We have receiving several uncorroborated reports of another wave of unrest in the Tindouf refugee camps. Information from the Polisario and Algerian controlled Sahrawi refugee camps at the western end of Tindouf wilaya is always difficult to verify. In recent years, the Polisario movement, which officially runs the refugee camps, has become little-more than a self-serving, mafia-like criminal and terrorist organisation that has been used by Algeria’s secret services for undertaking much of their ‘destabilising’ and ‘criminal’ operations, including drug-trafficking, in the wider Sahel region.

The Polisario and the Algerian authorities have also been at the centre of major frauds and have embezzled much of the international aid that is intended for the refugee camps. This was exposed by the European Union, a main provider of aid, in 2014 but little has been done to put a stop to the embezzlement. The camps have therefore become the centre of widespread unrest, directed against both the Polisario and Algerian authorities, for several years. It is little wonder that the most important building in the Polisario’s administrative centre of Rabouni — 25 kms south of Tindouf — is its prison.

Western Sahara map showing site of Tindouf camps in Algeria

In the last year or so, there has been increasing reports from the camps indicating that unrest was once again increasing and that health and other conditions in the camps has been deteriorating. Worrying developments came to light in October 2019 when the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, published a report uncovering serious health concerns. Section five of the report outlined the prevalence of disease and the poor living conditions in the camps, with statistical evidence revealing marked increases in the number of residents suffering from malnutrition and anaemia.

In late March 2020 there were disturbing reports of more than 100 Sahrawis being left stranded in the desert in appalling conditions between Algeria and Mauritania because Algeria had denied their return to Tindouf. Those who did make it back to Tindouf were thrown into prison or detention by the Polisario authorities, who, for their part have confined themselves on a more permanent basis to luxury villas in Tindouf which the Algerian government have been made available to them.

In this connection, the Organisation marocaine des droits humains (OMDH) recently called on Guterres and the UNHCR to ‘urgently intervene’ to protect the sequestered populations in the Tindouf camps against the COVID-19 pandemic. It called for the provision of necessary medical care and the immediate international protection of the Sahrawis who have been left by the Polisario’s leadership to fend for themselves in very difficult conditions. The European Union agencies in Brussels also expressed serious concern over the danger of a coronavirus outbreak in the Tindouf camps.

Algeria claims that the pandemic has not reached the camp and that Tindouf is the one wilaya not to have a case of COVID-19. In early April, however, human rights activists based in Laayoune and Dakhla estimated that at least 250 people had tested positive and were being held in isolation in the camps without basic medical care.

Youssef Gharib — the lawyer and human rights activist who maintains direct contact with camp residents — believes that at least 17 Polisario soldiers had also contracted the virus. He said that several people had already died but that neither the Polisario leadership nor the Algerian government had reported the deaths. Gharib warned that, without intervention from the international community, the population of the Tindouf camps would become a humanitarian disaster.

We are unable to verify Gharib’s claims. The World Health Organization (WHO), using data from the Algerian government, has confirmed that COVID-19 has now reached every region in Algeria except Tindouf, which has led activists to question the truth of the Polisario’s claims and the official Algerian data. Moreover, the Tindouf camps have been on radio silence since 20 March, when the self-imposed Polisario ‘government’ declared a State of Emergency and the ‘National Committee for Monitoring and Prevention of Coronavirus’ announced a total land border closure according to the Polisario-run Sahara Press Service.

Activists, like Gharib, are reporting worsening conditions and a clampdown on communication with the outside world, while the Algerian army has set up barricades at access points to the Tindouf camps, thereby controlling the residents’ access to aid packages and medical supplies.

The latest news we have from the Tindouf camps — sourced through a reliable French agency and confirmed by Mauritanian media — is that here has been a mass exodus of camp residents to Mauritania. More than 1,500 vehicles reportedly organised a sit-in in front of the Polisario headquarters in Rabouni to obtain authorisation to leave the Tindouf camps. Our understanding is that these applicants requested authorisation to go and settle in the inhospitable buffer zone near the ‘berm’ — the 2700 kms long sand ‘wall’ that has been built by the Moroccans to keep Polisario out of the Western Sahara — which the Polisario and Algerians are trying to populate. We are told that the ‘escapees’ had no intention of going to the berm area but are instead making their way to the large northern Mauritanian town of Zouérat. The same sources say that 96% of these vehicles have been intercepted by the Mauritanian authorities, who are trying to keep Zouérat in a state of confinement.

Currently we have no other verifiable information about what is happening. Some unconfirmed reports say that the Mauritanian authorities are barring access and trying to send the ‘escapees’ back to Algeria while others claimed that they are extremely worried by developments. Our own view is that the region is clearly in a state of crisis and that that the threat of unrest in the refugee camps and a possible humanitarian disaster cannot be ruled out.

This excerpt is taken from Algeria Politics & Security, our weekly intelligence report on Algeria. Click here to receive a free sample copy.

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