New identity cards for repatriated refugees

One year after the first convoy of Mauritanian refugees departed Senegal for Mauritania more than 7,000 people have returned, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), but many still lack citizenship papers.

Mauritania’s post-coup government has pledged to speed up identity card distribution, which began in November.

Government officials recently estimated that it would finish distribution to returnees by the end of 2008, but head of the governmental Human Rights Commission Lemine Dadde – appointed after the 6 August coup – told IRIN on 2 February that the process is ongoing.

A tripartite agreement signed by Senegal, Mauritania and UNHCR in November 2007 stated that repatriated Mauritanians should have their citizenship papers within three months of their arrival. Returnees have told IRIN that without their papers they are unable to leave their tent communities with ease.

Returnee Benta Yero Sow, 37, living on the outskirts of Rosso, a town on the Senegalese border, told IRIN she was relieved to receive her identity papers in December.

“I do not regret coming back to raise my children in their father's land. Now, I have no problem."

But her neighbour and fellow returnee Alien Yero Diallo told IRIN his wait has not ended. "Four members of my family registered and applied on 13 March [2008] and we are still waiting for our papers, without which we cannot travel. We have only receipts that confirm our applications."

The head of the government’s National Agency to Assist and Integrate Refugees (ANAIR), Madine Ba, told IRIN the agency is trying to accelerate distribution by sending staff to each of the 37 returnee sites. “We can do it better and we are trying to decentralise and speed up the process.”

Samba Alien Diallo told IRIN paperwork and housing are his main worries. "I have no place to live. The government told me land could only be given to a family of four persons. We are three people [and we have] no shelter at all. My child, my wife and I have to spend the day in a friend's room and the night in another friend's cottage."

But ANAIR’s Ba dismissed Diallo’s account and told IRIN that each returning family, regardless of size, is given 400sqm of land and support from UNHCR to get settled. “In the coming months, in addition, the government will begin land distribution, based on family size, to those wishing to plant for the next harvest.”

The Human Rights Commission, which oversees ANAIR, has submitted to the military government a budget of US$8 million for 2009, which includes agro-pastoral support for 2,000 families, director Dadde told IRIN.

The UNHCR-assisted return is scheduled to end on 30 June. ANAIR director Ba told IRIN the agency expects some 11,000 more refugees to return by that time, bringing the total to 18,000 returnees.

In the late 1980s, a deadly border ethnic conflict forced out tens of thousands of mostly black Mauritanians, most of whom resettled in tent communities in neighbouring Senegal. The now-deposed President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi had made it a campaign promise to bring home the refugees.

Nine months after his first day in office the first UN-led convoy of returnees arrived.