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UNHCR: Two Vital Programs at Risk for Lack of Money

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) says humanitarian operations in Western Sahara and Algeria refugee camps are under threat due to a lack of money. The refugee agency also says its repatriation operation for Mauritanian refugees may be suspended. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR in Geneva.

Earlier in the year, the UNHCR appealed for $3.5 million to continue various confidence-building measures. These are aimed at connecting Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps in Algeria with their relatives in the Western Sahara Territory.

These measures include family visits, telephone services and seminars. But, as of last month, U.N. refugee spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis says only half of the appeal had been funded.

"The consequences of not having money for the Western Sahara operation is that the confidence building measures will stop," she said. "At least the family visits may well come to an end, which is tragic for the families involved. There are over 19,000 people who signed up, who want to go and see their families. You can only take small numbers of people at a time. So they are very, very keen to get in touch with their families. All that will fall apart."

Pagonis says the family visits may have to be suspended as early as next month.

Sahrawi refugees started arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara and fighting broke out over its control. Most of the refugees have been living for 32 years in the desert regions of Tindouf in Western Algeria, while some stayed in the Western Sahara.

Pagonis says the family visits help relieve the trauma and suffering of these people. It also increases trust between all parties involved in the Sahrawi conflict.

On another issue, she says the voluntary repatriation of 24,000 Mauritanian refugees mainly from Senegal and Mali also is threatened for lack of cash. She says this will cause severe delays in the start of the operation and disappoint many refugees eager to return home.

"And for a long time, nothing was happening with the situation of the refugees in Senegal," she added. "It was a protracted situation. What has triggered this new movement is that a new president was elected and he invited the refugees to return home. So, there was a change in political will perhaps and that is what triggered it. And, we can capitalize on this so that a number of refugees can return home."

More than 60,000 Mauritanians fled to Senegal and Mali in April 1989 when a long-standing border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal escalated into ethnic violence. About 35,000 of these refugees returned home in the late 1990s.

Pagonis say returning the 24,000 Mauritanians will resolve one of the most protracted refugee situations in Africa.