Western Sahara Refugees : Free Them Now

The global refugee crisis continues to expand in practically every corner of the planet. By now we are all aware of the awful circumstances for refugees from the on-going civil war in Syria where the millions who have been displaced are causing enormous strains on not only the states of the region, but also roiling the political landscape of Europe’s politics.  Sub-Saharan refugees continue to risk their lives attempting the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean to reach European shores.  Tens of thousands remain trapped in one warehousing limbo or another in Southeast Asia. And, of course, the current situation along the US border with Mexico is the single most dominant and divisive political issue of American politics at the moment.


On Refugee Day, I would like to call attention to another, largely ignored and forgotten, group of long suffering people – the Sahrawi refugees warehoused in mud brick and tent camps in the scorching hot desert of southwest Algeria.


Nobody knows exactly how many of these unfortunate people are being detained in these inhospitable conditions because their Algerian and Polisario overlords will not allow the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to conduct a census and identification project to document them.  My best estimate is something less than fifty thousand, but Polisario supporters would like to put that number anywhere from three to five times higher for all the obvious reasons I have written about in this space many times over the last decade.


These refugees have an absolute right under international treaty law to elect to be repatriated to their country of origin – in this case, Morocco. And since the late 1980s nearly 8000 of them have, with no assistance from anyone but themselves and paid smugglers, done exactly that.  They have gone home to Morocco. I have interviewed hundreds of them. Their stories are every bit as heartbreaking as the ones we Americans are seeing on our television sets these days from our southern border, but of course they are wholly invisible here in the United States.


It is time to put a stop to this.


It is the obligation of UNHCR to assist these refugees in their repatriation if that is their choice. It is the obligation of the United Nations Security Council, which has chosen to manage this international dispute, to ensure that UN organizations discharge their legal obligations in this project. And it is the obligation of member states on the Council to ensure that these responsibilities are responsibly addressed. None of this is happening.


UNHCR is hiding behind the flimsy argument that it can do nothing to assist the repatriation of these refugees until there is a final settlement of the Western Sahara issue. This denies these refugees their individual and collective rights under international law. Some UNSC members, including the United States, have chosen to ignore these rights in the interest of doing nothing that they fear might upset a status quo circumstance in the dispute with which they have become all too comfortable. This is shameful and callous. Every refugee deserves the full measure of the protection and rights that we have established in the international system.  And that includes Sahrawi refugees in the Algerian and Polisario gulags who choose to go home.

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP