Moroccan American Center for Policy (Washington, DC, April 24, 2012) — As the takeover of Mali’s historic Timbuktu by al-Qaeda and other militants highlights volatility in Africa’s Sahara/Sahel, a new report documents how refugee camps run by the separatist Polisario Front near Tindouf, Algeria have become a recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers in the region. The report urges UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) to also focus aid to the camps on durable solutions that help resettle refugees, improve humanitarian conditions, and stop perpetuating another source of instability.
“The case for UNHCR supporting durable solutions for Polisario camps,” from the Moroccan American Center for Policy, documents the chronology of incidents and expert reports of Polisario-member involvement in:
Drug and arms trafficking in the Sahara/Sahel,
Armed incursions into Mali,
As mercenaries for Qaddafi in Libya, and
Kidnappings and collaboration with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), including the Oct. 23 kidnapping of Western aid-workers in the Polisario-run camps by an AQIM-offshoot, with Polisario-insider assistance.
According to experts at Carnegie Endowment, Atlantic Council, and International Center for Terrorism Studies, the Polisario-run camps have become a recruiting ground for AQIM, a hub for opportunistic Polisario traffickers, and a threat to the region and reforms of the Arab Spring. A new Carnegie Paper reports that “deteriorating social and political conditions in the camps in Tindouf represent a tinderbox waiting to explode.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently warned, “inaction could be catastrophic,” as AQIM allies with cocaine traffickers smuggling almost $1 billion annually through the Sahel, which borders the Sahara in North Africa. That warning came before the crisis and potential “rogue state” in Mali. Experts fear an “arc of instability” is now stretching across Africa, linking militants from AQIM, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the Polisario, and posing a threat to the region and international community. Noting close AQIM-Polisario-member ties, Africa security expert J. Peter Pham says, “It is like before 9/11, when we might have asked ourselves: ‘Who cares about Afghanistan?’ But jihadists ultimately need a place to operate and what we are now seeing is the creation of a safe haven for terrorists and extremists who are being squeezed out elsewhere.”
Since 1990, international support for the camps has exceeded $1 billion—and US aid exceeds $300 million. Much of it has reportedly been diverted to profit some Polisario leaders. While international aid has provided vital resources to the refugees and should continue, it has done little to promote durable solutions, a principal mandate of the UNHCR under international refugee law.
Given escalating security concerns and a humanitarian crisis in the camps, the report recommends that US support to UNHCR for the camps also be used for durable solutions to resettle refugees, remove security threats, and improve humanitarian conditions. According to multiple reports, the Polisario violates refugee rights and is the leading impediment to refugee resettlement. Sahrawi refugees are among the only refugees in the world who are welcome to go elsewhere, if the Polisario would let them.