seeking to resolve this crisis through a political compromise and UN-led negotiations, the Polisario Front regularly reiterates its commitment to hold the process-and the refugees-hostage with the threat of renewed war.
“It [war] is on our agenda, never dismiss, and we can return at any time,” said Polisario Front leader Mohamed Abdelaziz during an August 3 interview. For more than three decades, Abdelaziz has held autocratic control over the Sahrawi refugees – outlasting his ideological counterparts, including Castro and Ghaddafi .
The US has a strategic objective to work with our international partners to find lasting political solutions for crises, as well as a moral obligation to protect the defenseless caught in the middle. We must stand against groups like the Polisario Front who bring threats and ultimatums to a negotiating table meant for compromise and, behind the scenes, are preparing a violent ‘plan b’ that could further destabilize a region already in peril.
Jordan C. Paul is Executive Director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy.