Returning refugees say they are fitting in well

One month has passed since the first 102 Mauritanian refugees officially returned home after some 19 years in exile in Senegal. Before they left many said they feared local Mauritanians would resent them coming but those IRIN has talked with since they arrived said their fears are being allayed as they are being very well treated.

“Our welcome was warm and respectful,” said Mamadou Keita, 25 years old returnee who arrived on 29 January. Another returnee Binta Lero Sow, living six kilometres north of the town of Rosso told IRIN, “It is going well. We don’t need anything.”

A total of 30,000 Mauritanian refugees are still living in Senegal and Mali. Ethnic clashes in 1989 with Arab Moors living in neighbouring Senegal were behind the expulsion of black Mauritanians by the Arab-dominated government of former president Maaoua Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya.

To smooth the transition for the 102 black Mauritanians many were moved to areas where they already have family networks.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and various non-governmental organisations are providing tents at sites in and around the town of Rosso, on the border with Senegal, 180 km south of Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital.

High hopes

The organisations will also provide food and medicine for three months, after which time the government’s National Agency to Welcome and Repatriate Refugees (ANAIR) will take over the support.

Local authorities have approved the construction of houses for the returnees, said Didier Laye UNHCR representative in Mauritania. This is a vital first step, allaying fears that returnees would face an upward struggle to secure the right to land, he said.

Photo: Manon Riviere/IRIN
A Mauritanian refugee who is building his new house. He recently returned to Mauritania and is living near the town of Rosso in the south of the country, with support from UNHCR, the government and NGOs

Some of the returnees have started build houses. “I hope to have mine finished in six days” returnee Ousmane Fall told IRIN on 24 February.

ANAIR has ambitious plans to build roads, schools and clinics in and around the new sites, said its director Moussa Fall.

Fatimata Diallo, a former refugee who unofficially returned in 1996 and is now the chief of the village of Tulel near Rosso, told IRIN that she is expecting authorities to help support the four newly arrived families in her village.

“We have asked the authorities for schools, and more land so returnees can get involved in market gardening,” she said. “All has been promised so we have high hopes.”

Uncertain future

Returnees are concerned that they will not find jobs in a country where two-thirds of the working-age population is unemployed. Almost half the population live in poverty, according to the Mauritanian government’s 2006 poverty reduction strategy report.

Nonetheless, returnees such as Djibi Sen, who is a house painter, said he remains optimistic, “Here we can work …salaries are better than in Senegal,” he told IRIN.

Rosso’s village council is trying to create at least short-term jobs for returning refugees, “It is our way of helping them get back on their feet and we hope that other village councils follow our example.” Rosso’s mayor, Fassa Yérim, told IRIN.

But the return process is still in its infancy. UNHCR representative Didier Laye, told IRIN, “At the moment the attitude of the authorities is positive. But a further 300 families are still expected in this area.”