The United Nations refugee agency on Wednesday launched the first flight in an expanded programme of visits for long-separated Sahrawi families in the Tindouf camps of Algeria and in the territory of Western Sahara.
According to a news release issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a Boeing 737 aircraft transported 150 visiting relatives from Western Sahara to the camps in Algeria, and returned carrying 137 Sahrawi refugees from the Tindouf camps back to Western Sahara.
Sahrawi refugees started arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain withdrew from Western Sahara and fighting broke out over its control. Many of the Sahrawi refugees in Algeria have been living in the Tindouf camps for over three decades, according to UNHCR.
Previously a 30-seat Antonov aircraft was employed for the family visits. With the new aircraft, up to 6,000 people are expected to benefit from the visits over the coming year.
“This increased capacity is important, as it means that many more husbands and wives, parents and children that have been separated for decades will be able to spend a few precious days together,” said High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.
“The visits contribute significantly to relieving the suffering due to the separation of the Sahrawi families,” he added.
The family visits are part of a Confidence-Building Measures programme that was launched in 2004 with the cooperation of the governments of Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, as well as the Polisario Front, and UNHCR. Agreement among the various parties to increase the family visits was reached at a meeting in Geneva in January this year.
The UN has been trying to help resolve the dispute over the status of Western Sahara through the efforts of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Personal Envoy, Christopher Ross.
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.