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‘Humanitarian diplomacy’ means staying out of politics

A Sahrawi refugee, divided from her family by the dispute, Western Sahara, April 2007. The Sahrawi people are divided by minefields, army outposts and a manmade wall of sand more than 2,400 km long. There has been a long-standing dispute that pits the Mor
A Sahrawi refugee, divided from her family by dispute, Western Sahara (Rob Annandale/IRIN)

A 30 year-old political deadlock in Western Sahara is on the Security Council's agenda this week, but for aid workers working to help civilians caught in the middle, politics is the last thing to be discussed.

"This is a 100 percent pure humanitarian mission," Alessandra Morelli of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) told IRIN from her office in Laayoune, perched on the northern edge of the Sahara desert, in an interview earlier this year.

Indeed, the first thing every visitor to Morelli’s office learns is there can be no talk of politics - only of UNHCR’s work to re-establish contact between the Sahrawi people divided by minefields, army outposts and a manmade wall of sand more than 2,400 km long.

Perceptions are everything and Morelli said UNHCR cannot play favourites in the long-standing dispute that pits the Moroccan government against the Algerian-backed rebel Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro , or Polisario Front.

Since negotiations on control of the territory stalled in 2004 with the resignation of the UN secretary-general’s special envoy James Baker, there has been little dialogue between the two sides and fierce competition for the sympathies of the international community. Yet UNHCR created a programme, also in 2004, which it called "Confidence Building Measures" to provide what Morelli terms "humanitarian diplomacy".

Cooperation elusive

''Cooperation between the two sides has been elusive for the last three decades''

The programme has set up free phone centres for the tens of thousands of refugees living in harsh conditions in camps in the remote southwest desert of Algeria so they can talk to family members back in Western Sahara . UNHCR also runs regular flights between Tindouf, near the camps in Algeria , and the Western Saharan towns of Laayoune, Dakhla and Smara. The flights have allowed families to meet, often for the first time in 30 years, and spend a total of five days together. 

A side effect of the service is that the Moroccan government, which controls the territory, and the Polisario, which runs the refugee camps in Algeria, have started cooperating, albeit indirectly. "Except through this programme, the channels for dialogue between the parties are quite limited," Edward Benson, the UNHCR field officer in Laayoune told IRIN.

Cooperation between the two sides has been elusive for the last three decades. The Polisario Front began fighting for independence in the early 1970s when Western Sahara was still a Spanish colony. The violence continued after Morocco came down from the north in 1975 and Spain withdrew.

In 1991, the UN brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario and set up the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), now the longest-serving peacekeeping mission in Africa. The ceasefire has largely held but both sides remain armed and the mission has so far been unable to meet its mandate of organising a referendum on who has the right to rule the territory, mostly because the two sides disagree on who should vote in the referendum.

Confidence building

Meanwhile, UNHCR faces difficulties in maintaining its confidence building measures. It has had to suspend its family-visit flights several times as it tries to meet the often-conflicting requirements of Morocco and the Polisario Front. A five-month hiatus last year ended in November following “very delicate” negotiations.

Financial issues also dog the programme, which depends on voluntary donor contributions. Morelli works on a slim budget, with just two field officers, one in Laayoune and one in the camps. The MINURSO aircraft they use for the flights are old Ukrainian Antonovs.

''When you see them being reunited it’s a pretty humbling experience''

Yet UN officials see reasons for hope. In the last two years almost 3,000 Sahrawis have been able to fly between refugee camps and the territory. "When you see them being reunited it’s a pretty humbling experience," Benson said.

UNHCR is now also hoping to set up a special postal service and create a series of meetings between Sahrawi people and various experts to discuss cultural and social - but not political - issues.

Maybe down the road these humanitarian actions will help dissipate the tensions, Morelli said. But, in the meantime, "politics are out".

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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