Western Saharan families divided for nearly three decades since the outbreak of war on Spain’s withdrawal from the area will be able to embrace and talk to each other again under a United Nations-sponsored family visit air shuttle programme scheduled to start in the coming weeks.
“Should everything proceed as planned, we expect the first family visit flight to take place in early March,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Kris Janowski told a news briefing in Geneva.
The proposed flights follow a go-ahead from Morocco, Algeria, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) for the visits linking residents of five Western Saharan refugee camps around the Algerian town of Tindouf with their relatives in the Territory.
It will mark the first time that the some 20 initial participants each from the camps and the Territory will have face-to-face contact with relatives since the outbreak of war in the mid-1970s.
Using a UN-chartered Antonov aircraft from the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), refugees will fly to the Territory while families from Laayoune will visit relatives in the camps. The air shuttle will take place on a regular basis, carrying four to five families in each direction.
A senior UNHCR staff member left earlier this week for Tindouf to make arrangements for the registration of participants from the camps. Similar arrangements are underway in Laayoune so that families can fly directly to Tindouf to visit relatives.
This is the latest in a series of confidence-building measures designed to bring greater normalcy to the lives of the 165,000 refugees living in the camps. Just a month ago, UNHCR inaugurated the first telephone lines linking people in the Territory with the camps. The agency is also negotiating the start of a mail service.