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Western Sahara: Family visits pilot project extremely popular

Briefing notes

Western Sahara: Family visits pilot project extremely popular

29 June 2004

UNHCR's pilot project of family visits to and from Western Sahara Territory is proving extremely popular, with more than 800 participants so far and another 18,000 on the waiting list. Begun in March, the family visits are between refugees in refugee camps in south-western Algeria and residents of towns in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. We use planes from the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Roughly 50 persons are travelling between the camps and the territory on the UN's Antonov-26 planes every week. For many of the participants, it is the first time they have seen their families in nearly 30 years.

The family visits involve constant UNHCR supervision from start to finish. Our staff select candidates and monitor the visits on both sides of the border to ensure that they proceed smoothly. MINURSO provides medical staff and UN Civilian Police to assist the operation, as well as other logistical support.

Any extension of the very popular family visit programme beyond August and the boosting of other confidence-building measures would require additional funds to pay for fuel and other needs. If extended, UNHCR believes that more than 2,400 Saharans could participate in family visits by the end of this year.

UNHCR would also like to strengthen the telephone call centre initiative that has so far seen more than 3,000 calls made, 60 percent of them by women refugees. UNHCR wants to expand the call centres to Smarra and Awserd refugee camps and purchase microwave equipment to link up remote Dakhla refugee camp. All of this would enable refugees to make 15,000 calls to their relatives in the territory before the end of 2004.

According to Algerian government estimates, the country's five camps host some 165,000 refugees who fled Western Sahara in 1975 during the conflict over the right to govern the Territory after Spain's withdrawal from the region.