Western Sahara: UN’s family visits exchange scheme set to shift to second city

2 April 2004 – The United Nations refugee agency’s family visits exchange programme in Western Sahara – which allows some refugees to see their relatives for the first time in almost three decades – enters its second phase next week when it begins transferring people to and from the city of Dakhla.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ron Redmond, told reporters today in Geneva that flights carrying Saharans will operate between Dakhla in the Territory and the Algerian town of Tindouf for about four weeks starting next Friday.

Since early last month, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has been operating flights so that refugees who have lived near Tindouf for years because of the conflict in the Territory can see their relatives, and vice versa, for five-day periods.

“The operation has been going extremely well,” Mr. Redmond said. “People are overjoyed at finally getting a chance to see their relatives, sometimes after a separation of nearly 30 years.”

The UNHCR has registered more than 8,500 Saharans who want to take part, with priority being given to the elderly and the sick.

So far the programme has been restricted to flights between Tindouf, where thousands of Saharan refugees live in five nearby camps, and the city of Laayoune in the Territory. Today another round of flights carried more than 50 people between those two areas.

Mr. Redmond said that after the Dakhla phase, flights will shift to Smara and Boujdour before returning to Laayoune.

The programme is designed to promote face-to-face contact between people who have been separated since the outbreak of war after Spain withdrew from the Territory 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 conflict over Western Sahara’s future status. MINURSO has been in place since April 1991 to try to resolve the dispute.

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