Demand rising for UN's Western Sahara family visits programme

12 March 2004

More than 1,400 Saharans have asked the United Nations Mission for Western Sahara (MINURSO) if they can participate in its family visits programme that allows people to see relatives - including their spouses in some cases - they have not seen in almost 30 years because of the conflict in the Territory.

A week after the first round of successful visits, two more groups of Saharans - ranging in age from four to 72 - are being flown today by MINURSO to meet their relatives.

This morning 23 people left Laayoune in Western Sahara for Tindouf in southern Algeria, where thousands of Saharans live in five nearby refugee camps. The same plane is scheduled to transport 24 people from Tindouf to Laayoune this afternoon.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has helped organize the family visits programme, said there has been high demand among Saharans to take part. At least 1,400 have applied.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters at its headquarters in Geneva that the flights to and from Laayoune will continue until the end of the month, when flights will shift to Dakha and eventually Smara and Boujdour.

Visits are currently confined to five days, but Mr. Redmond said that UNHCR and MINURSO will eventually "try to accommodate individual family situations and perhaps exceptionally allow the extension of stays for humanitarian reasons."

The programme's aim is to promote face-to-face contact between people separated since the outbreak of war on Spain's withdrawal from Western Sahara in the mid-1970s.

Since then, Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro) have been in dispute over Western Sahara's future permanent status. MINURSO has been in place since April 1991 to try to resolve the issue.

Mr. Redmond voiced satisfaction at the way the operation is working, "particularly with the way the Algerian and Moroccan authorities and the POLISARIO movement have cooperated to make this happen."


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