- The head of the United Nations refugee agency today kicked off a five-day tour to North Africa to assess the conditions for people still sheltering in makeshift camps in Algeria after fleeing conflict in Western Sahara in the mid-1970s.
UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has been providing assistance to the Saharawi people since they fled to western Algeria in 1975-76, after fighting broke out between Morocco and the Frente Polisario – a Saharawi movement – at the end of Spain’s colonial administration of Western Sahara.
Morocco has since presented a plan for autonomy, while the Frente Polisario’s position is that the territory’s final status should be decided in a referendum on self-determination that includes independence as an option.
António Guterres’ mission to the camps – which takes place during the month of Ramadan – is the first visit from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees since 1976, and is meant as a sign of solidarity with the populations in the area, UNHCR spokesperson, Andrej Mahecic, told reporters in Geneva.
Mr Guterres is slated to visit Western Sahara and Morocco, as well as the refugee camps in western Algeria to observe the humanitarian work carried out by UNHCR.
Among the programmes Mr Guterres will review is a scheme aimed at alleviating the effects of prolonged separation between the Saharawi refugees in the camps and their families in Western Sahara by helping arrange family visits and providing a free telephone service in the camps.
During meetings with top government officials in Algeria and Morocco, Mr Guterres plans to discuss the issue of refugee protection in North Africa and efforts to build national asylum systems.
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