Unfortunately, and despite promises from the European Commission to put an end to the diversion of humanitarian aid in the Tindouf camps in Algeria, this diversion continues … overwhelming new evidence comes to support this thesis.
In 1975, following a mass demonstration known as The Green March, Spain relinquished its control over the territory then known as Spanish Sahara handing it over to joint administration by Morocco and Mauritania.
A war quickly broke out between the two countries and the Polisario Front, a communistic styled national liberation movement which proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with a government in exile in Tindouf, Algeria.
Mauritania formally withdrew its claims over the territory in 1979, and Morocco retains control over the territory known as the Western Sahara to this day.
During the conflict, numbers of people fled the area, crossing the border into Algeria before settling in refugee camps at Tindouf, the headquarters of Polisario. Today the camps still exist, their populations now political pawns, exploited by Polisario for the humanitarian aid their presence attracts: aid which is too often stolen, and sold to support Polisario’s military and political aims.
EUToday spoke with Mohamed Chérif Larossi Ahmed Salem, a former Polisario activist and an experienced human rights campaigner.
Having personally witnessed EU food aid on sale in markets in Mauritania, he explained how this vitally needed food aid is diverted to build personal fortunes, and to maintain a military arsenal that includes heavy tanks and surface to air missiles (note: the Soviet Union was an early supplier of arms to Polisario, and a redacted CIA report from 1983 confirms the group has also received Cuban military aid).
He also explained that Algeria itself is complicit in the fraud, as it taxes the aid. This was confirmed in a hearing in the European Parliament’s budgetary control committee in July 2015, an official mentioned that Algeria imposes taxes of 5% of the then annual €10 million in humanitarian aid to the Tindouf Camps
Key to the diversion of the aid in food and everyday consumer goods is the deliberate confusion over the numbers of refugees in the camps of Tindouf.
Polisario has reported the presence of 155,000 to 170,000 refugees in the area of Tindouf, but independent organisations and neutral observers estimate that, in their view, the real number of refugees is likely to be somewhere around 70,000 – 90,000 people.
The resultant surplus in supplies, funded by hard-pressed European taxpayers, represents Polisario’s profit margin.
The refugees themselves pay their own price in lack of adequate sustenance: according to the UN 40% of the children suffer from lack of iron, and 10% of the children below five years of age suffer from acute lack of nutrition. 32% are suffering from chronic lack of nutrition.
As well as being a source of funding, the residents of the Tindouf camps also serve another purpose: male refugees perform military service in the armed forces of the SADR, and many are required to perform work in return for the food aid that should be theirs by right.
Bjorn Hultin, vice president of the Brussels-based NGO Comité Européen de Soutien au Plan D’autonomie au Sahara Occidental (CESPASO) told EUToday: “Our objective is to contribute to establishing peace in this region of the world by supporting the autonomy plan for Western Sahara proposed by Morocco as a just logical, rational and equitable solution to end a conflict that has lasted over 43 years, and to put an end to the suffering of the populations in the Tindouf camps in Algeria.
“Regarding the recent diversion of European humanitarian aid that is sold in Mauritania supported with clear and sharp photos of the European flag as well as eyewitness reports, I can confirm that this is not the first time. I followed with attention and amazement as a consultant to the European Parliament the outcry aroused in parliament by the OLAF report which was made public in 2015.
“This report clearly states that the Polisario leaders systematically and methodically adopt misappropriation of humanitarian aid and accumulate colossal fortunes and they all have luxury real estate in Spain. It is tragic to be enriched on the back of the suffering of the sequestered populations.”
In 2015 Agence France-Presse (AFP) first reported that it had obtained the above-mentioned report which covered a four-year investigation (2003-2007) by the European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) documenting “well-organised, years-long” embezzlement by the Polisario Front of humanitarian aid designated for Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps.
According to AFP, the report was “forgotten” until a 2014 intervention by the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly.
The report confirms the evidence of Chérif, and explains the process by which the misappropriations take place: EU food aid arrives in the Algerian port of Oran, where the sorting between ‘what should arrive and what can be diverted’ takes place.
OLAF reported, for example, that Canadian wheat intended for the camps is replaced by lower quality grain, and the higher quality wheat is sold. Products for raising poultry are also sold rather than being provided to the refugees.
During all my activity in Germany, I was brought to note that an important quantity of the humanitarian aid sent to the populations of the camps of Tindouf by the German donors was systematically diverted by the members of will of the Polisario, who proceed to sell it in the south of Algeria and the north of Mauritania.
Ghoulam Najem Mouichame, former representative of the Polisario in Bremen
OLAF also reported, disturbingly, that prisoners are used for the handling of food aid, as well as for construction projects funded by aid organisations.
On June 1st of this year, Bulgarian Member of the European Parliament Ilhan Kyuchyuk formally raised the issue with the European Commission. In a written question he touches on the issue of the numbers of refugees in the camps.
Both Algeria and Polisario have consistently opposed any census in the Tindouf camps despite formal requests by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in 1977, 2003, 2005 and 2015.
Previously, in December 2015 an international group of MEPs, which included German MEP Ingbor Grassle, Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control, wrote to Federica Mogherini, then High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, drawing her attention to allegations that the diversion and sale of aid was being used to raise funds for terrorist activities. “Given today’s situation regarding terrorism, such activities so close from EU borders are even more unacceptable,” the MEPs wrote.
Conditions in the refugee camps are harsh: a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) (2014) described most living without running water in their homes, and claims of SADR security forces in the Tindouf camps torturing or physically mistreating people in their custody.
HRW also reported on the use of military courts to try civilians: a highly irregular and disturbing state of affairs.
EUToday interlocutor, Mohamed Chérif Larossi Ahmed Salem, himself spent five years in a Polisario prison for his “counter-revolutionary” criticisms of the organisation.
Here he gives a harrowing account of his imprisonment in inhumane conditions, and his subsequent escape from the clutches of Polisario.
The European NGOs interviewed here, and Mr Chérif, ask the European Commission and the European Parliament to shed light on this recent umpteenth misappropriation of European humanitarian aid in the Tindouf camps in Algeria and to give clear answers to European taxpayers against any squandering of European public funds just to please the false propaganda of the representatives of the Polisario Front in Europe.
Gary Cartwright is publishing editor of EU Today.
An experienced journalist and published author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.
He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.