A Boeing 737 transported 150 visiting relatives from Western Sahara Territory to the camps in Algeria and returned carrying 137 Sahrawi refugees to meet their kinfolk in cities in Western Sahara Territory.
The visits are for five days. Previously a 30-seat Antonov aircraft has been employed. With the new bigger capacity aircraft, up to 6,000 people are expected to benefit from the visits over the coming year.
“This increased capacity is important, as it means that many more husbands and wives, parents and children that have been separated for decades will be able to spend a few precious days together,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. “The visits contribute significantly to relieving the suffering due to the separation of the Sahrawi families.”
The family visits are part of a Confidence Building Measures (CBM) programme that was launched in 2004 with the cooperation of the governments of Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania as well as the Polisario Front and UNHCR. Agreement among the various parties to increase the family visits was reached in Geneva in January.
Another element of the CBM programme is cultural seminars. UNHCR has regular meetings with representatives of Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania who all contribute to this humanitarian programme.
More than 12,800 people have to date visited family members in the Tindouf camps and in the Western Sahara Territory. A further 42,000 Sahrawi are on waiting lists.
Sahrawi refugees began arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara and fighting broke out over its control. Most of the Sahrawi refugees have been living for more than 35 years in the desert regions of Tindouf. However, many Sahrawis stayed in the Western Sahara and today families remain separated.
By Sybella Wilkes (unhcr)