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Morocco says that Tindouf camps population size is overestimated by UNHCR

Morocco renewed on March 9th its call to the United Nations High commissioner for refugees(UNHCR) to conduct a reliable census of the populations in the Polisario-controlled Tindouf camps (southern Algeria), insisting that the actual size of this population is overestimated by the UN various bodies.

Morocco's ambassador to the Geneva-based UN bodies, Omar Hilale called, during the 32nd session of the HCR permanent committee, for using "reliable and modern (registration) techniques".

He also criticized the report by the UNHCR's department for Central Asia, South West Asia, North Africa and Middle East (CASWANAME) for not mentioning measures taken or projected by the HCR to register the camps populations and live up to its commitments made to the Moroccan mission in an official letter.

The Moroccan diplomat blamed the report for having failed to mention any HCR measures or plans to register the (Tindouf) camps populations, in conformity with a commitment made in a letter sent to the Moroccan mission on October 8, 2004. However, he voiced satisfaction at a remark made on Wednesday morning by the deputy high commissioner who reiterated “the HCR strong pledge to implement its mandate concerning, mainly the registration issue”. This remark will make up for the report loophole in this aspect, went on the ambassador before expressing anew Morocco’s trust and hopes that no obstacle will hamper the HCR efforts to fulfil its mandate, particularly regarding the extension of international protection.

The Moroccan delegation which praised progress made in refugees registration in Africa, Pacific Asia and other regions, expressed however, disappointment for the inexistence of similar moves for the Tindouf camps.

Most advanced registration techniques were used in 2004 in Africa, including the "Profile project" launched in September 2002 and the unified standard registration approach, "ProGres" software, biometry, state-of-the-art photography and secured ID which are already in use in 15 countries and projected to be introduced in 11 others in 2005. The diplomat called for applying the same techniques for the Tindouf populations in order to allow for their individual registration and an accurate appraisal of their needs.

Hilale went on to say that while the HCR has spent millions of dollars to register 1.2 million migrant workers in Thailand in order to prevent them from seeking asylum, the Tindouf populations have not been registered, despite repeated calls made by Morocco for three decades now.

Morocco deems it is high time the HCR corrected this situation and urges the UN body to proceed with the registration of this population because figures used by the HCR, the World Food Program and donor countries are by far overestimated, he insisted.

The size of this population which is of Moroccan origin is actually half of these figures, said the diplomat stressing these estimates are based on three different but converging sources: former founding members and officials of the Polisario who have returned to Morocco and who actually know the secrets and methods used by the secessionist movement to alter figures, international Ngos that have worked in or visited the camps including the damning testimonies of French Ngo France-Libertés and the US Committee for Refugees, and the released Moroccan prisoners who were detained for over 25 years in those camps and worked in the construction of public buildings, schools, houses, wells, hospitals and others.

The three sources, he explained, converge in their estimates that the actual population is indeed less than half of the figures used by the HCR since 1982. This suggests, he revealed, that the HCR, the WFP and donor countries have extended aid that largely exceeds needs in the camps and have assisted not only vulnerable persons but also armed members and political officials of the Polisario. This unique situation in the world should stop, he urged.

The HCR, WFP and donor countries were called to join efforts and exact the registration of the camps population in order to ensure them better international protection.

Morocco further expresses readiness to carry on in 2005 the implementation of the UNHCR-sponsored family-visit exchange program, in order to help in voluntary repatriation of these populations. The UNHCR program, part of confidence-building measures, allowed relatives separated by the conflict to meet again after three decades of forced exile.

The Moroccan diplomat also reproached to the report its failure to mention the decision of 8 Moroccans who used to live in the camps and who decided to stay in their home country following these visits between Morocco and the camps. Although it is a small number, he argued, it is important in that it is the first voluntary return unlike other Moroccans who fled the camps, risking their life and that of their families who stayed there.