Global Policy Forum

Western Sahara's Conflict Traps Refugees in Limbo


By Cara Buckley

New York Times
June 4, 2008

The refugees' eyes burned as they recounted terrible tales, culled, they said, from decades of hard living in camps in an unforgiving desert, half a world away. One man told of a holding center for unwed mothers, cordoned off from relatives and friends. A woman said that a camp's leaders smuggled away foreign aid, even as residents of the camp starved. Another man described escaping with his pregnant wife under the cover of night, fleeing toward the Moroccan border as the camp's police chased them through a thicket of land mines. But were the refugees' depictions of life in the camps overstated, as some human rights workers wonder? And were they brought to the United States to advance a foreign country's claim on their homeland?

The refugees are Sahrawis from Western Sahara, products of a tangled, nearly forgotten conflict between Morocco and a Sahrawi rebel group, the Polisario Front, that has dragged on for more than 30 years. Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony wedged among Mauritania, Algeria, Morocco and the Atlantic Ocean, and it has been in political limbo since Spain withdrew in 1976. After Spain's departure, Morocco annexed most of the land, an action that no other country recognized, and the Polisario Front waged a bitter battle for independence that led to a cease-fire in 1991. There has been a political impasse over its status ever since. In the course of the conflict, many of the Sahrawi people fled to western Algeria to live in camps administered by the Polisario Front and paid for by international and humanitarian aid. An estimated 90,000 to 160,000 Sahrawis currently live in these camps.

A delegation of six Sahrawi refugees — four women wrapped in brilliantly hued abayas and two men with somber stares — recently visited New York and Washington to talk about their suffering under the Polisario Front. In doing so, they also reflected the highly politicized tug of war over the sovereignty of Western Sahara. They all once lived in refugee camps run by the Polisario Front in Algeria, but are now based in Western Sahara, subsisting in part on Moroccan aid. Their trip was sponsored by a lobbying group for Morocco, and they met with officials and reporters, to whom they described the camps, through an interpreter, as corruption-riddled prisons that they were not allowed to leave.

"The Polisario people to us just look like the Mafia people," said Said Abderahman, 28, who said he left a camp with his pregnant wife, Salma Essalek, 25, last fall in what both described as a treacherous escape. "The international agencies are giving plenty of food, and the local population is not getting it." Another Sahrawi refugee, Brahim al-Selem, 34, said he was a policeman in the camps but had to pay a smuggler last August to flee after being imprisoned for speaking out against the Polisario Front.

But representatives of Human Rights Watch and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said they did not know of any refugees who had been prevented from leaving the camps. Mouloud Said, who represents the Polisario Front in Washington, went further, denouncing the refugees' statements as hyperbole and contending that they were being used for political purposes by Morocco. "These people are brought by the Moroccan public relations companies here, so they have to mislead," he said.

There have been various efforts over the years to resolve the Western Sahara question. After the cease-fire was brokered in 1991, a United Nations mission was set up to organize a referendum in the territory to determine Western Sahara's future, but Morocco and the Polisario Front could not agree on who was eligible to vote.

Eric Goldstein, a research director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said Morocco had encouraged non-Sahrawis to settle in Western Sahara, because of what Morocco views as their historic ties to the land. Sahrawis now form a minority there. Two years ago, Morocco proposed allowing the region a measure of autonomy, under the purview of Morocco, a proposal that France and the United States backed. But the Polisario Front rejected it.

Morocco also began accusing the Polisario Front of human rights abuses in its camps in Algeria. Some critics say this was largely to distract attention from violations that Morocco itself was accused of inflicting on Sahrawis. In a May 2008 report, Freedom House, a human rights group based in the United States, described Morocco's treatment of the Sahrawis in Western Sahara as highly repressive and only slightly better than "the worst of the worst."

All of which, some say, casts doubt on some aspects of the accounts provided by the delegation of Sahrawi refugees, who have since returned to Morocco-controlled Western Sahara. Mr. Goldstein and Sergio Calle-Norena, who works with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Morocco, said that while leaving the camps was logistically difficult, freedom of movement was allowed. "I'm not doubting their individual stories, but it has to be seen in context," Mr. Goldstein said. "The reason Morocco is funding their trip is to try to discredit the Polisario at a moment when they hope that its own proposal for autonomy will prevail."

Interviewed in a stately conference room in Morocco's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York, the refugees were passionate in telling their stories. But most, when asked, refused to say what should become of their homeland. "We came here for humanitarian reasons, not to discuss politics," said Naba Deddah el-Meki, 42, who now lives with her eldest daughter in Western Sahara. She described widespread theft in the camps of aid supplied to the Polisario Front. The former Polisario police officer, Mr. Selem, was more direct: "We would like the Western Sahara to remain part of Morocco, of course."

Robert M. Holley, the executive director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy, the lobbying group that organized the trip, said he selected the delegation from hundreds of refugees who flooded into Morocco from Algeria. Nearly all of them, he said, spoke of repression and corruption in the camps, and of imprisonment for those who tried to leave.

Mr. Holley insisted that his group's decision to bring the delegation to the United States was separate from Morocco's effort to realize its plan for autonomy in Western Sahara. The goal, he said, was simply to expose what he described as severe restrictions and harsh conditions in the camps. "People can argue about politics, but we want people to understand the human costs," Mr. Holley said. "The lives of these people, daily, are being destroyed." "These people aren't telling lies," he said, "they're telling their lives."

More Information on the UN Security Council
More Information on Western Sahara
More Information on Oil and Natural Gas in Conflict
More Information on The Dark Side of Natural Resources


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.