Western Sahara: phone service for refugees to be expanded
UNHCR will start a new phone service on Monday linking Western Saharan refugees residing in El Auin camp in southern Algeria with their relatives in the Western Sahara Territory. This is an expansion of the service that was started in mid-January when UNHCR together with the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) opened a call centre in the 27 February refugee camp that over 2,700 refugees from neighbouring camps have since used to communicate with relatives in the Territory.
Today marks another round of flights in UNHCR's family visit initiative between Western Saharan refugees and residents of the Territory, with 57 persons travelling between Smarra city in Western Sahara and Dahkla refugee camp in southern Algeria. As Dahkla camp is the most distant of the five refugee settlements, located some 180 kilometres from Tindouf, today's flights to and from Smarra are landing at a small airstrip adjacent to remote desert camp.
Fifty three people took part in the first visits between Smarra city and Tindouf's camps earlier this week as UNHCR kicked off the third phase of the family visit component of the confidence-building measures that began on March 5. This phase of the programme began after a week-long technical break while UNHCR registered fresh applicants, verified their eligibility and cleared their names with the various parties, which necessitated a brief interruption before flights resumed on May 14.
By today, UNHCR and MINURSO will have carried out 22 flights since the operation began in March. We've had excellent cooperation to date from the Moroccan and Algerian governments and the Polisario.
The family visit operation would not be logistically possible without the support of the MINURSO, which provides the Antonov 26 aircraft as well as medical staff and Civilian Police to accompany the participants on the flights. UNHCR maintains regular contact with participants in the programme to ensure that they do not encounter any problems while visiting the camps or relatives in the Territory.
UNHCR hopes that Morocco will soon agree to let us start a mail service between the camps and the Territory. Both Algeria and the Polisario have already given their approval for this mail service and Morocco recently expressed its wish to resume discussions on the proposal. UNHCR considers the mail service would be a natural continuation of the family visits and the phone service.