A few weeks ago the United Nations High Commission for Refugees convened in Geneva another meeting of the parties to the Western Sahara dispute to discuss confidence building measures. These CBMs, as they are known, have become the fig leaf behind which UNHCR, the Security Council and the international community more generally have tried to hide their persistent indifference to the abuses suffered by tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees effectively being held hostage in sweltering camps in southern Algeria under the tight control of those who claim to be their champions, the cadres of the Polisario Front.
Not much new came from the Geneva confab. And frankly, it was difficult to expect that anything would. It’s not just that Algeria and the Polisario refuse to allow UNHCR to conduct a census and identification project in the camps. And it’s not just that these same two “champions” of Sahrawi self-determination continue to stonewall on allowing a land border crossing to lessen the transportation costs and allow hundreds more participants to benefit from the glacially slow pace of the UNHCR family visit program.
Rather, the real issue here is that UNHCR continues to pretend, for no justifiable reason, that nothing can be done to promote more durable solutions to the hardships these refugees face until there is some final political solution to the larger question of the future of Western Sahara. This is utter nonsense. There is simply no other way to put it.
Since the late 1980s, even before the UN-backed ceasefire went into effect in 1991, some 7,000 Sahrawi refugees have fled their oppressive “champions,” voted with their feet and returned home to their family and friends in Morocco. No thanks to UNHCR, whose primary task in these circumstances is to support a return to the country of origin when such conditions permit. Instead of assisting these refugees in their return home, UNHCR’s lack of action meant that they had to face a perilous journey across thousands of miles of hostile desert and find their own way home. All the while hoping to avoid Polisario and Algerian security patrols that would promptly return them to certain incarceration if they were caught.
7,000 non-assisted self repatriations while UNHCR stood by and ignored their own responsibilities to facilitate the wishes of the refugees to simply go home. This is a sad commentary on this organization’s commitment to the fundamental aspects of its own Charter and its obligation to protect the rights of refugees, including freedom of movement, codified in international treaty law. A treaty which Algeria has signed and ratified by the way!
To stand idly by and refuse to assist those in these squalid camps to return home is tantamount to complicity in the Algerian/Polisario tactic of holding these people hostage in the camps so they can pretend that the refugees support their own political ambitions about the future of Western Sahara. It’s high time that this fiction that nothing can be done for these refugees be put to an end.
UNHCR might have some justification for this position if it could demonstrate that these refugees were not welcome at home among their family and friends in Morocco and that they might suffer some persecution were they to return. But, unfortunately for UNHCR, the record of 7,000 self repatriated refugees puts the lie to that hypothetical presumption. There is not a single documented case of any of these refugees meeting anything other than a warm welcome home, housing, a stipend, the care of their families and the assistance of the Moroccan Government in their effort to reintegrate into a more normal life in a more normal country.
Indeed, I was flabbergasted this year to read in the State Department’s annual human rights report to Congress a congratulatory remark given to Algeria for not sending these refugees back home. As if something untoward might happen to them if they did. Just another stark example of how wholly out of touch some State Department reporting officers must be about the reality of facts on the ground in Western Sahara. Maybe they should take the time to go interview some of these self repatriated refugees about what life is really like in the Polisario camps and how they feel about being back home among family and friends in Morocco.
It now close to 40 years that these refugees have been left to their own sufferings and the separation from their families. Thousands of them want nothing more than to leave these camps and come home. Isn’t it about time that the Security Council and UNHCR did something to assist them in that effort and stopped pretending that they are content to live indefinitely in horrid desert refugee camps under a regime that allows them none of the rights to which they are entitled – including the right to leave?
For more on this issue, check out the following links:
- “Stonewalling on Refugee Rights: Algeria and the Sahrawi,” Report by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, October 2009
- “Groups Rights and International Law: A Case Study on the Sahrawi Refugees in Algeria,” Report by the Inter-University Center for Legal Studies and the Moroccan Center for Policy Studies, September 2009