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Bi-partisan consensus in Congress should be aggressively followed

This is the second time in less than a year that the Congress has urged the Obama Administration to do more “in both words and deeds” to support its own policy objectives. In April 2009, a bipartisan majority of 233 members of the House of Representatives also sent a letter to President Obama urging him to take such action to resolve this issue.

Serious national security issues are at stake. Since 9/11, terrorism incidents in North Africa have seriously increased, with the regional al-Qaeda affiliate recruiting operatives and targeting Western interests, as well as attempting to destabilize the governments of the region. Washington foreign policy organizations have held numerous programs on this growing security threat to the US and our allies in the region and Europe, and have published papers and studies urging more focused attention on this problem. In each case, the experts have pointed to the pressing need to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara as a means of improving cooperation among the states of the region on security and other issues.

While this security threat has at least been recognized, another equally important aspect of this issue draws little recognition and even less active policy attention. Tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees have remained confined to squalid, debilitating Polisario-controlled camps in Algeria, and are prevented by Polisario and Algerian authorities from exercising their international rights to return to their homes and families in Morocco and elsewhere.

Worse, the State Department’s most recent Human Rights Report demonstrates an appalling lack of understanding of the real circumstances in these camps and in the Moroccan Sahara. In an Orwellian observation, the Algeria section of the report even credits the Algerian government for refusing to allow the refugees to be “expelled” from the camps to Morocco where it claims their freedoms would be threatened.

I have been in the Sahara several times in the past year on fact finding tours and had personal conversations with some of the thousands of refugees who have escaped the camps at great peril to themselves. I learned that nothing could be further from the truth. The highly respected and independent NGO, The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, also paid several visits to the Sahara and the refugee camps last year and documented the abuses of the refugees in the camps in Algeria in a report released to coincide with their testifying in Congress in October 2009. While Sahrawi refugees are welcomed back to their families in Morocco with open arms and assistance in resettling their lives, their lives are threatened by the Polisario if they try to escape. This is hardly the threat that the report would have us believe exists.

The US has a legal international treaty obligation to help promote durable solutions to refugee problems. That does not mean abetting efforts to keep refugees involuntarily in camps. It means helping refugees who want to go home to their families. The US must start actively supporting its own policies by working to resolve the Western Sahara and enabling freedom of choice and movement, without fear or threat of persecution, for each and every refugee.


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