INTERNATIONAL SECURITY

Aid workers pledge to return to Sahrawi camps despite Madrid’s ban

Humanitarian situation “critical” among the 180,000 refugees, say volunteers

Spanish aid workers who had ignored the government’s call for “voluntary” repatriation arrived on Saturday from the Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria, pledging that they will return if they are needed.

Some 30 volunteers returned from Tindouf in the Algerian desert, demanding that the Spanish government change its mind and allow the aid workers to return.

“We are asking that the government take back its order and allow aid workers to return because of the serious humanitarian situation the Sahrawi people are suffering,” said José Taboada, president of the Coordinator of Associations of the Friends of the Western Sahara (CEAS-Sahara).

At least four people defying the Spanish government’s order remained in the Tindouf camp. Last month Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo called for the voluntary repatriation because of the heightened risk of kidnappings due to terrorist activity in the region.

Last week, the United Nations announced that it would not pull its aid workers out of Tindouf, despite the security risks. “We have had a few calm days, with no fear, but there have been intense security measures,” said Taboada.

It is up to the UN to determine whether aid workers should be pulled out"

The aid workers were guarded by members of the Polisario Front, the political organization which is fighting for a Western Sahara independent of Morocco. There was no threats of kidnappings, according to the aid workers. Last year, two Spanish volunteers and one Italian were kidnapped from the camp before being released last month.

The only setback the aid workers experienced was a traffic accident in which several people were slightly injured. Taboada said that aid workers must return to the camp because the estimated 180,000 Sahrawis that live there need their help.

Meanwhile, the spokesman for the Basque Association of Friends of the Sahrawi Arab Republic, Jesús Garay, said Sunday “there are no valid reasons to abandon” the refugee camps.

In a radio interview, Garay said that the situation had “been profoundly analyzed,” and it was determined that risk of danger was non-existent.

“In fact, it is up to the United Nations to determine whether the aid workers should be pulled out,” Garay said.

The head of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), Omar Bashir, said UN workers would not be pulled from the camps.

Garay warned that a “hasty abandonment” of the camps would have “serious direct consequences.”

Volunteers from the NGO Doctors of the World have said that that they are dealing with a serious nutritional emergency among the children in the camp, Garay said, adding that one child has died. “These are terrible things that are happening,” he said.

The aid workers, meanwhile, have rejected a proposal by the Foreign Ministry that they carry on their work from the capital, Algiers, some 1,700 kilometers from the camp area. The ministry has also suggested that the workers continue to work at the camps, but without staying overnight.

“Spain has a political and historical responsibility, and because of its ties to the Sahrawis, it should never abandon the people during this emergency situation,” the aid workers said in a written statement. “And the friends of the Sahrawis and volunteers should be able to live and work with the people who need our help.”

Aid workers said that they were also disappointed by the Spanish government’s “alarmist” reaction, saying that Spain’s official line could discourage others from traveling to Tindouf. They reiterated their view that a referendum over the Sahrawis’ future status is the only solution to help the people in the camps.

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