Embezzlement of Humanitarian Aid in Tindouf: High Time the UNSC Acted

 The Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations, Omar Hilale, sent a letter last Monday to the Security Council in which he called on the council members to coerce Algeria into respecting its international obligations with regards to the protection of refugees.

Omar Hilale stressed that the report confirms “with supporting evidence the fraudulent, systematic, large-scale embezzlement of humanitarian aid destined for these camps, and the proven responsibility of Algeria and the Polisario in this regard.”

The letter is a follow up to a letter sent previously by Moroccan Minister Delegate for Foreign Affairs Mbarka Bouaida on March 20 in which she informed the UN Secretary General of the report of the European Anti-Drug Office (OLAF) on the involvement of Algeria and the Polisario in the embezzlement of humanitarian aid destined to the Tindouf camps.

Omar Hilale’s letter summarizes in 12 points the elements that show the true face of Algeria, a country that has always prided itself in defending the rights of the Saharawis.

In accordance with the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, Algeria, in its capacity as host country of the Sahrawis, has the legal and political obligation to allow the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to fulfill its mandate and to conduct the registration and the census of the population in the Tindouf camps.

But Algerian authorities never respected their obligations. In their attempts to give the pseudo- “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic” a semblance of legitimacy, they have repeatedly reiterated that the responsibility for ensuring the rights of refugees in the camps lies with the Polisario.


Brazen Practice Denounced in Many International Reports


Algeria and the Polisario’s involvement in nefarious practices is nothing new. Every report published by UN agencies such as UNHCR and the World Food Programme confirms that the Polisario and Algeria have systematically embezzled humanitarian aid destined to the population of Tindouf.

For example, a confidential report by the inspector general of the UNHCR office released in 2005 revealed the involvement of the Algerian authorities and Polisario in the embezzlement of humanitarian aid provided by international community.

“According to various protected sources, food and [non-food items (NFI)] were being diverted at the Port of Oran, en route to Tindouf and after arrival at the Rabouni warehouse in Tindouf, and were then transported to parts of Algeria, Mauritania and Western Sahara,” stressed the report.

For years, many former members of the separatist movement that joined Morocco, had also alerted the international community about deprivation and malnutrition problems that the population of the Tindouf camps has been facing for decades.

Despite the magnitude the humanitarian aid that international organizations have been providing to the Polisario, a study conducted in 2008 showed the existence of “18 percent prevalence of acute malnutrition in the camps and a prevalence of five percent severe acute malnutrition.”

If anything, this study proves that a considerable part of humanitarian aid to the population of the camps never arrived at its ultimate destination.

The same conclusions were highlighted for several years by a number of European research centers and non-governmental organizations. Two Reports published in 2008 and 2010 by the European Centre for Strategic Intelligence and Security (ESISC) showed the extent of the diversion of humanitarian aid by Algeria and the Polisario leaders.

In its report published on April 26, 2010, ESISC pointed to the Algerian Red Crescent, which it accused of being the first beneficiaries of this practice and the Polisario leaders who “take advantage of this windfall to acquire weapons but also and above all personal property in the Canary Islands and Spain.”

Moreover, in a 2009 report, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants showed that the humanitarian aid provided to the Tindouf camps was not based on verifiable data, and pointed out that Algerian authorities had overestimated the number of people in the camps to obtain larger amounts of humanitarian aid.

But despite these NGOs’ calls over the years for the international community to coerce Algeria to respect international law related to the protection of refugees, these calls were not taken seriously and these NGO’s were often accused of siding with Morocco.


The New Situation is Favorable to Morocco


However, this time with the release of the OLAF report, no one can accuse the European body of siding with Morocco at the expense of Algeria and the Polisario.

Following Ban Ki-moon’s report, in which he stressed the need to conduct a registration of the population of Tindouf, [the situation is in favor Morocco to call on the United Nations to put pressure on Algeria and the Polisario to respect international law.

What makes Morocco’s position even stronger is the resolution adopted by the Committee on Budgetary Control of the European Parliament on March 24th, in which it requests a drastic reduction in European aid limited to 90,000 people instead of the 160,000 people reported by Algeria and the Polisario.

Thanks to its position, Morocco should take advantage of this new dynamic and strive to demonstrate to the international community the bad faith of Algeria and the Polisario and their refusal to make any efforts to prepare the ground for a resolution to the conflict.

The Moroccan diplomat’s letter is timely, especially in the light of the recommendation of Ban Ki-moon, and comes as reminder to the Security Council to shoulder its responsibility and ensure that Algeria’s dealing with the Tindouf camps is in line with international standards and expectations. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Security Council to call firmly upon Algeria to heed its demands regarding the registration of the population in the camps.

As Ambassador Hilale pointed out in his letter, it is absurd that the UN accepts Algeria’s continuing refusal to conduct the census, now for more than 30 years, without even questioning the figures put forth by Algerian authorities for over 3 decades.

This finding was already highlighted by the confidential report of the UNHCR in 2005 when it pointed out that that same problems related to the registration for the census arose since the beginning of the conflict and have never been addressed by the international community.

“The most striking aspect of this inquiry is that many of these issues (problems with refugee numbers, lack of registration, lack of CRA accountability, lack of monitoring) arose as early as 1977 and 28 years later the same problems persist,” said the report.

Therefore, in light of reports that incriminate Algeria, the UN has no choice but to ensure that a census is conducted in the Tindouf camps in accordance with the Security Council resolutions adopted since 2011.

Despite the efforts it has made in recent years to persuade the UN of the need to put pressure on Algiers and the Polisario, Morocco’s claims were not taken seriously and the veracity of its position was often questioned.

In all of the resolutions adopted by the Security Council since 2011, the UN body has settled for as little as “reiterating its request for consideration of a refugee registration in the Tindouf refugee camps and inviting efforts in this regard” without involving Algeria in such undertaking.

In fact, instead of directing its request to Algeria, the Security Council’s request was directed at the UNHCR, which had to rely on the free will of the Algerian regime to cooperate with it or not.

In addition, although the Security Council mentioned the question of the census in its resolutions, this reference was included in the preamble of its resolutions and had no political bearing on Algeria.

This language gave little political weight to the UN calls and left the way open for Algeria to cooperate or not with the UNHCR. This explains why the Algerian government continued to dismiss the UNHCR calls to allow it to conduct a registration in the camps. As long as there was no independent investigation that could substantiate the validity of Morocco’s arguments concerning Algeria’s involvement in the embezzlement of aid, the latter had all the latitude to continue resting on its refusal to allow a census to be conducted in the camps.

However, following the report of the European Union, the situation has changed in favor of Morocco. Therefore, it is likely that the Security Council will include a clear call for Algeria and the Polisario to heed the demands of the international community. But this time around, chances are that the Security Council will make this call in one of the operative paragraphs of its resolution, which would give it more political weight.


Samir Bennis
Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Provence in France. He also holds a Master’s degree in political science from the University of Toulouse I, a Master’s degree in Iberian studies ...