* 37 years later, Polisario authoritarian-in-chief Mohammed Abdelaziz is still in power, and Sahrawis in the Polisario-run camps in Algeria are still held hostage in one of the world’s worst cases of refugee warehousing *
Caitlin Dearing Scott, MAC
December 5, 2013
Refugees are very much on my mind lately because of the dreadful situation of people fleeing Syria. I fervently hope that they avoid the fate of the tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees who have been trapped in Polisario Front camps in Algeria for almost 40 years. A case study I did about four years ago highlighted the abysmal conditions in the camps and demonstrated that the case of the Sahrawis is one of the worst examples of warehousing in the world.
Warehousing is a term coined by the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) to bring attention to the deplorable practice of “keeping refugees in protracted situations of restricted mobility, enforced idleness, and dependency—their lives on indefinite hold—in violation of their basic rights under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.”
In 2009, when I wrote on this issue, it was clear that the warehoused Sahrawi refugees were routinely deprived of their fundamental rights by the Polisario – the very group that claims to represent their best interests.
Sadly, four years later nothing has changed. Actually, the situation has gotten worse given the increasingly dangerous security environment in the region. Polisario authoritarian-in-chief Mohammed Abdelaziz is still in power, continuing his more than thirty-year reign over the tightly-controlled camps.
Today, there is still no freedom of speech, association, or movement. There is still no independent civil society or judiciary. The Polisario still doesn’t allow free political expression or any political parties other than its own. And to top it all off, the Polisario continues to reject requests from the UN to allow it to conduct a census that would help better provide relief assistance to the refugees. In fact, eyewitnesses have reported that rather than using food aid to help the camp population, the Polisario routinely diverts it and sells it on the black market.
As the eyes of the world are on today’s new refugees from Syria, I can only hope that the international community will keep the Sahrawis in mind and do more to encourage the Polisario to respect the refugees’ rights and promote durable solutions to their plight.
Serious pressure must be brought to bear on the Polisario to:
- Allow an immediate census;
- Ensure accountability and transparency in aid distribution;
- Grant freedom of speech, association, and political thought to the refugees;
- Provide travel documents and grant freedom of movement so that those who wish to return to their previous homes and families in Morocco or elsewhere can do so.
For more background on this issue, check out the following:
- “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
- “Stonewalling on Refugee Rights: Algeria and the Sahrawi,” Report by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), October 2009