In November I travelled via Algeria and the Sahrawi refugee camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf, into the Polisario-controlled zone of Western Sahara. Western Sahara was invaded by Morocco in 1975, and is now partitioned between a Moroccan-occupied zone and a zone controlled by the Polisario independence movement. The Polisario are effectively a government-in-exile, who run the Tindouf camps as a mini state – the exiled Sahrawi refugees in the camps view Western Sahara as a partially occupied nation – the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Since 2002 I’ve been running a scientific research project in the Polisario zone or “Free Zone”, and the November 2006 trip was part of this ongoing research. The Free Zone of Western Sahara is sparsely populated due to a lack of resources (principally water) and infrastructure, and the risk of renewed conflict. Most of the indigenous Sahrawi who were displaced by the Moroccan invasion, and their descendents, live in the camps near Tindouf, which house over 160,000 people. This figure of over 160,000 is based multiple censuses by international organisations including the United Nations (UNICEF estimates the population at 165,000 – 200,000), which has been attempting to organise a referendum since a ceasefire was brokered between Morocco and the Polisario in 1991. The figure for the population of the camps is therefore widely accepted (except by Morocco and its more extreme apologists), being based on careful data collection by independent observers. The refugees in the camps survive on food aid provided by donors including the EU, the World Food Programme, a number of national governments, and international solidarity organisations.
Despite the continuing displacement of the refugees, the UN budget for their support continues to be cut year after year. The World Food Programme has recently downgraded its estimate of the population of the camps “of concern” to 90,000, despite the assessment of UNICEF and Oxfam that the number of refugees requiring assistance is at least twice that number. There has been no mass exodus from the camps, so why the downgrading of the numbers of concern and the continuing cuts in aid?
An explanation was provided by a senior manager for a major international NGO, whom I met in the Free Zone. In her view, the downgrading of the population at risk estimate was the result of political pressure from the major donors to the World Food Programme, who hope that by cutting food aid to the camps they can encourage the Polisario government-in-exile to accept the Moroccan offer of a limited amout of autonomy for Western Sahara within a greater Morocco, but without the option of a referndum on full independence.
This would mean the exiled Sahrawi accepting Moroccan sovereignty over a territory the latter has invaded illegally; according to the International Court and the United Nations Western Sahara is a “non self governing territory” whose status is yet to be determined based on the principle of the right to self determination. In accepting Moroccon control, the Sahrawi would also be ceding territory not currently occupied by Morocco to the Moroccan regime. Acceptance of the autonomy plan would also involve the UN reneging on its commitment to organize a referendum on full independence, which has been the basis of the presence of the UN observer force (MIURSO) in the region since 1991.
The UN is already unpopular in the region, particularly among the Sahrawi, who see it as being in the pocket of Morocco. The UN presence in the region has effectively frozen the conflict, allowing Morocco more time to consolidate its control of the occupied territories, which it has flooded with settlers. In the meantime the exiled Sahrawi have become increasingly marginalised and frustrated, and their military disadvantage relative to Morocco has been exacerbated, as Morocco has armed itself with the aid of countries such as France, the United States and United Kingdom (it has been reported that a British military trainer was assisting Moroccan forces in the occupied territories in autumn 2002, the date of our first season of fieldwork in the Free Zone: see Toby Shelley, Endgame in the Western Sahara). Nonetheless, the mood in the Sahrawi camps is increasinly one that favours a renewal of the conflict. The Sahrawi may be unlikely to win a military victory over a better armed Morocco, but many in the camps see this as the only way of alerting the international community to their plight. If forced out of the camps, the Sahrawi are much more likley to take up arms again than they are to accept Moroccan control over their destiny.
The World Food Programme is part of the United Nations, an organisation that is meant to improve people’s lives and foster peace. In this instance, a UN agency tasked with feeding the hungry appears to be deliberately starving refugees for political purposes, at the behest of major donors who want an “easy”, and dirty, solution to a complex political problem. If the analysis of my NGO contact is correct (and this seems the most plausible explanation to hand of the WFPs actions), then the UN is starving refugees in order to consolidate an act of aggression by an expansionist imperial regime against one of its neighbours. Far from promoting peace, this course of action is likely to precipitate conflict – if starved or otherwise forced from the refugee camps the exiled Sahrawi will feel they have nothing to lose (many already feel this way), and they have the means to wage at least a protracted guerilla war against Morocco. Any return to war will destabilze this part of Africa, precisely the opposite of what the major players in the region claim to want.
Given the appeasement of Morocco by the Western Powers and the United Nations to date, and the destabilisation this has already caused, this recent turn of events should be no surprise. The UN observer force in Western Sahara has achieved nothing, except perhaps to buy time for Morocco to consolidate its occupation. The most lasting and obvious legacy of the UN presence is likely to be the destruction of the region’s once spectacular rock art sites, many of which are now defaced with graffiti listing the countries of origin of the UN troops, and the years of their visits.