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UNHCR to expand confidence-building programme for Sahrawi refugees

News Stories, 15 September 2009

© UNHCR/M.Echeverria
High Commissioner António Guterres meets Saharawi women on his way to a UNHCR-funded project in Tindouf.

GENEVA, September 15 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres wrapped up a tour of North Africa at the weekend after securing agreement to expand confidence-building measures for Sahrawi refugees from Western Sahara. He also met some of the Sahrawi refugees in south-western Algeria and discussed asylum issues with Moroccan and Algerian leaders.

The five-day visit began in Algeria last Tuesday and then took Guterres to Morocco and Western Sahara. During his trip, leaders of Algeria, Morocco and the Sahrawis agreed to the proposal to boost the current modest, yet important, Confidence-Building Measures Programme launched by UNHCR in 2004 for the Sahrawis from Western Sahara.

The programme includes family visits and telephone services aimed at connecting Sahrawi refugees in camps in Algeria's arid Tindouf region and their relatives in the Western Sahara. As of last July, more than 8,750 people had benefitted out of some 41,000 applicants for family visits.

The different parties agreed to take up a UNHCR proposal to allow people to travel overland, rather than by air only, for family visits. Using the most direct road route, via Mahbas, to destination cities in Western Sahara would allow a lot more people to visit their families some 4,400 a year compared to the 2,000 a year who have benefitted from the air programme.

UNHCR argued that the main benefit would be humanitarian, bringing families together after long periods of separation.

Sahrawi refugees started arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara and fighting broke out over its control. Many of the Sahrawi refugees in Algeria have been living in the Tindouf camps for more than 30 years.

Guterres said UNHCR could not solve the problems of the Sahrawis as this was a political issue. "Exile is like pneumonia, you need antibiotics to treat it. In this case, the antibiotics are the political solution. I cannot offer them. I only have aspirin to relieve some of the pain," he said.

While on mission, Guterres became only the second UN High Commissioner for Refugees to travel to Tindouf and meet Sahrawi refugees. He listened eagerly to the tales of hardship and said it was important to draw the attention of the international community to their needs.

During his visit to Western Sahara, Guterres met a group of 33 Sahrawi refugees who had just been flown in from Algeria by the UN mission in Western Shara for a family visit. One woman told him she was going to see her father for the first time in her life her parents were separated by conflict before she was born. As her party arrived another group of 35 Sahrawis flew to Algeria to meet refugee relatives in the camps.

Meanwhile, during his meetings with senior officials in Algeria and Morocco, including the prime ministers of both countries, Guterres encouraged both governments to establish well-functioning asylum systems that can detect people in need of international protection within mixed migration flows.

He told donor representatives in both Rabat and Algiers that it was important for the international community to continue to provide sustained support, as the Sahrawi refugee issue had slipped off the radar in recent years.

Guterres' visit came during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan and he said this was no coincidence. The High Commissioner said he wanted to express solidarity with Muslim refugees and host countries during this special period.

By Reem Alsalem in Geneva




Confidence Building Measures 2009/2010 Western Sahara

Information brochure about UNHCR's Confidence Building Measures programme aimed at addressing the effects of prolonged separation between the Saharan refugees in the camps near Tindouf, Algeria and their families in Western Sahara.

The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

Sighted off Spain's Canary Islands

Despite considerable dangers, migrants seeking a better future and refugees fleeing war and persecution continue to board flimsy boats and set off across the high seas. One of the main routes into Europe runs from West Africa to Spain's Canary Islands.

Before 2006, most irregular migrants taking this route used small vessels called pateras, which can carry up to 20 people. They left mostly from Morocco and the Western Sahara on the half-day journey. The pateras have to a large extent been replaced by boats which carry up to 150 people and take three weeks to reach the Canaries from ports in West Africa.

Although only a small proportion of the almost 32,000 people who arrived in the Canary Islands in 2006 applied for asylum, the number has gone up. More than 500 people applied for asylum in 2007, compared with 359 the year before. This came at a time when the overall number of arrivals by sea went down by 75 percent during 2007.

Sighted off Spain's Canary Islands

Western Sahara Family Visits

Emotions are running high in the Sahara desert as families split for nearly three decades by conflict over sovereignty of the Western Sahara Territory are being briefly reunited by a UNHCR family visit scheme.

Living in five windswept and isolated camps around Tindouf in south-western Algeria for the last 28 years, the refugees have been almost totally cut off from their relatives in the Territory. So when the UN refugee agency launched its five-day family visit scheme in March this year, there were tears of joy as well as apprehension at the prospect of reunion.

The visit scheme is proving extremely popular, with more than 800 people already having visited their relatives and another 18,000 signed up to go. In addition to the family visit scheme, the UN refugee agency has opened telephone centres in some of the camps, creating another channel through which long-lost family members can make contact.

Photos taken in June 2004.

Western Sahara Family Visits

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On 1 August, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres travelled to northern Burkina Faso with the United States' Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BRPM), Anne Richard. In Damba camp, they met with Malian refugees who had fled northern Mali in the past six months to escape the ongoing conflict and political instability. To date, more than 250,000 Malian refugees have fled their homes and found refuge in neighbouring countries, including 107,000 in Burkina Faso alone. The UN refugee agency has only received one-third of the US$153 million it needs to provide life-saving assistance such as shelter, water, sanitation, health services, nutrition and protection to the refugees. UNHCR fears that the volatile political and humanitarian situation in Mali could lead to further outflows to neighbouring countries.

UNHCR chief meets Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

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