Algeria: Funding shortfall threatens Sahrawi confidence-building measures

Briefing Notes, 4 September 2007

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 4 September 2007, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is very concerned about a lack of funding which could bring a halt to confidence-building measures connecting Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps in Algeria and their relatives in the Western Sahara Territory.

In January, UNHCR appealed for nearly $3.5 million to continue the family visits and telephone services initiated in 2004. But with only a little over half of the appeal funded so far, the whole operation risks being stopped next month (October).

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. However, a part of the Sahrawis stayed in the Western Sahara and today families remain separated. UNHCR introduced several measures to build confidence between the two groups and to re-establish contact between families.

UNHCR gives Sahrawis the possibility of 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.

Since they started in March 2004, a total of 154 visits have taken place involving 4,255 people mainly women. An additional 14,726 people have registered and are waiting to take part in the programme.

In recent weeks, UNHCR also received suggestions from Moroccan authorities that Sahrawi refugees and their relatives be allowed to attend funerals and weddings. A small number of Sahrawis on both sides may also be allowed to undertake pilgrimages to Mecca, pending the availability of funds.

UNHCR has 24 staff in Laayoune and 23 in the Tindouf camps.