After almost 30 years of isolation, Western Sahara refugees in Algeria have been given telephone connections to call a town back home free of charge, in the first of several measures to build confidence among those living in exile, the United Nations refugee agency said today.
The first segment of the phone service provided by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began operating on Monday between Tindouf's 27 February school and Western Sahara's Laayoune city. More than 50 calls were made in the first two days - 80 per cent of them by women.
"The phone line will bring together families separated by this long-standing conflict and allow them to get closer," said UNHCR's Radhouane Nouicer. "It is a real humanitarian advance after so many years."
Phone contact originally was launched last April, with the assistance of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), but it was suspended after just one day at the request of representatives of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), pending formal authorization by the Algerian authorities.
A series of meetings in October and December between the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Alvaro de Soto, senior UNHCR staff and representatives of the Algerian and Moroccan governments, as well as POLISARIO, led to the procurement of the necessary agreements and authorization.
Some 165,000 Sahawari refugees are estimated by the Algerian Government to be living in five camps around Tindouf.
UNHCR, which has plans to extend the phone connection to the other camps in the Tindouf region, is also negotiating the start of a mail service as soon as possible.