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Update: On May 19, 2016 in Madrid, Human Rights Watch issued the following statement on the occasion of a news conference organized by supporters of the Sahrawi women whose families in the refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria are preventing them from returning to Spain.

(Tunis) – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should urge the Polisario Front to intervene in favor of three Sahrawi women whose families are reportedly preventing them from leaving Polisario-run refugee camps for Spain, where they legally reside.

Two of the women said they have been held against their will for more than two years and the third has been held since December 2015, according to her civil partner in Spain.

On March 5, 2016, Ban Ki-moon will make his first visit as secretary-general to the camps for Sahrawi refugees, administered by the Polisario Front near Tindouf. The visit is part of a UN commitment to advance a political settlement to the 40-year-old conflict over neighboring Western Sahara, which Morocco occupies.

“Holding an adult against her will is illegal confinement, whether or not the captors are relatives who love her,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The Polisario should ensure these women can exercise their freedom of movement and that past and future acts of illegal confinement are punished as crimes.”
Holding an adult against her will is illegal confinement, whether or not the captors are relatives who love her. The Polisario should ensure these women can exercise their freedom of movement and that past and future acts of illegal confinement are punished as crimes.
Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East and North Africa Director

The Polisario Front, the Western Sahara liberation movement, proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976. The partially recognized SADR de facto governs the refugee camps on Algerian soil.

On February 10, 2016, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Mrabih Mami, justice minister of the partially recognized SADR, detailing the cases of the women – Maloma Morales de Matos (or “Maaluma Takya Hamda,” according to her birth certificate), 22; Darya Embarek Selma, 26; and Nadjiba Mohamed Kacem, 24. The letter asked SADR authorities what they were doing to ascertain the women’s preferences and to ensure that they could act on them.

Abba El Haissan Salek, president of the SADR human rights commission, replied on February 25, saying that the Polisario had taken measures in the Morales case that would yield results in the “coming days.” The response did not mention the other two women, and there have since been no developments in the Morales case, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine.
Maloma Morales  © 2015 Private

The three women are among the thousands of Sahrawis who, as children growing up in the refugee camps, participated in summer programs in Spain, hosted by Spanish families. Some grew close to their host families and elected to remain in Spain upon reaching adulthood. Morales became a Spanish citizen and has a civil partner there, while the other two women have legal residency.

The three separately traveled to the camps to visit their families. When the time came for them to return to Spain, the families blocked their departure, according to accounts given to Human Rights Watch. Some of the families contended that the women should stay to reinforce their ties to their native culture and language, the women said. There are reports of other, similar cases in the Sahrawi refugee camps, although details have been difficult to confirm.

Morales traveled to the refugee camps, accompanied by her Spanish adoptive father, José Morales Ortega, of Seville, on December 5, 2015, said her civil partner, Ismael Arregui Recacha, of Seville. When she and her adoptive father tried to leave on December 12, her family prevented her from getting into the car for the airport.

José Morales left, and promptly notified Polisario officials, including Abidin Bouchayara, the representative of the Polisario Front to the Province of Andalusia. Arregui Recacha told Human Rights Watch that between December 12 and 25, he had communicated with Maloma Morales, who told him she wished to return to Spain. However, he has not been able to reach her since December 25, he said.

Nadjiba Mohamed Kacem has been held since shortly after she returned from Spain to the refugee camps in December 2013, to collect documents needed to apply for Spanish citizenship, José Maria Contreras Morejón, of her Spanish host family, told Human Rights Watch. Contreras, who lives in Rociana del Condado, in Andalusia, said that Polisario authorities have long been aware of the case and assured him they were trying to resolve it.
Nadjiba Mohamed Kacem  © Private

Contreras said that since being prevented from returning to Spain, Nadjiba Mohamed Kacem has for long periods been unreachable by telephone. However, on February 29, 2016, in a text message sent to Human Rights Watch, she confirmed that she had made clear that she wished to return to Spain without delay and had no agreement with her family to stay. She said she was staying with her family in the Smara refugee camp. Her mother, Enguia Vida Zouber, is a member of the SADR parliament.

Darya Embarek Selma returned to the camps on a visit in January 2014, and has been unable to leave since. Her family confiscated her documents to prevent her from leaving, according to Spanish media, which, beginning in 2014, has published written and audio interviews in which she said that she wanted to return to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, where her host family lives. She reaffirmed that wish in a text message to Human Rights Watch on February 9, 2016.

Darya Embarek Selma with Itaheza Deníz of her Spanish host family, on January 6, 2014, the day Darya left Spain for the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria.  © 2014 Ángeles Deníz

Mahdjouba Mohamed Hamdidaf, another Sahrawi woman with Spanish citizenship, was held by her family in the refugee camps for three months in 2014. She told Human Rights Watch in a recent interview from Spain that her family kept promising to let her depart the camps and then reneged. She said that Polisario representatives pleaded with her family to allow her to leave, while assuring the family that it was on their side. Eventually, a Polisario representative helped her escape, provoking a violent protest by her family and their supporters.

She said she longs to see her family but is afraid to return to the camps. “I love them,” she said. “I have nothing against them. I just want to have my life.”

The UN has sought to resolve the conflict that pits the Polisario Front against Morocco, which has controlled most of the former Spanish colony since Spain withdrew in 1975. The Polisario Front operates from southwestern Algeria, where it administers the camps populated by the families of tens of thousands of refugees who fled across the border from Western Sahara when Moroccan troops invaded it.

Morocco unilaterally annexed most of Western Sahara and treats it administratively as part of its own territory, even though neither the UN nor any countries recognize Moroccan sovereignty. In 1991, the two parties agreed to a cease-fire and to a UN-organized referendum in Western Sahara on self-determination. Morocco has blocked that referendum and proposed regional autonomy instead, while the Polisario Front insists on holding the referendum.

When he meets with the Polisario Front’s General Secretary Mohamed Abdelaziz, Ban Ki-moon should raise rights violations, including the women’s illegal confinement, Human Rights Watch said. He should also remind Algerian officials, whom he plans to meet in Algiers on March 6, 2016, of their legal responsibility for ensuring respect for the rights of everyone on Algerian territory, including residents of the refugee camps.

Although he will not visit Morocco on this trip, he should also raise with Moroccan authorities the wide range of human rights violations they are committing in Western Sahara. These include the conviction of 21 Sahrawi civilians in an unfair military trial, in connection with lethal clashes with the security forces in and around El-Ayoun in 2010. They are serving sentences of 20 years to life in prison.

“The Polisario boasts of the prominent role that women play in Sahrawi society and in advancing the national cause,” Whitson said. “It needs to demonstrate similar zeal in protecting the rights of individual women to exercise their freedom of movement.” 

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