United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara

Mission des Nations Unies pour le Référendum au Sahara Occidental


SRSG Swing and UNHCR Rep. Tshitungi Inaugurate UNHCR telephone service in the Tindouf area on 15 April 2003

Throughout 2002, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) assisted its implementing partner, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), prepare for the initiation of long-awaited Confidence Building Measures to facilitate contact between Saharan refugees in southwestern Algeria with their communities of origin in the Territory of Western Sahara.  

The flat desert terrain stretches as far as the eye can see.  Only an occasional stunted tree, rock outcrop, or mirage, breaks the monotony. Summer temperatures are among the hottest on earth, but for 27 years this desolate landscape in southwestern Algeria has been home to more than 155,000 Saharan refugees, most of whom have been separated from their families for nearly three decades.

The refugees, descendants of the ancient Sahrawi tribes, have been based in four main camps that sprouted in the Tindouf area (Algeria) in the late 1970s as a product of the war that erupted between the independence movement POLISARIO and Morocco and Mauritania over their barren but potentially resource-rich land from which colonial power Spain pulled out in 1976. In 1979, Mauri-tania withdrew from the conflict.

Fighting between POLIS-ARIO and Morocco ended in 1991, after sixteen years, with an UN-negotiated cease-fire that called for a referendum on Western Sahara to determine whether the territory would become independent or part of Morocco. But UN efforts to identify voters have been stymied by disputes over who is eligible, which has led to 131,038 appeals over the UN provisional list of 86, 425 potential voters.  Attempts to find a solution to the conflict remain deadlocked, thereby stalling the identification process and delaying refugee repatriation indefinitely.

Confidence building measures (CBMs) were initially identified early on in the peace process to lay the groundwork of tolerance for refugee return to Western Sahara.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Members of the Security Council have called on the parties, on numerous occasions, to embark on CBMs to help alleviate the suffering of those separated from their families for so long.     

Following efforts over several years, a new approach was adopted in 2002, which sought to de-politicize CBMs by focusing on communications projects which help to bring families together via telephone and mail services, implemented in incremental steps, leading ultimately to family visits. 

On 15 April 2003, a no cost telephone service was inaugurated by UNHCR Representative in Algeria Daniel Tchitungi and Special Representative of the Secretary-General William Lacy Swing, at a communications center, staffed by UNHCR and MINURSO personnel, in the first of several camps in the Tindouf are. A mail service will begin on 15 May 2003.