* Last week, 16 survivors of the Polisario-run camps exercised the first element of ‘self-determination’—the right to go where they want whenever they want. Visiting family in Morocco for the first time in the nearly 40-year history of this conflict, they decided they weren’t going to return to Polisario authoritarianism and enforced sequestration and chose instead to remain in Morocco with their relatives and begin a new life in a country where they can come and go as they please. Hooray for them! It is far past time more Sahrawis in those camps had this right respected. *
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees still seems wholly deaf to the idea that it should be offering and assisting Sahrawi refugees in the Polisario-run gulags of southern Algeria achieve their treaty-established right to repatriate home to Morocco whenever they choose to do so. However, without so intending, UNHCR does from time to time inadvertently provide a few Sahrawis the chance to secure their own escape from captivity and settle their own future on terms of their own choosing through the UNHCR-sponsored family visit program in Western Sahara.
Last week, 16 refugee camp survivors, visiting family in Morocco for the first time ever in the nearly 40-year history of this conflict, decided they were not going to return to Polisario authoritarianism and enforced sequestration and chose instead to remain in Morocco with their relatives and begin a new life in a country where they can come and go as they please. Hooray for them!
Coincidentally, I was in Dakhla last week and had the opportunity to speak with 12 of the 16 who decided to stay. A local Sahrawi NGO was taking care of them and helping to settle them in their new home with extended family and, for a few, some old friends.
Some of them had been born in Morocco and taken to the camps as young children or adolescents and others had never known anything but the misery of the Polisario’s imposed restrictions and bleak outlook of refugee camp living.
The stories they told of camp life today were familiar – deprivation, poverty, poor nourishment and health care, lack of freedoms of any kind, no right to work and make a living on the local economy in Algeria, no right to live or go anywhere without Polisario and Algerian permission, and hopelessness over prospects that anything would ever really change in the camps. Their common explanation for leaving was that they had simply had enough and wanted opportunities to make better lives for themselves in Morocco – their home.
It remains a great mystery why UNHCR does not offer more of the refugees, actually all of the refugees, the opportunity to make this choice. It is clearly their right under international law and clearly the responsibility of UNHCR and the receiving state (in this case Algeria) to ensure that this fundamental refugee right is respected.
It is one of the rights referred to in the world of refugee affairs as a “durable solution.” There are three of them. Refugees should either be afforded the right to return to their country of origin if conditions permit (in this case Morocco, where conditions do permit); or they should be settled permanently in the receiving state (in this case Algeria – which helps the Polisario keep them warehoused in squalid camps); or they should be settled in a third country willing to accept them as long-term residents.
Many so-called experts, NGOs and other agenda-driven interest groups and media types talk a lot these days about respect for the right of the Sahrawi people to “self-determination,” but almost nobody in the world of international human rights and refugee rights (they are pretty much the same list of rights) talks about enforcing respect for the most fundamental human rights of those being obliged to remain in Polisario-run misery, isolated and largely out of sight and mind of the rest of the world in the hot windy sands of southern Algeria.
This is an aberration that begs, indeed demands, attention from all those who claim to be interested in and advocates for the rights of all Sahrawis. There is simply no reasonable excuse not to give the Sahrawis in those camps the rights they deserve and the opportunity to “vote with their feet” if that is their choice.
The first element of “self-determination” is to allow people to go where they want to go whenever they want to go there. It is far past time that Sahrawis in those camps had this right respected.