The American media of late has been covering the flood of refugees from Syria. The number of those fleeing the bloodbath under Bashar al-Assad just topped 1 million in Lebanon alone. The entire world focuses on one refugee population, the Palestinians who could have long since found permanent homes in Arab countries or in the West Bank. But virtually no one pays much attention to another refugee tragedy, one that’s gone on for decades.
I’ve written before about the stalemate involving Western Sahara and the implications it has for human and drug trafficking and terrorism in North Africa. It’s also the cause of the refugee crisis no one seems to know about. Years ago Mohamed Cherif was an official in the Polisario Front, the violent separatist group seeking independence for Western Sahara. He broke with the group decades ago and began speaking out about the camps run by the Polisario in Algeria, where tens of thousands of Sahrawis remain in limbo, with “no liberty of movement, no liberty of speech, no liberty of association,” he tells me over the phone in French through a translator. Morocco has proposed an autonomy plan for Western Sahara, which the United States and many Western countries have praised, but the Polisario and its Algerian hosts refuse to cooperate. So ten of thousands of Sahrawis — since 1976 — have remained in dismal camps.
Cherif describes the harrowing tale of his persecution by the Polisario when he spoke out about the plight of those stuck in the camps. For five years, from 1981 to 1986, Cherif was kept in the Rashid camp, what he calls a “re-education camp.” His re-education consisted of confinement in a tiny cell, literally a hole in the ground from which he was allowed to exit three times a day to remove his own waste. “We did not see the sun. We were told to look down,” he says of these brief excursions. Unlike many Sahrawis, he was able to get out using family connections and to relocate to Morocco.
How does this go on? With a human rights travesty this intractable and this dismal, you might think the United Nations must be involved. Indeed, U.N. relief agencies (the World Food Program and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) are providing relief for 90,000 people. However, Algeria and the Polisario refuse to allow a census to verify those numbers. How much is skimmed off the top by the Polisario and Algeria is unknown. Sahrawis in the camps can rarely leave. If they are allowed a visit outside the camps, relatives are often kept behind, essentially as hostages. Moreover, the refugees have no UNHCR refugee documents because there has never been a census and identification project during the last 40 years, and they have no U.N. travel documents as refugees nor any other kind of travel document (though refugee identification documents from UNHCR and U.N. travel documents are their right under the U.N. Convention on Refugees).
U.S. taxpayer dollars are going to U.N. agencies, to be transferred with zero accountability to a violent group that has abused refugees for decades. The refugees there are “isolated from the outside,” according to Cherif. UNHCR, WFP and other bilateral and multilateral donors (like the European Union) turn the supplies over to the Algerian Red Crescent at the port of Oran, on Algeria’s northern coast. The supplies are then given to the Polisario Red Crescent. No U.N. or other controls over their distribution after that.
Cherif tells me that six weeks ago there was a rare demonstration inside a camp in front of UNHCR officials. As you might imagine, there has been no response. Cherif says simply, “The conflict [over Western Sahara] has lasted too long. … It’s time to bang our fists on the table and put pressure on the Algerians and Polisario.” In the United States, any fist-banging will have to come from Congress; the Obama administration is not one to raise a rumpus over much of anything that goes on at the U.N.