United Nations / AP
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is planning to hold a donor’s conference before June to help tens of thousands of Sahraoui refugees from the 40-year-old dispute over the Western Sahara who are facing one of the world’s forgotten humanitarian crises.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that Ban understood the anger of the refugees living in “some of the harshest conditions” in camps in Algeria for decades who feel their plight and cause has been ignored by the world.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and fought a local independence movement called the Polisario Front. The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991, pending a referendum over the territory’s fate that has never taken place primarily because of disputes over voter lists.
Secretary-General Ban told reporters in Algiers on Sunday that he felt “guilty” that his first visit to the refugee camps in Tindouf was this weekend, during his final year as UN chief. Although it was “too late,” Ban said he is determined to address the neglected “humanitarian tragedy” to ensure there is funding for life-saving assistance in the camps, and to try to find a political solution.
The secretary-general said there has been “no real progress” in negotiations and he has asked his personal representative, Christopher Ross, to try to restart talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front.
Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the mineral-rich Western Sahara, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination for the local Sahraoui people through a referendum.
Dujarric said Ross informed him Monday morning that he had accepted an invitation to visit Morocco’s capital, Rabat, in late March to meet government officials. He said Ross expects to meet other parties afterward.
Ban said on Sunday that he had wanted to meet Morocco’s king on this trip but he was not available. Dujarric said talks are under way to find a date for the secretary-general to visit.
Dujarric told UN reporters in an audio briefing from Paris that the secretary-general is also concerned about the security situation in the region in light of increased criminal activities “and even the possibility of infiltration into the region by extremist groups.” He said this was among the issues Ban discussed with Algerian leaders.