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UNHCR disappointed at aborted family-visit flight for Western Saharan refugees

Press Releases, 18 September 2010

GENEVA On Friday, September 17th, UNHCR resumed a stalled programme of family-visit flights aimed at helping Western Saharan Refugees with a flight from Smara City in Moroccan-administered Western Sahara bound for Tindouf in Algeria. This was after well-coordinated efforts with all parties involved.

To our disappointment, the 20 passengers on the flight were prevented from disembarking by Frente Polisario representatives in Tindouf. UNHCR had no choice but to fly the passengers back to Smara.

Family-visit flights are an important element in a Confidence Building Measures programme that has been in place since 2004. The flights have been on hold since March. Friday's flight was aimed at restarting the programme and was the result of intensive but constructive negotiations with Morocco and Frente Polisario.

UNHCR is seeking to clarify with Frente Polisario the reasons for the refusal of disembarkation. It is our hope that the Confidence Building Measures programme will be able to resume at the earliest opportunity.

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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.

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 The pateras have to a large extent been replaced by boats which carry up to 150 people and take three weeks to reach the Canaries from ports in West Africa.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

Portugal: Sahrawi Cultural GatheringPlay video

Portugal: Sahrawi Cultural Gathering

People from Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria and from Western Sahara Territory meet for a cultural seminar in the Azores Islands as part of a confidence building measures programme.