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Geneva agreement to boost confidence-building measures for Sahrawis

News Stories, 10 February 2011

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
Separated families meet up again during a family visit in Western Sahara.

GENEVA, February 10 (UNHCR) Talks in Geneva between Morocco and the Polisario Front movement have produced agreement on expanding confidence-building measures to benefit tens of thousands of separated people from the Western Sahara Territory, including more family visits.

"I am really encouraged that, thanks to progress made in this meeting, many more families will finally see each other after a long and painful separation," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said at the end of the two-day meeting on Thursday. "For over three decades fathers have been separated from their children, wives from their husbands," he noted.

The talks, organized by UNHCR, brought together officials of the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front, which represents many people from Western Sahara Territory. Also present were officials from the Algerian and Mauritanian governments as well as the UN envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, and Hany Abdel Aziz, who heads the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

The parties to the talks agreed on six humanitarian measures aimed at allowing more than 30,000 Sahrawis living in Western Sahara or in refugee camps in Algeria to reconnect.

The progress made in Geneva builds on a 2004 plan of action, which introduced the confidence-building measures programme and has seen 13,000 Sahrawis, out of a list of 40,000, reunited for a few days by flights between Western Sahara and Algeria. "I have been able to see personally the vital importance of these measures for the day-to-day life of these people," Guterres said.

Under this week's agreement, UNHCR and MINURSO will in the next few weeks organize a technical assessment mission to map out a route to allow families to be reunited by road for the first time.

It was also agreed that one single list of individuals proposed for UNHCR-run reunion flights will be submitted by the refugee agency to the different parties for approval. This will allow for a pool of pre-cleared candidates, which should speed up the frequency of flights. To date, verification has been done separately for each flight, occasionally leading to delays.

UNHCR was asked to come up with proposals on ways, in the near future, to reactivate a telephone service connecting separated families and to start a postal link. Until it was suspended in September last year, UNHCR supported four telephone centres that handled more than 140,000 telephone calls.

The parties in Geneva also agreed to organize a seminar involving Sahrawis on both sides of the divide as well as regular coordination meetings with all concerned parties.

Sahrawi refugees started arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara and fighting broke out over its control. The majority live in four camps in the desert regions of Tindouf. However, some Sahrawis never left the Western Saharan Territory and many families remain separated.

Summary Record Meeting with the Parties on the Confidence Building Measures Programme. Geneva 9-10 February 2011

By Sybella Wilkes in Geneva




UNHCR country pages

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.