Funding needed for two vital operations

Briefing Notes, 16 October 2007

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 16 October 2007, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is urgently in need of funding for our work in the Western Sahara and Algeria refugee camps and for our repatriation operation for Mauritanian refugees. Yesterday, we convened a special donor meeting to urgently appeal for funding for these operations. The meeting was attended by Mr. Julian Harston, the UN Special Representative for the Secretary-General in the Western Sahara (MINURSO), and by the ambassadors of both Mauritania and Senegal and representatives of various donor countries.

Earlier this year, UNHCR appealed for $3.5 million to continue various confidence-building measures including family visits, telephone services and seminars aimed at connecting Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps in Algeria and their relatives in the Western Sahara Territory. As we noted last month, only about half of the appeal had been funded and there has been minimal reaction from donors. We fear we may have to suspend family visits by next month.

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, while some stayed in the Western Sahara. This has meant long-term family separation. In 2004, UNHCR introduced several measures to re-establish contact between families, including 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 and to increasing the climate of trust between all parties involved in the Sahrawi conflict.

Since March 2004, a total of 4,423 people have benefited from the family visits, while 19,000 people have registered and are waiting to take part in the programme. In addition, a total of 83,675 calls have been made at four telephone centres.

Meanwhile, at the end of August, UNHCR launched a US$7 million appeal to fund the voluntary repatriation of 24,000 Mauritanian refugees mainly from Senegal and Mali. This return will help resolve one of the most protracted refugee situations in Africa and represents the only durable solution in the Middle East and North Africa region at present. Some of the Mauritanian refugees have spent more than two decades in exile. The 17-month operation, which faces some major logistical challenges, is scheduled to start this month. But with only $500,000 received so far, we fear serious delays.

More than 60,000 Mauritanians fled to Senegal and Mali in April 1989 when a long-standing border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal escalated into ethnic violence. Between 1996-98, UNHCR assisted with the reintegration of 35,000 returnees who decided on their own accord to return to Mauritania. On 20 June of this year, the newly elected Mauritanian president announced his decision to invite all remaining refugees to return home.

According to a recent survey, some 24,000 Mauritanian refugees living in over 250 different locations in Senegal wish to return to some 50 communities in four regions of Mauritania. In addition, there are also Mauritanian refugees in Mali, some of whom have also expressed a wish to return home. A tripartite agreement between the governments of Mauritania and Senegal and UNHCR setting out the legal framework for the return is expected to be signed this week.

UNHCR will help the Mauritanian refugees return home by organizing safe transport and providing initial reintegration assistance in their places of origin. We will also support the local communities with infrastructure, health and education services. The operation has been carefully planned to avoid the rainy season and its travel difficulties. Due to limited absorption capacity and poor infrastructure in return areas, we plan to repatriate up to 7,000 refugees before the end of this year. Other refugees will go home in 2008. We will maximize the use of existing resources and minimize the cost of this new operation by redeploying as many assets as possible from other programmes that are currently phasing down in West Africa.

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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.

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

UNHCR and Partners Tackle Malnutrition in Mauritania Camp

The UN refugee agency has just renewed its appeal for funds to help meet the needs of tens of thousands of Malian refugees and almost 300,000 internally displaced people. The funding UNHCR is seeking is needed, among other things, for the provision of supplementary and therapeutic food and delivery of health care, including for those suffering from malnutrition. This is one of UNHCR's main concerns in the Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania, which hosts more than 70,000 Malians. A survey on nutrition conducted last January in the camp found that more than 13 per cent of refugee children aged under five suffer from acute malnutrition and more than 41 per cent from chronic malnutrition. Several measures have been taken to treat and prevent malnutrition, including distribution of nutritional supplements to babies and infants, organization of awareness sessions for mothers, increased access to health facilities, launch of a measles vaccination campaign and installation of better water and sanitation infrastructure. Additional funding is needed to improve the prevention and response mechanisms. UNHCR appealed last year for US$144 million for its Mali crisis operations in 2013, but has received only 32 per cent to date. The most urgent needs are food, shelter, sanitation, health care and education.

The photographs in this set were taken by Bechir Malum.

UNHCR and Partners Tackle Malnutrition in Mauritania Camp

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

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Portugal: Sahrawi Cultural Gathering

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Mauritania: Mali Elections In Mauritania

Hundreds of Malian refugees voted in exile at the weekend in the presidential election in their home country, way down on the numbers eligible to cast a ballot.
Mauritania: Learning in the DesertPlay video

Mauritania: Learning in the Desert

UNHCR works to give children access to education while they are living in exile.