Washington, DC — I was in Morocco in November, December and then again in January. While there, I took the time to visit the Saharan provinces and talk to some of my many Sahrawi friends about their perceptions of what was happening next door in Algeria and Mali. They are worried, of course. And, of course, our conversations inevitably turned to the perennial question of how things were going for their relatives still stuck in the Polisario refugee camps in southern Algeria. We have shared this lament often over the last dozen years.
I asked them whether it had become any easier for people to leave the camps and find their way home to Morocco. They told me that since the seizure of northern Mali, first by the Taureg independence movement and then very quickly afterwards by AQIM and various other terrorist and criminal gangs, it had become much harder to get out of the camps. They reported that their relatives were saying that Algerian security forces were keeping a close watch on people leaving the camps and that it was no longer possible to leave without official permission.
I replied that perhaps this would at least serve to limit the recruitment efforts of AQIM and others who have been drawing disaffected, disgruntled, disheartened and disenfranchised young men from these camps and into their ranks over the last year or more. "Oh no," they replied, and went on to tell me how many unusual people were now finding their way into the camps who had nothing to do with camps' nominal "refugee" population. Why would I have surmised any different? After all, it has never been difficult for those who had the "proper connections" (however nefarious those might actually be) to get in or out of these camps.
We here at the Moroccan American Center have been complaining for years that these refugee camps, where tens of thousands of Sahrawis are essentially being held hostage to the narrow, self-serving and misguided political ambitions of their Polisario and Algerian keepers, are an increasingly dangerous threat to the security and stability of a volatile region. We have, from time to time, been joined in that complaint by other voices, including the last two Personal Envoys of the UN Secretary General as well as a few independent journalists who have taken the trouble to have a look at the situation themselves. Nevertheless, any time the issue manages to get some sort of reply from the UN High Commission for Refugees or other "concerned" international bodies about why nothing is being done on this issue, it is always the same tired shibboleth about not being able to address the refugee questions until after the larger political problem of the Western Sahara is resolved.
This answer has never been acceptable, and in the current circumstances of the Sahara/Sahel it is very evidently even less so.
There is no good reason - and I mean really none at all - why the Security Council cannot charge UNHCR to begin an immediate voluntary repatriation program for those Sahrawi refugees in the Polisario camps who choose to return to their homes and families in southern Morocco - from whence they all come. And in the current situation in the region, this would be a very good thing and a positive contribution to helping stabilize a still deteriorating set of circumstances in northern Mali and southern Algeria.
For those of you who would like a bit more background on this issue, check out the following links:
"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, October 2009
Robert M. Holley is Senior Policy Advisor for the Moroccan American Center for Policy, MACP