The Forgotten Conflict

A report on wars’ corrosive power to divide.

In many ways, the crisis in the Western Sahara is viewed as a “forgotten conflict”. This description seems even more appropriate after visiting MINURSO and speaking to the UN agencies, which seem to work in a frozen moment in time. Little by way of improvement on the status seems to be negotiable. So if the situation changes, it can only change for the worse — by the removal of the UN’s presence or the sound of a gunshot.

The working environment is a hardship post for UN staff, although that is not reflected in its formal categorization as a UN hardship location. Laayoune is a busy — if featureless — city. What benefits there are come largely from state inducements and tax breaks for people and businesses to relocate and stay. Hardship has similar effects on the Moroccan officials in the west as well as the Polisario officials and the Sahrawi refugees who are east of the berm. Nearly all sides seem to agree that the political and social environment is deadlocked. And yet, there is potential for future fragility resulting from either the radicalisation of the youth or the possible infiltration of terrorist movements into the region.

The SRSG and CoS of MINURUSO as well as the Force Commander and the representatives of the UN agencies all remarked how well-organized the Polisario is as a group. Their ability to operate as an effective independent entity was achieved with high hopes forty years ago by the referendum that would support their return to the territory and recognise their autonomy and independence so as to lead the way to a seamless transition of governing rights over the Sahrawi refugees. That basic loyalty to the ideal — and refusal to assimilate into either Moroccan or Algerian community life — attests to their sense of identity and lack of alternatives. Since the start of the conflict in 1975, the indigenous Sahrawi population has sought refuge in Algeria. The Algerian government estimates that there are nearly 165,000 refugees currently in the Tindouf camps.

Background to Humanitarian Aid

MINURSO provides logistical assistance to the UN agencies that operate in the Western Sahara and Algeria. The agencies have been working in the territory since 1986 with varying levels of success. Overall, humanitarian aid is primarily focussed in Algeria so as to target the five refugee camps that are located near Tindouf. Unfortunately, our programme could not accommodate a trip to visit the camps, which are located quite a distance away from the MINURSO site in Tindouf.

Passports

Currently, there are a number of countries that will recognise Polisario issued documents (which allows Sahrawi children access to summer educational camps in Spain and Cuba), but the Moroccans will not. This further complicates the logistical procedures for MINURSO and UN agencies to effectively administer security and humanitarian provisions to the refugees in the east.

Humanitarian Issues

The representatives from the UN agencies with whom we met, namely WFP and UNHCR (UNICEF was not able to be present), seemed passionate about the work that they do. However, their motivation was also met with frustration and a sense of hopelessness over the lack of progress in the negotiations. That gloom seems to echo the growing unrest they viewed in the camps.

The Sahrawi refugees are completely dependent on the humanitarian aid which is provided by WFP, UNHCR and UNICEF. Together, the agencies provide essential resources including food and non-food assistance such as health facilities, water and education. Apart from the political issues, a lingering threat to humanitarian assistance is climatic. Uncontrollable floods and extreme heat caused WFP to lose crucial food supplies whilst it was either in transit or in storage.

In addition to the above, the flooding in October 2015 damaged refugees’ homes made from mud. So, UNHCR has provided tents as an alternative. But the inadequacy of donor funds — we were told — means that UNHCR cannot sustain the costs.

Both Moroccans and Polisario support the UN agencies — most of which are located in Tindouf. However, according to the agencies, the Moroccans have raised concerns that the UN’s presence seems biased towards the Polisario. Hence, negotiations to implement new CBMs for the Sahrawi refugees move slowly.

Confidence Building Measures Programme (CBM)

The CBM programme has been on hold since June 2014. The programme was initiated by UNHCR in 2004 to reconnect families that had been divided by the berm since 1975. UNHCR remarked on the favourable reception of the initiative expressed by the Sahrawi refugees. The promising benefits of reconnecting families that have now been separated for 40 years had been an encouraging factor for the UNHCR in developing additional methods that would encourage amicable communication between both sides.

Since 2004, UNHCR has expanded its functions to provide telephone communication for families divided by the berm and to organise cultural seminars via VTCs that focussed on empowering women. By 2011, over 11,000 of the 165,000 refugees living in the five Tindouf camps had benefited from the programme. The CBMs seemed to serve as the sole initiative that successfully opened lines of communication between the Moroccan Government and the Polisario.

However, according to UNHCR, disputes rose between both sides over the legitimacy of the list of family names that were provided by the UN agency. It is unclear as to which side was at fault — although, the humanitarian agencies in Tindouf blame the Moroccan government for defaulting on the registration of any Sahrawi family names that allegedly had connections to Polisario fighters. This action has led to the suspension of not only the family visit programme but also other elements of the CBM process, such as the annual Geneva-based talks between Morocco and the Polisario who is led by the Special Envoy. At present, there is no indication of when the CBM programme will be reinstated.

Youth Radicalisation

After speaking to the UN agencies, it is clear that budgetary constraints are directly tied to youth radicalisation in the camps. As a result, this is a major challenge that the agencies are facing east of the berm: overall, 7 million USD has been requested to manage humanitarian aid programmes and services. There currently remains a 38 per cent gap. Humanitarian aid is directly tied to keeping peace in the camps.

However, in addition to the decreased funding to humanitarian services, the Sahrawi youth is becoming more impatient and restless with the lack of progress between the Moroccans and the Polisario. Moreover, they are unable to separate the role of the UN from the continued political stagnation between both sides. As such, the UN agencies have admitted to hearing chatter in the refugee camps of possible uprisings, though it is unclear as to whom the aggression would be directed.

This growing unease is another security risk if an event sparked conflict in the camps. The concern for MINURSO and the UN agencies as well as for the Moroccan and Polisario officials is steadily rising due to known terrorist movements in the surrounding regional borders (i.e.: Mauritania). The agencies east of the berm rely on security intelligence provided by the Polisario; given the Polisario’s agenda, this leads one to question its reliability.

There are limited self-reliant opportunities for the youth and families in the camps. The UN agencies discussed (without real conviction) ideas about diversifying its programme.

UN agencies believe that it is crucial for the CBM programme or similar initiatives to resume as a means to keep the youth engaged and deter an uprising.

Reflections

Undoubtedly, the presence of the UN is crucial to upholding the cessation of hostilities between Morocco and the Polisario. And yet, I wonder if there are links between the de-motivation at MINURSO and the limited progress in the negotiations process. This calls into question the role of the SRSG at MINURSO as not only the overseer of MINURSO but also as a commander who would positively influence and encourage both sides to reach a solution. I left the SRSG office thinking that perhaps anyone who has inherited a dispirited team amidst years of unsuccessful negotiations might also find it a challenge to inject motivation mission-wide.

But perhaps the challenge lies outside MINURSO’s remit. I see this crisis rooted in protecting and defending cultural identities which are so commonly tied to land. Therefore, the problem may be much more than just redistributing authority in the Western Sahara:

  • The Sahrawis refusal to align under the Moroccan flag suggests that the Polisario is able to provide some ethnic aspect that extends beyond the functions of a government.
  • On the other hand, the Moroccans’ rejection of a Polisario-governed Western Sahara, as well as the Moroccans refusal to reopen channels of communication (i.e. CBM) across the berm, blatantly consolidates political and economic power to Moroccan authority and shuts out the Sahrawis.

My concern, therefore, is centred on the refugees who have been trapped in a limbo which seems to have no viable solution.

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