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Western Sahara: family visits

Briefing notes

Western Sahara: family visits

5 March 2004

Twenty-one Western Saharan refugees boarded a UN plane in Tindouf this morning bound for Laayoune, marking the start of five day-long family visits.

Nineteen persons from the Territory will similarly board MINURSO's (the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) Antonov 26 aircraft this afternoon for the 90 minute flight to Tindouf, Algeria, where they will visit relatives residing in the refugee camps

This is the first time that the 40 participants will have face-to-face contact with relatives since the outbreak of war that accompanied Spain's withdrawal from the Territory in the mid-1970s. Some of the persons are seeing their spouses or children for the first time in decades. For the youngsters among the 12 refugee families travelling today, this is the first time in their lives to see their homeland.

The initiative is seen as a major breakthrough in the lives of 165,000 refugees. It is the most visible element of the confidence-building measures we have recently established to help build contacts between the residents of the five Western Saharan refugee camps around the Algerian town of Tindouf and their relatives in the Territory.

Senior UNHCR staff members are travelling with the Saharans participating in today's flights. They are accompanied by medical personnel from the MINURSO mission, which has also helped with registration of people for the initiative and is also providing vital logistic support. We provided the refugee with a small stipend of between $30 per person or up to $150 per family to cover their expenses while back in the Territory.

We expect that this confidence-building air shuttle will carry participants each week between the refugee camps and the Territory. The level of interest among the refugees in the camps has been enormous. Several hundred refugees and more than 500 residents of the Territory have so far signed up for the flights.

This is the latest of the confidence-building measures designed to bring greater normalcy to the lives of the Saharan refugees. In mid-January we inaugurated the first telephone lines linking people in the Territory with the camps. The start up of today's flights and the recent phone connection followed a series of meetings late last year between the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Alvaro de Soto, senior UNHCR staff and representatives of the Algerian and Moroccan governments as well as the Polisario.

UNHCR is also negotiating the start of a mail service. We believe that for this service to work as a confidence-building measure we would need assurances on the confidentiality of the mail and the neutrality of the operating service.