The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants' (USCRI) Director of Government Relations and International Advocacy visited the region in July 2009 in order to evaluate the situation of Sahrawi refugees from the Western Sahara in Algeria. Visits included Dakhla and Laâyoune in the Western Sahara to interview returnees from the Algerian camps near Tindouf; Algiers to speak with Algerian Government officials; and the Tindouf camps themselves.
Algeria fails to live up to its commitments under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol with respect to the Sahrawi refugees from the Western Sahara. Perhaps worse, it fails even to acknowledge its responsibility for their treatment on its territory, pretending they are actually under the jurisdiction of a state-in-exile, the "Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic" (SADR).
While many Sahrawi travel abroad and within Algeria (beyond the border town of Tindouf) on occasion, this generally requires documented permission from both the Government of Algeria and the Polisario rebel movement. The criteria and procedures for issuance of such documentation are not publicly available nor is either government willing to reveal them. Interviews with refugees inside and outside the camps reveal the process to be cumbersome and onerous and the criteria arbitrary and restrictive. Refugees can travel to Mauritania with only their Polisario identity cards but not if they declare or give rise to suspicion that they intend to continue on to the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Algeria also restricts the five-day family visits organized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to expensive and difficult to arrange air rather than land routes, resulting in a 21-year backlog. Even if refugees could travel freely throughout Algeria and reside wherever they chose, Algerian law makes it virtually impossible for them to obtain permits to work legally.
The Polisario Ministry of Justice, operating on Algerian territory, prosecutes and imprisons women who become pregnant out of wedlock for the crime of adultery, although there were none in detention at the time of USCRI's visit. The Minister of Justice orally affirmed that, as a matter of policy, the SADR would hold no woman beyond the period of imprisonment ordered by a judge, whether for her own protection or otherwise, but would not commit to this in writing. The Ministry of Justice had responded favorably to Human Rights Watch's criticism of the size of the solitary confinement cells in its main prison, but USCRI found several prisoners in the prison who had not had trials, the longest for seven months. Also, officials declared that they were holding some prisoners on charges of "homosexuality" even as they alleged facts that would more fittingly describe rape.
Al though the World Food Programme (WFP) alone provides rations for more than 125,000 refugees, it is not likely that there are even 90,000 in the camps. Algeria and the Polisario both refuse to allow a census to count and register the refugee population, furthering suspicion that its agents are diverting, smuggling, and reselling substantial amounts of international humanitarian aid. An interview with one returned refugee involved in the process corroborates this suspicion.
Although it does not grant them formal refugee status, Algeria does appear to be honoring de facto its commitments under the 1951 Convention with respect to the 4,000 to 6,000 Palestinian refugees on its territory, some of whom had been there since the early 1960s. There are no restrictions on their movement or economic activity and many appear to be thriving without international humanitarian aid. There is no evidence or reports of any poverty or dependence among this population distinct from that of nationals. There would appear no legitimate reason why the Government of Algeria cannot offer Sahrawi refugees the same treatment. International donors ought to insist that it do so.