UNHCR concerned about confidence-building programme for Sahrawis

News Stories, 4 September 2007

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
Family members of Sahrawi refugees in Algeria board a flight in Western Sahara that will take them to visit their kinfolk.

GENEVA, September 4 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency said on Tuesday it feared that a lack of funding could bring a halt to confidence-building measures connecting Sahrawi refugees in Algeria and their relatives in the Western Sahara Territory.

In January, UNHCR appealed for nearly US$3.5 million to continue the family visits and telephone services initiated in 2004 between refugees in western Algeria's Tindouf camps and their kinfolk across the border.

"But with only a little over half of the appeal funded so far, the whole operation risks being stopped next month [October]," UNHCR's chief spokesman, Ron Redmond, told reporters in Geneva, adding that the agency was "very concerned."

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. 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. The refugee agency 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, which is funded by UNHCR.

The agency hopes to cut costs by running reunion convoys between Tindouf and Smara City in Western Sahara, a proposal that will cut costs and allow more people to benefit. The idea has been positively received but awaits a green light.

The telephone services are also highly popular almost 80,000 calls have been placed in four refugee camps in Algeria with telephone centres since 2004. A fifth centre will be opened in October in Dakhla, which is the most remote refugee camp.

In recent weeks, UNHCR has 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.