More Sahrawis to benefit as UNHCR expands family reunion programme

Making a Difference, 11 April 2012

© UNHCR
The new flight at Laayoune before departure for Tindouf.

GENEVA, April 11 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Wednesday launched the first flight in an expanded programme of visits for long-separated Sahrawi families in the Tindouf camps of Algeria and in Western Sahara Territory.

A Boeing 737 transported 150 visiting relatives from Western Sahara Territory to the camps in Algeria and returned carrying 137 Sahrawi refugees to meet their kinfolk in cities in Western Sahara Territory.

The visits are for five days. Previously a 30-seat Antonov aircraft has been employed. With the new bigger capacity aircraft, up to 6,000 people are expected to benefit from the visits over the coming year.

"This increased capacity is important, as it means that many more husbands and wives, parents and children that have been separated for decades will be able to spend a few precious days together," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "The visits contribute significantly to relieving the suffering due to the separation of the Sahrawi families."

The family visits are part of a Confidence Building Measures (CBM) programme that was launched in 2004 with the cooperation of the governments of Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania as well as the Polisario Front and UNHCR. Agreement among the various parties to increase the family visits was reached in Geneva in January.

Another element of the CBM programme is cultural seminars. UNHCR has regular meetings with representatives of Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania who all contribute to this humanitarian programme.

More than 12,800 people have to date visited family members in the Tindouf camps and in the Western Sahara Territory. A further 42,000 Sahrawi are on waiting lists.

Sahrawi refugees began arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara and fighting broke out over its control. Most of the Sahrawi refugees have been living for more than 35 years in the desert regions of Tindouf. However, many Sahrawis stayed in the Western Sahara and today families remain separated.

By Sybella Wilkes

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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.

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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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

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.