Is Mauritania ready for its refugees?

Mauritania, Senegal and the UN Refugee Agency recently signed an agreement that could turn the page on an ugly history in Mauritania, where 75,000 blacks were forcefully expelled from their country in 1989. 

Some of the 30,000 Mauritanian refugees who remain exiled in Senegal and have now been invited to return home wonder if Mauritania is logistically ready to receive them.

“Everything remains to be redone,” Amadou Ndiaye, spokesperson for the Collective of Mauritanian Refugees for Solidarity and Durable Solutions (CRMSSD), said at a press conference in Dakar on 15 November. “Some villages no longer exist. The roads, the hospitals, the schools, everything has to be reconstructed.”

Mauritania’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, has shown the political will to welcome home the refugees, but many worry that infrastructure and organisation is lacking in some parts of the country.

In August, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) appealed for $7 million to fund the repatriation. The funds target the trip home itself, as well as methods to “help [refugees] get started” – including temporary shelter and food rations for three months.

UNHCR says it will also “help strengthen” infrastructure and basic services, including health and education in the areas of return. So far, only $1.5 million of the $7 million requested has been donated.

Dignity

Details surrounding the logistics of the return are still unclear. For example, refugees have been told they will be free to return to their homes. But Marieme Sy, president of CRMSSD – one of many groups claiming to represent refugees – said high level government officials told her it would not be so simple. Many of the black refugees’ former homes are now inhabited by lighter-skinned Moors.

“If the Moor that lives in that house agrees to leave, I can take the home. But if he doesn’t agree, the government said it will give us a home elsewhere,” she explained.

Other refugees say they want to return in such a manner that they are not dependent on international aid.

“My house is inhabited by a Moor,” refugee Moctar Sy told IRIN in the Senegalese capital Dakar. “Where will they put us, in tents?”

Sy is spokesperson for the Collective of Associations of Mauritanian Refugees in Senegal (CAREMS), the social wing of political opposition group African Liberation Forces of Mauritania (FLAM). He said the idea of having to receive food aid in his own country was “scandalous”.

“We cannot be strangers in our own country.”

UNHCR says it is legally bound to repatriate the refugees in a manner consistent with international law. “We have committed – and it is written in the agreement – that we will repatriate them in dignity and security,” said Francis Kpatindé, spokesperson for UNHCR’s West Africa office.

On 12 November, Senegal, Mauritania and UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement that sets the general framework for return. But the details will be hammered out at a government-run national consultation in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on 20-22 November, in which refugees will take part.

‘Virtual world for refugees’

Even with the help of UNHCR, there are some inevitable limitations on the ability of the Mauritanian government to cope with the influx of refugees.

Mauritania forms part of the impoverished Sahel belt in West Africa and in recent days, several of its towns and cities have had protests – sometimes violent – over rising food prices.

“Mauritania is a country that lacks a lot of means,” UNHCR’s Kpatindé told IRIN. “Unfortunately, you have to make do with the means available and with the availability of funds from [international] donors… It’s never easy.”

UNHCR says it will help boost infrastructure in areas that will be substantially destabilised by the arrival of refugees, for the benefit of both the refugees and the general population.

“We’re not going to create a virtual world for the refugees,” said Mohamed Lemine Shah, spokesperson for the Mauritanian Ministry of the Interior. “They will settle in Mauritania and be like all other Mauritanians.”

The voluntary repatriation of the first phase of the 24,000 who have expressed interest in returning, according to the UNHCR, is set to begin in December.

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