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Western Sahara: Family visits going smoothly

Briefing notes

Western Sahara: Family visits going smoothly

19 March 2004

The third round of 5-day visits is taking place today between Saharan refugees living in the Tindouf camps in Algeria and people from their home area around Laayoune in Western Sahara. Around 25 people will be flying in each direction on board a plane provided by the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

The second exchange, which began this time last week, was completed on Wednesday, when 23 refugees from Tindouf returned to the camps after seeing their relatives in Laayoune, and the 24 people who had travelled the other way to visit family members in the camps also returned home as planned. The visits are reported to have proceeded very smoothly. After months of negotiations, UNHCR launched the initiative on 5 March and its success is so far exceeding all expectations. The possibility of visiting family and friends for the first time in 30 years has generated considerable excitement, and more than 7,000 people have now applied to travel on future flights, which are due to continue departing every Friday with the return leg taking place on the following Wednesday. Since applications are far outstripping the immediate capacity of around 50 people per week, UNHCR is giving priority to compassionate cases, such as people who have a close relative who is very sick and parents separated from their children.