West Saharan families separated 40 years to be reunited

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Families separated for almost four decades by the conflict in Western Sahara will be reunited, often for the first time, by the expansion of a U.N. program for refugees living in camps near Tindouf, Algeria.

An agreement reached in Geneva between Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Western Sahara guerilla group the Polisario Front will initiate a new flight schedule to ferry refugees to their families and vice versa for 2014.

Morocco occupied Western Sahara in 1975 when Spanish colonial rule ended, galvanizing the Polisario into fighting for a separate state until a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

While U.N. resolutions call for a self-determination referendum in Western Sahara, Morocco has only offered greater autonomy and insists the area is part of its territory, a stance not recognized internationally.

Refugees from Western Sahara began arriving in Algeria in 1976, and up to 90,000 of them still live in camps in the North African country, according to U.N. figures.

“This is a welcome step as we work together towards a solution of the Western Saharan refugee situation, so that one day, refugees may be able to go home in dignity and honor,” said Athar Sultan-Khan, Chief of Staff at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees after Wednesday’s agreement.

“These families have been separated for too long, and the family visit program allows them to meet each other, often for the first time in over 37 years. One cannot overstate the value of the deep joy and hope, which these family reunions bring,” he said.

Nearly 20,000 people have taken part in family visits since the program began in 2004.