The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today urgently appealed for funding for its work in refugee camps in Western Sahara and Algeria as well as for the repatriation of Mauritanian refugees.
The agency’s spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva that a special donor meeting – attended by Julian Harston, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Western Sahara, the ambassadors of Mauritania and Senegal, as well as representatives from donor countries – was convened yesterday to address the funding shortfall.
Only half of the $3.5 million UNHCR appeal launched earlier this year to connect Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps in Algeria and their relatives in the territory of Western Sahara has been met so far and “there has been minimal reaction from donors,” Ms. Pagonis said. The funds are intended to continue confidence-building measures such as family visits, telephone services and seminars, but “we fear we may have to suspend family visits by next month,” she added.
Sahrawi refugees began arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain’s withdrawal from Western Sahara and fighting broke out over its control. These refugees have endured long-term separation. Most of them have been living for over three decades in the desert regions of Tindouf in western Algeria while some have stayed in Western Sahara, resulting in long-term family separation.
UNHCR launched a programme in 2004 to re-establish contact between family members, including five-day visits with relatives and loved ones. These visits serve to relieve the Sahrawi people’s trauma and suffering while also bolster trust between all parties involved in the Sahrawi conflict. Since the inception of the initiative, 4,423 people have benefited from the visits, while 19,000 more have registered and are waiting to participate. Additionally, 83,675 calls have been made from four telephone centres.
Meanwhile, at the end of August, UNHCR called for $7 million for the voluntary return of 24,000 Mauritanian refugees, mainly from Senegal and Mali. This programme is helping to resolve one of the most protracted refugee situations in Africa – with some refugees having spent over 20 years in exile – and is currently the only durable solution in the Middle East and North Africa. Scheduled to start this month, the operation is expected to last 17 months. “But with only $500,000 received so far, we fear serious delays,” Ms. Pagonis noted.
A long-standing border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal escalated into ethnic violence in April 1989, with 60,000 Mauritanians fleeing to Mali and Senegal. Between 1996 and 1998, UNHCR helped 35,000 returnees who chose to return to their home country reintegrate. On 20 June this year, the West African nation’s president announced his decision to invite refugees back to Mauritania.
UNHCR and the Governments of Mauritania and Senegal are expected to sign a tripartite agreement creating the legal framework for the repatriation of refugees. The agency will assist the refugees’ return home by organizing safe transportation, providing reintegration assistance at their places of origin and supporting local communities with infrastructure, health and education services. The programme has been timed to avoid the rainy season and the resulting travel difficulties.
“Due to limited absorption capacity and poor infrastructure in return areas, we plan to repatriate up to 7,000 refugees before the end of this year,” Ms. Pagonis said, adding that others will return next year. “We will maximize the use of existing resources and minimize the cost of this new operation by redeploying as many assets as possible from other programmes that are currently phasing down in West Africa.”
Link to press release on UN website.