A Sahrawi refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria, Tindouf

(Algiers) – Refugees from the Western Sahara conflict who have been living in camps in the Algerian desert for four decades seem to be generally able to leave the camps if they wish, but face curbs on some rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today. The camps are run by the Polisario Front, which seeks self-determination for Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that Morocco has occupied since 1975.

The 94-page report, “Off the Radar: Human Rights in the Tindouf Refugee Camps,” is among the most detailed studies of the subject by an international human rights organization. It is based on interviews conducted during a two-week visit to the camps, as well as interviews conducted elsewhere. The UN operates a peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara but, in contrast to most similar missions elsewhere in the world, conducts no regular human rights monitoring either in the disputed territory or in the refugee camps.

While the Polisario tolerates some speech and demonstrations critical of its governance, Human Rights Watch heard credible allegations that authorities harassed some critics for speaking out. In addition, the rights of some civilians tried before military courts have been abridged, and slavery-like practices continue to exist in isolated cases.

“There are cases of abuse, but there has also been exaggeration by some parties,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Regular, on-the-ground UN human rights monitoring and reporting would help establish the truth and protect both Sahrawis who live under Moroccan rule in Western Sahara and these isolated refugees.”


As evidence of the need for continued monitoring, there are reports of the forced confinement of a woman by her family in the camps in recent weeks and the failure of Polisario authorities to intervene to ensure her right to freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch said.

The Polisario says it favors enlarging the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), the UN peace-keeping force in the region, to include human rights monitoring. Morocco opposes such a mandate expansion as an infringement on the sovereignty it claims over the territory.

The refugees, who number between 90,000 and 125,000 according to UN agencies, endure harsh desert conditions, depend heavily on international humanitarian aid, and have limited job opportunities. Algeria allows many camp residents to obtain higher education at institutions throughout the country but restricts their ability to settle outside the camps.

According to the Polisario, the main human rights violation that has victimized the Sahrawi people is a denial by Morocco of their right to self-determination. The UN classifies Western Sahara as a “non-self-governing territory” and does not recognize Morocco’s annexation. After a war lasting 15 years, Morocco and the Polisario Front in 1991 agreed to a cease-fire and a UN plan to prepare a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara. Morocco has since blocked the referendum, calling it impossible to implement, and proposed instead to grant Western Sahara a measure of autonomy under continued Moroccan rule.

In addition to running the camps with Algeria’s approval and support, the Polisario Front controls a small, sparsely populated portion of Western Sahara. In 1976, it founded the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which some countries recognize as a state, although the UN does not.

The Human Rights Watch researchers who visited the refugee camps were able to move about freely and interview refugees of their choice in private, in Arabic and in the Hassaniya dialect. They spoke with at least 40 refugees in the camps and 12 refugees outside the camps, as well as Polisario officials and foreigners working for UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations. The report contains written responses from the Polisario and the Algerian authorities to questions posed by Human Rights Watch.

Dissident voices heard in the camps tend to criticize Polisario governance but not its political goal of Sahrawi self-determination, Human Rights Watch said. Most news media operating in the refugee camps are Polisario organs that devote little coverage to views that diverge from those of the Front’s leadership.

In 2010, the Polisario detained one camp resident for more than two months after he spoke in support of Moroccan rule while on a visit to Western Sahara. The Polisario then sent him across the border to Mauritania and barred him from returning to the refugee camps in Algeria, where his family lives.

Since then, some critics reported that Front authorities had summoned them for questioning, and a journalist working for the Polisario radio station stated that his supervisor re-assigned him and a colleague in reprisal for writing critical reports for an independent website. But Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the Polisario had imprisoned anyone during the last three years for his or her political views or activism. It also found no pattern of torture practiced by the Polisario, although it interviewed two men who alleged that its security forces had abused them physically in separate incidents while in custody.

Small groups of pro-reform demonstrators have held rallies and sit-ins outside administrative buildings and the UN refugee agency office in the camps, generally without the Polisario’s security forces dispersing them.

In visits with prisoners and defense lawyers, Human Rights Watch learned of civilians in the camps who had been tried before military courts of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic under a 2012 presidential order giving those courts jurisdiction over drug offenses.

Trying civilians before military courts violates a basic norm of international human rights, Human Rights Watch said. Moreover, SADR military courts lack an appeals level, in contrast to civilian courts. In at least eight cases, civilians charged before military courts appear to have been held in pretrial detention for weeks or months longer than their court-mandated detention orders permitted, or kept in detention beyond the end of their sentences.

As a general matter, the Polisario does not arbitrarily restrict travel by camp residents toward Mauritania and to Western Sahara. However Polisario and Algerian authorities have tightened security and checkpoints along the roads, citing concerns about terrorism in the Sahel region and a need to combat smuggling.

In the current forced confinement case, Mahdjouba (known as Mayuba in Spanish) Mohamed Hamdidaf, a 23 year-old woman who obtained Spanish nationality in 2012, visited her family in the camps this summer but did not return on her scheduled flight leaving Tindouf on August 18, 2014. The Spanish consul in Algiers, Cristian Font, told Human Rights Watch that he became aware of the case in early September, and that Hamdidaf has consistently made clear her desire to return to Europe, where she lives.  Human Rights Watch was unable to speak to Hamdidaf.

The Polisario ambassador to Algeria, Brahim Ghali, told Human Rights Watch that the Polisario is attempting to negotiate with the family to “persuade them” to allow the woman to leave the camp; he said that while the goal is for Hamdidaf to exercise her choice in the matter, Sahrawi “patriarchal society” with its “traditions,” “culture,” and “complex family ties,” required them to handle the matter carefully.

Polisario authorities should make clear to all concerned that illegal confinement is a serious criminal offense and ensure that the woman is able to exercise her right to freedom of movement by leaving the camp, if she wishes, and returning to Europe. While the Polisario governs the refugee camps, Algeria ultimately has the responsibility to ensure the protection of the rights of all persons on its soil, Human Rights Watch said.

Forms of slavery persist in the camps in a few isolated cases, Human Rights Watch found, despite the Polisario’s long-standing call for its eradication and enactment of a law criminalizing the practice. The victims tend to be dark-skinned Sahrawis and the slavery takes the form mainly of non-voluntary housework, according to the Freedom and Progress association, an anti-slavery group formed by a group of camp residents.

Human Rights Watch documented a case in which a brother and sister said another family, claiming that the children’s mother had been their slave, abducted and forced them to work in their household for up to 18 years. The Polisario secured their release in 2013. Freedom and Progress has compiled a list of recent cases of alleged slavery and lobbies the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Front authorities to rescue the victims.

“Off the Radar” examines current human rights conditions in the Tindouf camps. It does not examine the years prior to the 1991 cease-fire, when both Morocco and the Polisario committed human rights violations generally far graver than those that either has committed since. Neither party has taken serious steps to identify those responsible for those earlier abuses and hold them accountable.

The Polisario Front should end military court jurisdiction over civilians and redouble its efforts to eradicate all vestiges of slavery, Human Rights Watch said. The Front should ensure that camp residents are free to challenge its policies and leadership peacefully and to advocate options other than independence for Western Sahara.

Algeria should publicly acknowledge its legal responsibility for ensuring respect for the rights of everyone on its territory, including residents of the Polisario-run refugee camps.

The UN Security Council should expand the mandate of MINURSO to include human rights monitoring and public reporting in both the Western Sahara and the Polisario-administered camps in Algeria, or establish an alternative mechanism by which the UN can provide regular, independent, on the ground monitoring and reporting.