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Western Saharan refugees may soon be able to visit, call home

Western Saharan refugees may soon be able to visit, call home

The UN refugee agency has joined a high-level UN mission to meet Algerian and Moroccan officials this week that will discuss proposals to re-establish links between Saharawi refugees and their families in Western Sahara through direct phone, mail and even travel services.
16 December 2003
It's a harsh and isolated life for West Saharan refugees in Laayoune camp in the Tindouf region of western Algeria.

GENEVA, Dec 16 (UNHCR) - After decades of isolation, some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Western Sahara may finally be able to re-establish direct contact with their families back home, if discussions go well this week with authorities in Algeria and Morocco.

On Tuesday, a high-level UN mission led by Special Representative of the Secretary-General Álvaro de Soto and including senior UN refugee agency staff left Geneva to meet with officials in Algiers and Rabat.

Among the issues to be discussed are UNHCR's proposals - first made in mid-2000 - to establish a series of confidence-building measures (CBMs) to help re-establish person-to-person contacts between an estimated 165,000 refugees living in Algeria's camps and their relatives back in Western Sahara.

Following encouraging meetings involving de Soto, UNHCR and Saharan (Polisario) officials in Geneva last week, the refugee agency this week aims to set firm dates to start phone and mail services between the Algerian camps and Western Sahara. It also hopes to start family visits, with people travelling back and forth on a limited basis using UN aircraft, as soon as possible.

"We believe that the implementation of the long-pending CBMs will be a valuable means of restoring links between the long-divided Saharan community," said UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski at a news briefing in Geneva Tuesday.

Thousands of Western Saharan nomads started fleeing to Algeria in 1975, when Morocco annexed the mineral-rich desert region after Spain abandoned it. A 15-year war ensued between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front. The UN managed to negotiate a cease-fire agreement in 1991, but has so far been unable to get the parties to decide the political future of the disputed country.

Today, an estimated 165,000 Western Saharan refugees, or Saharawis, live in five camps located around Tindouf, in western Algeria's vast desert. Once nomads, they are now confined to camps and dependent on humanitarian aid.

UNHCR and its partners provide water, health care, education, food aid and other basic services in the camps, but face funding and assistance problems for these forgotten refugees.

Plans for voluntary repatriation, dating back more than a decade, have been put on hold in view of the continuing political deadlock over Western Sahara.