UNHCR resumes visits between Sahrawi refugees in Algeria and their families

News Stories, 3 November 2006

© A. Morelli
Sahrawi refugees arrive in Laayoune to meet relatives they have not seen in years.

LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara, November 3 (UNHCR) After a five-month suspension, the UN refugee agency on Friday resumed family visits between Sahrawi refugees in south-western Algeria and their relatives in the Western Sahara territory.

More than 19,000 people have applied to visit their relatives at camps in the Tindouf area and 63 people benefited Friday from the resumption of family visits, which were suspended for various reasons in May.

Fifteen relatives of Sahrawi refugees boarded a UN flight at Laayoune, which stopped at Dakhla City to pick up another 15 passengers before flying on to Tindouf. The 30 passengers were then taken to Smara refugee camp to meet their relatives. After refuelling, the plane returned to Laayoune with 33 Sahrawi refugees from the Smara camp. Both groups will spend five days with family members in Laayoune and in the Algerian refugee camps.

"I am very happy that the family visits have started again, as they provide a rare opportunity for the split families to reunite even if only temporarily," said Ekber Menemencioglu, UNHCR's Geneva-based director for the region.

Among the relatives waiting to board the flight at Laayoune was a middle-aged woman who had not seen her mother and father since 1975, when the desert territory's Spanish colonial rulers left and Morocco moved in to claim sovereignty. Her parents fled to Algeria, which supported the anti-Moroccan Polisario forces. When asked how she felt about seeing her parents and showing them her three sons, daughter and grandson, the woman simply said: "Beautiful."

In Smara, 52-year-old refugee Al Kouria Hamdi Alien was also looking forward excitedly to a reunion with her mother. The widow and mother of nine was separated from her parents in Laayoune in 1975. She applied in 2004 for a family reunion, but her father has since passed away.

"I hope this project can continue so that everybody in the camp will be able to see their beloved ones in the Western Sahara territory, or they can come to visit us," she said.

Four more visits are planned in November, involving 224 refugees or relatives.

UNHCR plans to continue the visits until the end of next year, benefiting an additional 2,632 people. But funding is a problem and Menemencioglu said, "If we want to continue this programme in 2007, we urgently need additional voluntary contributions." The refugee agency is seeking US$3.5 million for next year.

UNHCR first started organising the family visits in March 2004 as part of a series of confidence-building measures. The possibility of visiting family and friends for the first time in 30 years has been extremely popular, with nearly 2,500 people taking advantage of the opportunity.

UNHCR is involved in every aspect of the programme. The agency selects candidates from a list of people who have registered to take part, giving priority to the most vulnerable, and it monitors the visits on both sides of the border. The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) provides medical, police and logistical support.

Other confidence-building measures include telephone services between the refugee camps and the Western Sahara territory, which have benefited more than 56,000 refugees and their families since 2004. UNHCR and MINURSO are also planning two seminars between the refugees and members of Saharan communities in the territory.

By Edward Benson and Alessandra Morelli in Laayoune, Western Sahara
and Hagir Musa in Tindouf, Algeria.