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Family visit flights resume in Western Sahara

Press Releases, 17 April 2014

Following many months of suspension, family visit flights under the UNHCR's Confidence Building Measures programme resumed yesterday. People from Dakhla city in Western Sahara Territory and from the refugee camps in near Tindouf, Algeria were brought together with a total of 192 people taking part in the visits.

Athar Sultan Khan, chief of staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: "I am pleased that these flights have now resumed, enabling separated families to see each other again. I urge all the concerned parties to remain committed to this humanitarian process and UNHCR stands ready to provide support."

UNHCR's Confidence Building Measures programme for the Western Sahara refugee situation is an important humanitarian activity under its mandate. It includes cultural seminars, a programme of family visits and coordination meetings in Geneva with the two parties, Morocco and Frente Polisario, and two neighbouring countries, Algeria and Mauritania.

Nearly 20,000 people have taken part in family visits since the programme began in 2004, and more than 150 people have participated in five seminars supported by the Portuguese government. The fifth Confidence Building Measures seminar took place in the Azores, Portugal in March 2014 and the next coordination meeting will be held in Geneva in June.

Refugee families in the camps originating from Western Sahara Territory have been separated for nearly four decades because of the absence of a political solution that might end their plight. Refugees started arriving in Algeria in 1975 after Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara Territory and fighting broke out over its control.




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.