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Aid Groups Advocate Solution to Decades-Old Warehousing of Refugees

Worldwide, large numbers people have crossed borders, becoming refugees
Worldwide, large numbers people have crossed borders, becoming refugees

More than 10 million people worldwide have crossed borders, becoming refugees. Of these, aid groups say a large percentage are denied legal rights and are confined to camps for decades. It's called the "warehousing" of refugees, and they say it should stop. But solutions to protracted displacement aren't simple.

Former inhabitants of Western Sahara were once proud nomads. Now they are welcoming a third generation into refugee camps in neighboring Algeria.

They fled their homeland during a conflict between Morocco and rebels from the Polisario Front.

Aid activists claim the refugees are being denied Algerian citizenship and safe passage back to their homeland, now under Moroccan control.

"These refugees are unable to work, unable to support their families, unable to continue their studies, establish a home, move about freely, or pursue any sort of normal life," said Lavinia Limon, President of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Advocates for refugees say the Sahrawi are not alone. Thailand has hosted refugees for decades and now shelters more than one hundred thousand from Burma, and more from Laos, Cambodia and Bangladesh. It's a large number for a small country and, periodically, the Thai government re-patriates them.

"I am begging the Thai government and the United Nations, please do not send us back," Yeng Sae-Lo Lao, a Hmong refugee said.

In Kenya, nearly 300,000 Somalis live in the Dadaab refugee camp, having fled decades of conflict. Malaria is endemic and malnutrition is rampant.

And more than 100,000 Bhutanese have found refuge in Nepal after being expelled from Bhutan in the early 1990s. They say camp life is grim.

"By having a generation or generations grow up in a camp setting, there's an enormous loss of human potential," Bob Carey said.

Carey is Vice President of Migration and Resettlement for the International Rescue Committee. He's no fan of warehousing.

"I think the world in essence has become too comfortable with that solution," he said.

Refugees do have rights granted by the United Nations, including the right to work for fair pay, to move freely, to own property.

But aid workers say warehoused refugees are often denied these.

Activists who have visited Algeria's Sahrawi camps say despite massive food aid, almost 20 percent of inhabitants are malnourished.

"We get one kilogram of rice per month and of course the supply of food is not enough," Senia Abderahman explained. She is a Sahrawi born in a refugee camp in Algeria. She's also a college student in Boston. She says aside from the food shortage, aid workers mostly have it wrong.

She says she travels freely and could have Algerian citizenship. She doesn't want it.

"Honestly speaking, I want to go back to my home country Western Sahara. I want to be a Sahrawi citizen and that is what the majority of the people do believe in," she said.

And here's the problem. The camps in Algeria are managed by the Polisario Front, the rebel group chased out by Morocco in the 1970s. The Polisario says the land is theirs and they want it back. There's been talk of independence or autonomy and there's a long-standing UN plan calling for a vote. It hasn't happened. Meantime, Morrocco says the refugees are welcome back as Moroccan citizens. But most Sahrawis don't want to be Moroccan either, according to the Polisario.

Tim Irwin is spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN body that protects refugees and their rights. The agency has been criticized for not doing enough for the Sahrawi refugees.

"UNHCR is a humanitarian agency. We will look for solutions to refugee problems," he said. "But these sort of protracted situations often require a political solution which we can't provide.

And so the world is left wondering what can be done for the the refugees from Western Sahara who could number up to 200,000. Meanwhile, the Sahrawi wait and long to go back to their homeland.

"Definitely. I am sure that I will go back and we strongly believe that justice is on our side," Abderahman said.

After graduating this spring, Abderahman heads home to the camp. A refugee, who has been granted many favors, but few rights.