As Morocco and Algeria wrapped up the UN-sponsored talks on the future of the Western Sahara with plans to meet again, thousands of Sahrawi refugees remain warehoused in the Algerian deserts with little hope of returning to their homeland. The United Nations’ lack of urgency in addressing the plight of the displaced Sahrawis is worrisome and troublesome.
Washington D.C – As the foreign ministers of Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and representatives of the Polisario secessionist movement met in the comfort of the Swiss city Geneva, thousands of displaced Sahrawi men, women and children continue to linger in brutal conditions. Forty-three years into this endless conflict, they remain stateless with several generations born and raised without a home.
Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel’s account describing the first UN-led talks in six years as “full of laughs” captures the careless attitudes of some parties to this turbulent UN mission. This gathering looked more like a vacation and less than a marathon meeting to resolve decade old and established hurdles that Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario deadlocked over for years.
In fact, Algeria, that has the key to ending the confrontation by the virtue of its total control over the Polisario Front’s positons in the negotiations, is in no mood for a resolution because it will have far less leverage against Morocco in other territorial disputes namely the final status of the Eastern Sahara.
The unresolved issues surrounding the efforts of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to end the conflict have remained the same since the collapse of the Baker I plan in 2001.
The main disagreement revolves around what constitutes the right of self-determination. For the Polisario and its overseers in Algiers, self-determination can only be achieved through independence, while Morocco considers an autonomous Western Sahara under its sovereignty as a form self-determination.
Since the Geneva talks did not bring new ideas to address the core disagreements, they are less likely to produce a breakthrough. Morocco and the Polisario met and failed to agree before during the Manhasset negotiations in Manhasset, New York in 2007 and Algeria remains as an observer in the conflict in the eyes of the United Nations Security Council.
While some expert concluded that the Geneva round table ended on an optimistic note, the civilians suffering in tents do not see any positive in waiting for many more years before they can return to their homes.
Most Sahrawis currently trapped in Tindouf were born in the camps, never having known their homeland. Their demands to go back home to the Sahara, a region mired in decades of political deadlock, should be on the top of the UN agenda. Unfortunately, the Algeria-Morocco rivalry continues to overshadow the humanitarian disaster in the Camps.
The thousands of Sahrawis who followed the Polisario front to the Algerian desert in 1975 remain dependent on international humanitarian aid with little hope for self-sufficiency. They thought it would be only a temporary refuge before their eventual return and never imagined they would turn into a bargaining chip in the longest-running conflicts in Africa.
The Sahrawis of Tindouf should be given the opportunity to return home regardless of the status of the U.N. talks on the future of the Western Sahara. Algeria and the Polisario promised them to return home in few months. Now, the UN is committing them to a state of permanent displacement and condemned to a life of waiting in the most inhospitable environment.
At the end of the day, no one in Geneva was representing the Sahrawis of Tindouf. The Moroccans, including those of Sahrawi origins, went back to the “luxury” of the Moroccan Sahara, the Algerians played nice with Horst Kohler by attending the meeting but in fact went back at pretending to be just observers, and the Polisario leaders are just enjoying the contentment of traveling as VIP’ away from the misery of the Camps.