Algeria: Funding shortfall threatens Sahrawi confidence-building measures

Briefing Notes, 4 September 2007

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 4 September 2007, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is very concerned about a lack of funding which could bring a halt to confidence-building measures connecting Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps in Algeria and their relatives in the Western Sahara Territory.

In January, UNHCR appealed for nearly $3.5 million to continue the family visits and telephone services initiated in 2004. But with only a little over half of the appeal funded so far, the whole operation risks being stopped next month (October).

Sahrawi refugees started 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 32 years in the desert regions of Tindouf in western Algeria. However, a part of the Sahrawis stayed in the Western Sahara and today families remain separated. UNHCR introduced several measures to build confidence between the two groups and to re-establish contact between families.

UNHCR gives Sahrawis the possibility of five-day visits with relatives and loved ones, reuniting many of them after 32 years of separation. The visits contribute significantly to relieving the trauma and suffering of the Sahrawi people.

Since they started in March 2004, a total of 154 visits have taken place involving 4,255 people mainly women. An additional 14,726 people have registered and are waiting to take part in the programme.

In recent weeks, UNHCR also received suggestions from Moroccan authorities that Sahrawi refugees and their relatives be allowed to attend funerals and weddings. A small number of Sahrawis on both sides may also be allowed to undertake pilgrimages to Mecca, pending the availability of funds.

UNHCR has 24 staff in Laayoune and 23 in the Tindouf camps.




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.