The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says it has started family visits between Western Saharan refugees in Algeria and relatives they haven't seen for nearly 30 years.
The UN refugee agency says 40 people boarded U.N. planes on Friday. It says about half of them, refugees living in camps in Algeria, flew to Laayoune in the Western Sahara. The rest departed the territory for Algeria, where they were taken to the refugee camps.
UNHCR Spokesman Peter Kessler calls this a very emotional day for people who have been separated from each other since war broke out between Morocco and the Polisario Front in the Western Sahara.
"These are men, women, children, husbands, wives seeing their spouses, some of them for the first time since the war, when Spain withdrew from the Territory in the mid-1970s," he said. "The children themselves, they are going to their country of origin for the first time in their lives. It is an exciting day and the same holds true for the residents of Western Sahara, 19 of whom who are traveling to the camps around Tindouf. They are seeing relatives they haven't seen in decades - spouses, children."
Mr. Kessler said this initiative is seen as a major breakthrough in the lives of the refugees living in remote desert camps in Algeria. He said the United Nations has been trying for years to build contacts between the residents of the five camps around Tindouf and their relatives in Western Sahara.
Mr. Kessler said Moroccan, Algerian and Polisario Front authorities have all given their approval for the family visits to go ahead. He said the UNHCR is planning to organize weekly five-day visits for the foreseeable future.
"Hundreds and hundreds of people have registered from either side. The refugees in the camps, some 165,000 people, are extremely enthusiastic about this," he said. "It is really going extremely well, and we think this is really a breakthrough for these refugees. It is getting people together. It is giving people face-to-face contact for the first time in decades."
Mr. Kessler said the refugees will be given a small stipend of $30 per person, or up to $150 per family. This will cover their expenses while back in the Western Sahara. In another show of confidence between the parties, he says, the UNHCR hopes to start a mail service between the refugees and their families in the coming months.