Billions of dollars of economic productivity lost. Tens of thousands refugees living in inhumane conditions in the desert. Key contributing cause? Lack of regional integration in the Maghreb.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the closure of the Moroccan-Algerian border – one of the key obstacles to achieving regional integration in the Maghreb and improving both economic and humanitarian conditions in the five countries that make up the region – Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
The costs of the current situation are well-known. Intra-Maghreb trade is among the lowest in the world. According to Oxfam France and the World Bank, among others, the five countries of the Maghreb lose up to 3 percent of GDP per year due to the absence of regional integration – roughly $10 billion dollars annually.
On the political side, the impasse between Morocco and Algeria has blocked the resolution of the Western Sahara conflict – now thirty nine years running. Despite a ceasefire in 1991, tens of thousands of refugees remain victims of the conflict – trapped in refugee camps in southwest Algeria and warehoused in deplorable physical and moral circumstances in one of the longest encamped refugee situations in the world today.
Resolving the Western Sahara conflict would do much to improve relations between Morocco and Algeria, which would have a multiplier effect throughout the region. It would go a long way toward improving security cooperation and boosting the economy, creating the conditions necessary for confronting the serious economic challenges that plague the region – youth unemployment, stalled growth, etc.
And as Nicolas Vercken, Acting Advocacy and Policy Director of Oxfam France noted today in an interview with RFI on the occasion of the border closure, the Sahara “has to be resolved for the tens of thousands of refugees who live in the desert. And this has to be resolved for the sake of the region.”
Vercken hoped that “maybe the economy could be the entry points for the states of the region, the people of the region to realize it’s vital and urgent to normalize the relationship.” Though this has been stated time and time again, it bears repeating, particularly in light of ongoing security and economic challenges that are only getting worse in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Vercken called on France to invest more political capital to resolve the conflict, as economic integration is not just in the Maghreb countries’ interest, but in the interests of their trading partners in Europe, the US, and across the globe.
The US should likewise do more to resolve the conflict and implement its policy of support for a solution based on autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. Twenty years of a border closure is too long. Thirty-nine years of conflict and humanitarian crisis is far too long. The US and France owe it to their allies to deepen their engagement with the region to promote peace and economic prosperity. We shouldn’t let another year pass.
Caitlin Dearing Scott, SVP, Research, Projects, and Programs, MAC