Funding shortfall threatens UN family reunions for Western Sahara refugees
Threatened by an almost 50 per cent shortfall in funding, family reunion visits and other confidence-building measures connecting Sahrawi refugees in camps in Algeria and their relatives in the Western Sahara Territory risk coming to a halt next month, the United Nations refugee agency warned today.
In January, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appealed for nearly $3.5 million to continue the family visits and telephone services initiated in 2004 for some 90,000 Sahrawi around Tindouf in western Algeria, where they sought shelter from the conflict between Morocco and the Frente Polisario independence movement, which contest the Western Sahara territory, a former Spanish colony.
But only a little over half that amount has so far been funded, UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva.
Sahrawi refugees started arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain withdrew from the area and fighting broke out over its control, while others stayed in the Western Sahara and today families remain separated. UNHCR has introduced several measures to build confidence between the two groups and to re-establish contact between families.
UNHCR gives Sahrawis the possibility of five-day visits with relatives and loved ones, reuniting many of them after 32 years of separation and contributing significantly to relieving the trauma and suffering of the Sahrawi people.
Since they started in March 2004, some 154 visits have taken place involving 4,255 people, mainly women. An additional 14,726 people have registered and are waiting to take part in the programme.
In recent weeks, UNHCR also received suggestions from Moroccan authorities that Sahrawi refugees and their relatives be allowed to attend funerals and weddings. A small number of Sahrawis on both sides may also be allowed to undertake pilgrimages to Mecca, pending the availability of funds.
UNHCR has 24 staff in Laayoune in the territory and 23 in the Tindouf camps.