Agreement reached on increased family visits for long-separated Sahrawi families
A meeting in Geneva between Morocco, Frente Polisario, Algeria, Mauritania and UNHCR ended today with agreement to expand a programme of family visits between Western Saharan refugees living in camps near Tindouf, Algeria, and their families in the Western Sahara Territory.
The visits are a key element in a UNHCR programme of Confidence Building Measures that has been underway since 2004, aiming to support Sahrawi families separated for more than 37 years in one of the world's longest-running refugee situations. The principal other element in the programme is a series of seminars aimed at building an environment of confidence and trust to complement the efforts of the UN in finding a political solution.
Participants noted that the option of voluntary return of refugees to their places of origin will be key in any future political solution reached with the parties under the auspices of the UN.
"This is a welcome step as we work together towards a solution of the Western Saharan refugee situation, so that one day, refugees may be able to go home in dignity and honour," said Athar Sultan-Khan, Chief of Staff at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "These families have been separated for too long, and the family visit programme allows them to meet each other, often for the first time in over 37 years. One cannot overstate the value of the deep joy and hope, which these family reunions bring," he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also sent a message of support to the meeting's participants, encouraging the parties to find ways to expand the programme of confidence building measures.
Discussions took place over two days, reaching agreement on a new flight schedule for visits in 2014, and additional seminars - with the next to take place in October this year in Portugal. Nearly 20,000 people have taken part in family visits since the programme began.
Sahrawi families have been separated from each other for nearly four decades due to the absence of a political solution that might end their plight. Refugees started arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara Territory and fighting broke out over its control.
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