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Western Sahara: confidence-building family visit initiative extended

Briefing notes

Western Sahara: confidence-building family visit initiative extended

14 May 2004

UNHCR is starting a month-long series of flights today to give people living for the last 27 years in southern Algeria's Western Saharan refugee camps the opportunity to meet their relatives residing in the city of Smarra in Western Sahara Territory.

We expect 26 people to leave Smarra on this morning's special UN flight to Tindouf, where they will visit relatives residing in the five windswept refugee camps. Twenty-eight refugees are registered to fly to Smarra this afternoon.

This marks the continued expansion of our confidence-building family visit initiative which has been underway since March 5, when we started the flights between Tindouf and Laayoune, the capital of the Territory, which were then expanded to Dakhla in the south of the Territory.

More than 420 people - both refugees and residents of the Territory - have participated in the weekly 18 flights to date. Participants in the family visit initiative spend five days visiting relatives living in the refugee camps while refugees similarly visit family members residing in the Territory.

UNHCR staff conduct regular monitoring visits, both in the camps and in the Territory to ensure that no one experiences any problems. Many of the participants are seeing their parents, brothers and sisters, even their spouses for the first time in decades, making for an emotional series of encounters.

UNHCR's confidence-building initiative, which has been in the making for more than half a decade, first got underway in January when we established phone lines linking people in the refugee camps with their relatives in Western Sahara. We are extremely pleased that the entire operation is going so well and that the family visit phase is bringing so much satisfaction to everyone involved.

Today's flights are beginning after a week-long break during which we registered fresh participants. We expect to begin next month a final series of flights linking people residing in the city of Bouljdour and their relatives in the refugee camps.

This operation would not be possible without the excellent cooperation of both the Algerian and Moroccan governments and the Polisario authority, as well as the support of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which provides an Antonov 26 aircraft and medical personnel for the flight.

We do hope that parties will soon agree to let us start a mail service between the camps and the Territory, a natural expansion of the phone connection and family-visit initiative.