Somewhere in the vicinity of twenty thousand or so legitimately denominated Sahrawi refugees and probably a roughly equal number of lost and neglected (mostly) Sahrawi souls who are not. Not actually refugees, that is. More on those numbers in a moment.
In his historic speech, November 6, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Green March when 350 thousand unarmed Moroccans calmly marched into the Sahara to reassert the Kingdom’s historical sovereignty over its previous Spanish colonial masters, King Mohamed VI took the occasion to address a few words to their Algerian and Polisario jailors.
To the Algerians, the King offered admonishments over their neglect of those whose interests they so fervently claim to care so much about in the international community. The King began by asking Algeria why, if they cared as much as they claim, in the more than 40 years since this conflict began has the oil and gas rich Algerian government never bothered to construct any decent dwellings for the refugees encamped in the mostly inhospitable desert region near the southwest Algerian city of Tindouf. Just 150 housing units a year, the King noted, would have meant at least 6000 decent homes for the thousands of refugees still living today in mud brick huts and tents. Left unasked was the equally valid question of why, after 40 years, these Algerian refugee camps for the Sahrawis also lack adequate schools, clinics, roads, water, and electricity, and why the refugees have no access to jobs in the local Algerian markets. If you care so much Algeria, why this persistent and inexcusable neglect of the people’s most basic needs after 40 years on your soil?
And what about the Polisario Front leadership that Algeria allows to control the camps and lives of these essentially imprisoned refugees on Algerian soil? Where are they on all this? What have they done to persuade their Algerian mentors — not to say masters — to alleviate the suffering of the refugees under their control. Mostly, it seems, they simply beg for more handouts from the international community to feed and shelter what they claim are 150 thousand refugees – a completely bogus number that King Mohamed VI rightly noted in his speech is really no more than 40 thousand. The community already provides aid for 90 thousand refugees. That is more than twice the number actually in the camps. Where do you imagine the rest of the aid is going? Here’s a hint – ask the European Union’s anti-fraud office or read their latest report on the situation there. Yep, that’s right. It is being sold on the black market to the benefit of Polisario leaders.
To the people living in such dire, miserable and utterly hopeless circumstances in these squalid refugee camps under Algerian and Polisario control, the King also asked whether they were really content to remain there. He echoed his father, King Hassan II’s famous “come home” call in his speech and reminded them again that their country was generous and merciful. Essentially telling them – if you are sick of things there, you can always simply come home where we are building something much better here in our southern Saharan provinces for you. Over the years, roughly 8000 former refugees have answered that call and come home. Not an easy thing to do, since the international community refuses to help those who want to do that, and the Polisario routinely jails as “counter-revolutionaries” those who try and fail. Welcome to the gulags. And you thought they had disappeared.
So what about those “knock, knock” numbers I mentioned earlier? Who are these 40 thousand people? If Algeria and the Polisario Front would finally do what the Security Council keeps asking them to do – that is, allow a census and identification in the camps – we would have a more or less definitive answer to this question. However, their answer has always been, and still is, a resounding “no.” There are essentially two reasons for this answer. The first is easy enough to understand. You count 40 thousand people and you stop providing assistance for 90 thousand. That’s a substantial amount of lost booty for the Polisario leadership. The second reason is a bit more complicated, but in the end even more important.
What few people recognize is that only about half the population of the camps are people of various Sahrawi tribes whose origins were in what was formerly “Spanish Sahara,” now known as Western Sahara in the international community. These people, and only these people, are what the international community would legitimately define as “refugees.” And so what about the other 20 thousand? Well, they are also mostly people belonging to various Sahrawi tribes. However, the very important distinction here is that their origins were not in Spanish Sahara. Rather, their origins were in what is now generally recognized as Algerian territory around Tindouf in the south of the country. This makes them something other than “refugees.” I am not sure what else you might call them. They are also confined to the camps. Maybe just “other prisoners” would be the right way to describe them. But, they are clearly not “refugees” from the Western Sahara. So, if you want to ask what all the fuss over Western Sahara is about, one way to answer that question is that it is about the roughly twenty thousand internationally defined refugees and the bogus Algerian and Polisario claim to represent their interest and desire for an independent Sahara state.
I was in Laayoune in the Sahara the night King Mohamed VI gave his 40th anniversary Green March speech. I would guess that there were easily 200 thousand other people in the street with me that night pledging their allegiance and loyalty to the King and Kingdom. Wish you could have been there too. Think about those numbers for awhile next time somebody raises the Western Sahara question with you.
Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser