AllAfrica.com, Moroccan American Center for Policy, by Robert M. Holley (Washington, DC, Sept. 11, 2012) — In July I wrote on these pages about the seeming disappearance from the pages of some Western reports of several tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees who have been involuntarily confined to camps in southern Algeria for more than three decades and denied even the most basic rights by an authoritarian group of Polisario “leaders” that claims to represent their interests.
The Sahrawi refugees reappeared, though their plight continued to be ignored, when Spain ordered the evacuation of all of its aid workers from the Polisario-run refugee camps in late July. Spanish authorities had received reliable intelligence that al-Qaeda-linked groups with access to the Tindouf camps were planning to repeat the insider-assisted kidnappings that delivered three Western aid workers into the hands of the al-Qaeda offshoot Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in northern Mali for nine months.
Left unanswered, unfortunately, was the question: if the Polisario-run camps are too dangerous for aid workers, why should refugees be forced to stay in harm’s way?
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 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. 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 and let’s talk about the rights of the Sahrawi refugees and what we can do to ensure that they are respected.
Robert M. Holley is a Senior Policy Adviser for the Moroccan American Center for Policy.