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Western Sahara refugees eagerly line up for UN-organized family visit scheme

Western Sahara refugees eagerly line up for UN-organized family visit scheme

A pilot project that enables separated family members from Western Sahara to visit each other is proving extremely popular, with more than 800 participants so far and another 18,000 on the waiting list, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said today.

Begun in March, the family visits allow refugees in camps in southwestern Algeria and residents of towns in Western Sahara to see each other, sometimes for the first time in 30 years.

The agency uses planes from the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to transport roughly 50 persons between the camps and the territory each week.

UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis said the visits involve constant supervision by the agency from start to finish. "Our staff select candidates and monitor the visits on both sides of the border to ensure that they proceed smoothly. MINURSO provides medical staff and UN Civilian Police to assist the operation, as well as other logistical support," she said at a press briefing in Geneva.

Any extension of the popular programme beyond August and the boosting of other confidence-building measures would require additional funds to pay for fuel and other needs, Ms. Pagonis said. "If extended, UNHCR believes that more than 2,400 Saharans could participate in family visits by the end of this year," she said.

UNHCR would also like to strengthen the telephone call centre initiative - which that has seen more than 3,000 calls made, 60 per cent of them by women refugees - to enable refugees to make 15,000 calls to their relatives in the territory before the end of the year, she added.

Citing Algerian Government estimates, Ms. Pagonis said the country's five camps host some 165,000 refugees who fled Western Sahara in 1975 during the conflict following Spain's withdrawal from the region.