The United Nations today reported significant progress on measures to increase the number of family visits for Western Sahara refugees who have been separated for more than 35 years.
“I am really encouraged that, thanks to progress made in this meeting, many more families will finally see each other after a long and painful separation,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, after wrapping up a two-day meeting in Geneva.
The visits and other so-called confidence-building measures were the focus of the talks, which also included the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, the parties to the Western Sahara dispute, Morocco and the Frente Polisario, the neighbouring countries of Algeria and Mauritania, and the head the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), Hany Abdel Aziz.
During the course of the meeting, the parties agreed to follow up on the 2004 Plan of Action and focus on the humanitarian purpose of the Confidence-building Measures Programme.
Launched by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in 2004, the Programme is a strictly humanitarian and non-political effort in support of the refugees living in camps near Tindouf, Algeria, and their families in the territory of Western Sahara.
Since its launch, 13,000 people out of a list of over 40,000 have been reunited thanks to family visit flights in both directions, according to UNHCR.
During the Geneva talks, six proposals to expand the number of people who are able to visit each other and to increase the possibilities for communication were agreed on. One of them is for UNHCR and MINURSO to undertake a technical assessment mission to establish a route to allow families to be transported by road. This mission will start as early as April this year.
UNHCR was also requested to come up with proposals on ways to activate telephone and mail communication between separated families in the near future.
Sahrawi refugees started arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain withdrew from Western Sahara and fighting broke out over its control. The majority live in four camps in the desert regions of Tindouf, according to UNHCR.
However, a part of the Sahrawis live in Western Sahara and to this day families, including husbands and wives, parents and children, remain separated, the agency added.
Mr. Ross has been leading UN efforts to help resolve the dispute over the status of Western Sahara. Morocco has presented a plan for autonomy while the position of the Frente Polisario is that the territory’s final status should be decided in a referendum on self-determination that includes independence as an option.