Western Sahara: So Why Are They Still There?

Reading through my Twitter feed a few days ago I came across something odd. There, back-to-back, were posts alleging to be from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Program (WFP) and the European Union’s humanitarian assistance program. I say alleging because each post at least carried the logo of either UNHCR, WFP or the EU. Each had basically the same topic, a plea for more food assistance for those living in the Polisario controlled refugee gulags in Algeria. I could hardly believe that each agency had decided simultaneously to post to Twitter such a plea. But maybe they did, or maybe somebody just lifted their logo for the sake of its credibility.


240 Twitter words did not give me room to reply the way I wanted, so I am doing it here.


On the food issue, I only have one thing to say. If the Polisario leadership would just stop stealing the food to sell on the black market to line their pockets there would be plenty of food for everyone in the camps! Whether this is happening is not up for debate anymore. The EU’s own anti-fraud organization has documented this thievery in exhausting detail.  The international community should not be providing more food and other humanitarian assistance for them to steal! Let’s agree to a census in the camps and then provide food and other supplies for however many people are really there. Until there is agreement on a census, no more food! That’s what I have to say on that subject.


Now, on to UNHCR.


Since the late 1980s, more than 8000 people have left those camps and made their way home to Morocco. Among those there is not a single documented case of anyone suffering any negative consequences in Morocco for the time they spent with the Polisario. Not one case. What does that prove? It proves it is safe for those refugees to go home if they want to. There is no danger for them in Morocco. On the contrary, they are going to get decent housing and assistance to reintegrate Moroccan society.


For those who want to continue living in Polisario squalor, fine, stay there. But for those who have had enough of the Polisario’s mistreatment, they should be allowed to go home. And that should be happening with the assistance of UNHCR. Not despite them. Those families that want to go home should not have to risk their lives with unreliable people smugglers. They should also not have to face accusations of treason when they get caught trying to exercise their internationally guaranteed right to freedom of movement.


UNHCR’s behavior in the Sahara conflict is nothing short of scandalous and it needs to stop.


If people are allowed to make their own choices about where they want to live, the dynamics of this dispute, new facts on the ground, will radically change for the better and the Security Council might actually be able to work out a reasonable solution. 


Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP