RABAT, Morocco and WASHINGTON — 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.
For over two decades, the UN Security Council has tried to facilitate resolution of the 39-year conflict. Initially, the UN’s mandate was established to monitor a 1991 ceasefire and referendum on self-determination in the area Morocco began to acquire in November 1975. Both sides have continually disagreed over terms of the referendum, wherein native Sahraouis, an Arab and Berber people, would vote for self-determination and governance.
Moroccan Sahraouis living in the contested area fled to Algeria in 1976 when armed conflict ensued between Morocco and Polisario guerillas. 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. They are not permitted to seek residency, citizenship, or work permits in Algeria.
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Since 1976, Algeria has delegated power to the Polisario, operating as a silent partner in a shared goal to secure and govern Western Sahara while providing the independence group with bases, military aid, and diplomatic support.
Today, Morocco and the Polisario (and Algeria, though indirectly) all claim rights to the 102,700 square miles of territory, which offers phosphate and fisheries. Morocco’s de facto governance of Western Sahara since gaining full control in 1979 remains a point of bitter contention for the Polisario and Algeria.
The Moroccan government officially invites Sahraouis living in Algeria to “return” to Morocco, and provides them sustenance and housing after verifying they don’t present a security threat. Some conflicts have ensued between settled “returnees” and local Moroccans who protest that Sahraouis take away jobs and resources.
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. A 940-mile long sand wall separates Morocco and the Polisario, with 100,000 Moroccan troops and 10,000 Polisario soldiers manning the berm Morocco constructed in 1980.
For the first time in a resolution, the UN Security Council in April clearly referenced a humanitarian problem in the region, stressing “the importance of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps.” The same month, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also noted reports of human rights violations in Morocco and Western Sahara, in the form of arrests and jailing of pro-independence Sahraouis without due process.
“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.”
Hasnaoui, who has interviewed many former camp residents, says that those who resettle in Morocco and Western Sahara west of the berm struggle to adjust to a new life. Most did not receive adequate education while living the camps.
UNHCR assists “90,000 of the most vulnerable in Tindouf camps,” said Mazin Abu Shanab, a senior UNHCR spokesperson. The outlook for Tindouf residents in the coming year while negotiations continue between Morocco and the Polisario is grim.
”This is one of the longest-standing refugee situations,” said Sybella Wilkes, UNHCR’s 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 frustration within Morocco and a recent spate of disturbances in Western Sahara speak to the frustration of young Saharans and Moroccans with economic and social conditions,” Anna Theofilopoulou, a former UN official, wrote recently. Theofilopoulou served on the negotiating team when former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III was the UN’s personal envoy to Western Sahara. The Secretary General’s present envoy, Ambassador Christopher Ross, has led UN efforts to negotiate a solution since 2009.
The UN complains that Morocco has impeded peacekeeping operations in Western Sahara in the last year and has spied on UN operations there. Nonetheless, the UN and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton call Morocco’s autonomy plan for the territory “serious and credible.” Morocco’s plan for Western Sahara would allow regional self-governance under Moroccan sovereignty.
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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.”
Despite such high stakes, viewpoints regarding Western Sahara remain entrenched on both sides. Western Sahara is a sensitive national question for Morocco as well as Algeria. For Morocco, Western Sahara is central to the nation’s territorial integrity. Though Morocco did not gain full control of the area from Spain and Mauritania until 1979, Morocco has claimed ownership of Western Sahara since its independence from France in 1956.*
In response to regional infighting, native Sahraouis created a guerilla insurgency—the Polisario Front—in the early 1970s and based it in Algeria. They fought against Spanish and Moroccan forces, and in 1976 created a government-in-exile: a self-declared state claiming authority over Western Sahara. Armed conflict continued between Morocco and the Polisario until the UN-administered ceasefire in 1991.
Today, the Moroccan government proudly claims that an international consensus supports Morocco’s autonomy solution for Western Sahara. A senior Moroccan foreign ministry official explained, on condition of anonymity, Morocco’s particular concept of self-determination in Western Sahara by placing it in a human rights context. “Our autonomy solution would allow affairs to be managed locally and regionally, then central governance would give way gradually to local and regional governance, previously unknown in this region.”
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Abdelaziz Rahabi, a former minister of culture and communication in Algeria, said Algeria’s position on Western Sahara can be explained by its relationship with other colonized countries. “Since independence in 1962, Algeria has supported liberation movements in places like Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Vietnam, and so on,” Rahabi said. “Therefore, Algeria’s current position relates not to Cold War attitudes but to a solidarity with newly independent peoples struggling for their independence.”
Rahabi also notes, as does Morocco’s foreign ministry, that the Western Sahara stalemate impedes each nation’s goal of regional integration. However, Rahabi said that Algeria is quite unlikely to change its position of supporting the Polisario and independence in Western Sahara. “There is a national consensus on this issue, both in civil society and in the army.” Western Sahara experts also surmise that Algeria eyes the North Atlantic coastline and a potential natural gas pipeline through the desert with interest.
David Mack, a Middle East Institute scholar and former U.S. Ambassador, considered the regional importance of Morocco-Algeria diplomacy. Mack said Algeria is the most important Arab Maghreb country for U.S. strategists, “due to its vast land area, relatively large population, and energy resources. This remains true despite the history of troubled relations between Algiers and Washington, especially when compared with the friendlier relations between Rabat and Washington. As a result, the holy grail for U.S. policy in the region is strategic cooperation between Morocco and Algeria. To date, this has remained elusive.”
In the coming year or two, a UN-administered mechanism to carefully monitor the human rights situation on both sides of the territory would be helpful, if agreed to by the parties and the UN Security Council. Increased diplomatic pressure from the Security Council and country allies of the Polisario, Algeria, and Morocco could also help produce a compromise.
Meanwhile, Algeria would do better to bolster its national security forces along its border with Mali and Mauritania, and invest in the well-being of people living in Tindouf to help them transition to normal lives. People who depend on humanitarian aid and live in camps while removed from the trappings of civil society are less equipped to enact a process of self-determination, much less contribute to a country’s economy. Those refugees with a family background in Morocco could be free to return there and resettle, and those native to Algeria could have the opportunity to seek employment and residency in Algeria.
It’s high time economic relations were normalized between Morocco and Algeria and a land border crossing opened between the countries to encourage travel, economic integration, and regional growth. The land border has been closed since 1994, and travel between the countries is only allowed by airplane. The long-term effects of such cooperation would have broader positive effects than a continued cold war and finger-pointing on both sides.
Algeria celebrates 50 years of independence this year. The United Nations commemorates its World Refugee Day on June 20. It’s time for the international community to seriously consider the growing risks of this territorial impasse, and for Morocco and Algeria to find a fresh approach to resolving it.
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Alison Lake is a freelance journalist and her work has appeared in the Washington Post and numerous magazines and newspapers. She has written recently on Western Sahara and terrorism in North Africa for the Post and Foreign Policy magazine. She previously worked as a writer and editor for a Washington-area Islamic think tank, and consulted for several public policy organizations. Lake has written two books; "Colonial Rosary" is carried by more than 200 university libraries. She lives outside Washington, D.C.