The Polisario Front (Polisario), the self-proclaimed “leader” of Sahrawis fighting for independence for the Western Sahara, is in reality a one-party dictatorship that does not represent the Sahrawi people and does not promote their best interests in pursuing a peaceful solution to the Western Sahara conflict. The Polisario has been controlled by the same authoritarian leader, Mohammed Abdelaziz, for more than 30 years and allows no real democratic process.
The Polisario routinely violates the human rights of tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees who have remained trapped in desperate conditions in camps near Tindouf, Algeria for more than three decades. In the camps, there is no freedom of speech, association, or movement; no independent civil society; and no independent judiciary or political parties. Access to the camps by outside human rights monitors is limited and subject to strict visa requirements. The Polisario has consistently refused to allow the UN to conduct a census that would help it better provide relief assistance to the refugees. Instead, eyewitnesses report that the Polisario routinely diverts food aid intended for the camp populations, selling it on the black market.
The Polisario has abrogated its international responsibilities to negotiate a political solution to the Western Sahara conflict, consistently threatening to return to armed struggle and refusing to compromise in UN-led negotiations. This strategy has serious consequences not only for the refugees, but also for the region more broadly.
What is currently a humanitarian crisis is quickly becoming a security crisis, to which the Polisario is contributing by failing to provide economic opportunities for the refugees or allow them to seek such opportunities outside the camps. As a result, there is overwhelming evidence that members from the Polisario-run camps near Tindouf, Algeria fought alongside al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad (MUJAO) in northern Mali; have high-level links with al-Qaeda leaders who operated in Mali; and continue to engage in smuggling drugs and arms in the Sahara/Sahel. In addition, reports confirm that the camps have become a recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers operating in the region, and a potential refuge for jihadists forced out of northern Mali by the actions of French and African forces.
The reality of Polisario malfeasance, in the camps and outside them, greatly increases the urgency of negotiating a solution to the dispute over the Western Sahara and promoting durable solutions to the refugee crisis.