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Western Sahara Confidence Building Measures seminar opens

Press Releases, 17 March 2014

AZORES, PORTUGAL, 17 MARCH 2014 Some 140 people from the Saharawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria and from Western Sahara Territory today began a week-long cultural seminar in the Azores islands, the latest in a series aimed at increasing trust and understanding in one of the world's most protracted refugee situations.

The seminars are one of several components of a UNHCR-run Confidence-Building Measures (CBM) programme that has been underway since 2004. Representatives from the Moroccan Government and the Frente Polisario accompanied the participants. Portugal's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Regional Government in Azores have also provided support.

"UNHCR hopes that the programme under our humanitarian track will complement the efforts of the United Nations under its political track to find a solution to this longest unresolved refugee situation. The seminars, like the family visits, are vital elements of our programme, linking a population divided by the conflict for almost four decades," said Athar Sultan-Khan, Chief of Staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

UNHCR's Confidence Building Measures programme for the Western Saharan refugee situation includes cultural seminars, a programme of family visits and coordination meetings in Geneva with the two parties, Morocco and Frente Polisario, and the two neighbouring countries as observers, Algeria and Mauritania. The family visit flights will resume on 17 April and the next coordination meeting will be held in Geneva in June 2014.

Families originating from Western Sahara have been separated because of the absence of a political solution that might end their plight and allow them to return to their places of origin. Refugees started arriving in Algeria in 1975 after Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara Territory and fighting broke out over its control.

For more information please contact:

  • Dan McNorton (Geneva) at mcnorton@unhcr.org or mobile + 41 79 217 3011.
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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.

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.