The United Nations refugee agency warns that donor shortfalls are threatening its confidence-building projects in the Western Sahara and that a family reunion programme and other such initiatives will close in October if donors do not step up funding.
“In January, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) appealed for nearly US$3.5 million to continue family visits and telephone services initiated in 2004,” the UN said in a statement on 4 September. “Only a little over half that amount has so far been funded,” and the projects risk “coming to a halt” next month.
Some 90,000 Sahrawi people live in refugee camps around Tindouf in western Algeria, where they sought shelter from a conflict between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro, or Polisario Front, which began fighting for Sahrawi independence in the early 1970s when Western Sahara was still a Spanish colony.
There has been relative calm since 1991 when the UN brokered a ceasefire and set up the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), now the longest-serving peacekeeping mission in Africa. Morocco maintains its claims over the territory while the Polisario insists that it become an independent state, and UN-mediated talks to end the conflict have stalemated.
Since 2004 UNHCR has run regular flights between the camps and Western Sahara in order to temporarily reunite families.
The UN estimates that between 200,000 and 300,000 Sahrawis are in the region, many of the families kept apart from each other by a 2,000 km long garrisoned sand wall and by minefields which divide the contested territory of Western Saharan from Morocco.
Most Sahrawis have family members on both sides of the wall, but after three decades in the camps most youth there have never actually seen the place they call home.
UNHCR has given Sahrawis the possibility of five-day visits with relatives, reuniting some families after 32 years of separation. Since the visits started in March 2004, 4,255 people, mainly women, have taken part, according to UNHCR. A further 14,726 people have registered and are waiting to take part.
“In recent weeks, UNHCR also received suggestions from Moroccan authorities that Sahrawi refugees and their relatives be allowed to attend weddings and funerals. A small number of Sahrawis on both sides may also be allowed to undertake pilgrimages to Mecca, pending the availability of funds,” the UN statement added.
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