Global Post, by Alison Lake (Rabat, Morocco & Washington, DC, June 29, 2012) — Relative to large pockets of human suffering in sub-Saharan Africa in the form of widespread famine or civil wars, the fate of Western Sahara, a disputed desert territory and its 120,000 people is easily overlooked. Yet this particular conflict undermines regional security in North Africa and perpetuates a troublesome humanitarian situation. Amid a changing climate colored by the Arab Spring and the ascent of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Western Sahara is an unfortunate liability.
On April 24, the UN Security council extended for another year its peacekeeping mandate in Western Sahara, a region of sand and Atlantic coastline situated between Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. This bureaucratic move signaled the UN’s frustration with ongoing failed talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front, Algeria’s armed political group…
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other sources, many Sahraouis have lived in the Tindouf, Algeria, camps for more than three decades… Many former Polisario camp residents report that leaving the Polisario camps to reach Morocco or anywhere else is notoriously difficult. The Polisario and Algerian government monitor their movement and rarely approve exit visas, prompting hundreds to escape via smugglers…
“The situation in Tindouf is atypical as far as humanitarian law is concerned,” said Maghreb scholar Yasmine Hasnaoui in Rabat, Morocco. “Deprived by Algeria and the Polisario from seeking citizenship, work permits, or refugee status, they are placed under the mandate of UNHCR. Add to that the systematic violations of their fundamental rights and freedom of movement, abuse, slavery, lack of humanitarian aid, and infiltration by traffickers…”
This is one of the longest-standing refugee situations,” said Sybella Wilkes, UNHCR North Africa bureau chief. “We recognize how hard it is for families who have been separated for decades. Residents continue to face hardship due to their separation from loved ones…”
The Western Sahara question combines uneasily with larger regional problems: AQIM recruitment and political installation in northern Mali, drug and arms trafficking, and spotty policing of borders with unstable neighbors. “Unfortunately it is a recurring reality that [Sahraoui] refugees live in an increasingly insecure world,” Sybella Wilkes said. “This makes it challenging for UNHCR and partners to work, when the same security issues that affect the refugees start to impact the safety of humanitarian aid workers.”
Mohammed Benhammou, a terrorism and security expert and president of the Rabat-based African Federation of Strategic Studies, said a more cohesive regional policy is needed. “We have to face these security problems and pay attention to all private actors in the area. Today, we should analyze the Western Sahara situation in the context of the civil war in Libya, which started a new stage of vulnerability in the region with the removal of Gaddafi. This strategic rupture caused an outpouring of rebels and separatist groups into the Sahara and Sahel regions.”
Benhammou explained that AQIM activities, organized crime, cocaine trafficking, and the use of the Sahara as a cocaine road are increasing. He said that organized crime and terrorist groups seek recruits in the Sahara/Sahel borderlands, including Polisario-patrolled Algeria, for logistics and operations. Military and security experts speak of the Sahara/Sahel region as a zone of instability. Borders, such as that shared by Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania, are porous, and many roads are mastered and managed by AQIM. Paramilitary types are trained in using arms and willing to change sides for the right price. “We need a sincere and deep regional and voluntary cooperation from all pertinent countries,” Benhammou said. “Tindouf is a refuge for organized crime, arms sales, cigarette trafficking, and misuse of outside aid. The first battle in the region is about routes and zones. And there are many youth without a future or hope who seek a chance for financial gain. Tindouf today is at the intersection of organized crime.”