Western Saharan refugees to meet long-lost families
LAAYOUNE, Western Sahara, March 5 (UNHCR) - Forty Western Saharans joyfully embraced their loved ones for the first time in decades as UN agencies today started family visits through weekly shuttle flights between Algeria and Western Sahara.
This morning, 21 Western Saharan refugees left their camps in Tindouf, Algeria, and embarked on a UN flight to Laayoune in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. They were accompanied by senior UNHCR staff and medical personnel from the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), and will stay in the territory for five days.
Equipped with a small stipend of $30 each or up to $150 per family, the 12 refugee families will meet spouses, children and relatives for the first time since they fled Western Sahara some 30 years ago. Many of the younger refugees have never seen their homeland, which is just 90 minutes away by plane.
Travelling in the opposite direction, a separate group of 19 Saharans set off on a MINURSO flight this afternoon from Laayoune to visit their relatives in Tindouf's refugee camps.
"The initiative is a major breakthrough in the lives of 165,000 refugees," said UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler, referring to the inhabitants of western Algeria's five camps who had fled the war that broke out in Western Sahara following Spain's withdrawal in the mid-1970s.
He added, "It is the most visible element of the confidence-building measures we have recently established to help build contacts between the refugees and their relatives in the territory."
Radhouane Nouicer, who heads UNHCR's operations in North Africa and the Middle East and who witnessed the arrival of the refugees in Laayoune, was pleased with the way the operation started.
"We are quite excited about the success of this operation. The encounters I saw today in Laayoune and Tindouf took place amidst a mixture of tears and happiness," said Nouicer, noting that over 1,000 people have so far applied on both sides to take part in future flights of this humanitarian action.
Most of the participants in today's flights were women, but eight children also took part, along with a handful of men.
The UN has stressed all along that its motivation for the flights is to re-establish contacts among people only, not find a political solution to the situation.
A problem emerged when one participant delivered a political message to listeners on his arrival in Laayoune. UNHCR had appealed to all refugees to keep their contacts at the family level, to respect the humanitarian framework of the confidence-building effort and to avoid outbursts that could disrupt an operation that has been many years in the making.
"Any problems might prevent thousands of people from participating in this activity," said Nouicer. Despite the brief exchange in Laayoune, the operation continued without incident.
Other measures envisioned by UNHCR to boost contacts among the refugees and residents of the territory include the resumption of telephone links between the camps and Western Sahara in January, as well as the planned start of a mail service with assurances on the confidentiality of the mail and the neutrality of the operating service. These followed a series of meetings in late 2003 between the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), Álvaro de Soto, senior UNHCR staff and representatives of the Algerian and Moroccan governments as well as the Polisario.
MINURSO staff have played a key role in making the family visits possible, particularly through the provision of its AN-24 aircraft and medical personnel who accompanied the participants on the flights - the first trips by air that most of the people had ever experienced. UNHCR's Nouicer stressed that support from the SRSG and the MINURSO operation has been remarkable.