At this moment, there are thousands of Mauritanian refugees waiting to return to their country. These innocents appear to have been marginalised because their existence is inconvenient for the political agenda of the illegitimate Mauritanian regime, which clings to power under the protection of president Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, with the full support of major international governments and agencies.
Marginalised in Mali
In October 2011, a group of 15 Mauritanian NGOs, called for a tripartite agreement between the governments of Mauritania and Mali and the UNHCR for the repatriation of Mauritanian refugees in Mali. Their demand was provoked by the Interior Minister Mohamed Ould Boilil, who had denied the existence of this group a few days previously in the National Assembly. It is to be expected that the UNHCR census in Mali might have been perturbed by recent instability, but in its 2012 Operations Report for North Africa, UNHCR states that there are more than 12,000 Mauritanian refugees registered in Mali, of whom some 9,000 have expressed the wish to return. The report adds that voluntary repatriation from Mali would be considered once repatriation from Senegal was completed. Since then: nothing.
Aziz has surrounded himself with tribal and family loyalists. One such is Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who is currently stirring the racial division pot for his cousin the president with some media spin. First, he allegedly denied that black Africans who were expelled were citizens, later claimed to have been misquoted (on the radio!) and now he’s trying to whitewash his involvement in the historic events. Anti-slavery and anti-racist movements are predictably outraged. Aziz and his cousin know exactly what buttons to press to ensure the disharmony that was sown last year prevents any united opposition movement gaining momentum.
Frustrated in SenegalOn the eve of World Refugees Day 2012 in Senegal, Mauritanian refugees staged a peaceful marchto draw attention to their situation, which they say is being neglected by the National Commission for Refugee Protection. On the sidelines of the mass protest, a group of refugees began an indefinite hunger strike outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office.
Sy Abdourahmane, spokesman for over 20,000 Mauritanian refugees in Senegal, told reporters that people have reached the end of their patience, the situation is too much to bear any longer, and the hunger strike is their last resort. He explained that the group face legal and social problems and are unable to establish their national identity.
In January 2012, a hundred former Mauritanian refugees, repatriated from Senegal, staged a protest outside the National Assembly, demanding that their agricultural land, confiscated after their expulsion in 1989, be returned to them.
In March, the UNHCR and Mauritanian authorities declared that the voluntary repatriation process for Mauritanian refugees was complete, and held a ceremony in Rosso to mark the occasion. This was followed by a flying visit on Monday 26 March by UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres to Mbere camp in the remote eastern basin.
Reports at the time gave the impression that everyone who wished to return to Mauritania was now back in their homeland and being cared for, while all others had chosen to remain in Senegal and were being given financial assistance and plots of land. If the protests and other reports of returnees citizens in Mauritania being stuck in limbo are any indication, the repatriation process remains woefully incomplete.
Not all Nomads
Stories of Malian refugees flooding into isolated border camps like Fassala and Mbere get much publicity and attention. Yet in the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, an estimated 3,000 unregistered Malian refugees exist in difficult circumstances, according to the June 2012 edition of independent magazine CityMag. This situation began with Tuareg who fled when civil unrest erupted in Mali at the end of January, making their escape by car. Members of the first groups to arrive, crossing via Nioro and Ayoun, told cridem reporters in February that they fled in fear of their lives after attacks against “light skinned” people in Bamako. Many left everything behind, their flight fuelled by memories of previous periods of brutal unrest as much as by current events.
They also explained how, on presenting themselves at the Nouakchott office, they were told UNHCR was not aware of any “urban refugees” and the new arrivals must ask the host country to transport them to the border camps. The alternative is to remain unregistered – a non-status equivalent to being classed as vagrants or even illegal immigrants. Even so, many chose this option rather than surrender to the terrible conditions of the isolated and overcrowded camps, where 1500 – 2000 were reportedly arriving almost daily in May. What is the meaning of such banality? That Tuareg can’t be urbanised, or that refugees are not welcome in Mauritania unless they are hidden away in the furthest recesses of the desert? Is the price of “refuge” to be half-starved and subject to extremes of every condition, ready to be photographed at their worst by the swarm of “freelance” photographers and reporters being flown in from far afield? On that point, I feel obliged to point out that there is no shortage of highly skilled and capable freelance photographers and journalists available for work in Mauritania.
These “urban Tuareg” in Nouakchott do not receive any support or recognition from Mauritanian authorities or international aid agencies. They live on their wits and whatever the local community can provide, perhaps supplemented by donations from compatriots in town for recent MNLA discussions. Mauritania’s famed culture of offering hospitality to visitors goes far beyond the polite offer of a cup of mint tea: one might almost call it a national obsession. True to tradition, the community tries to rally round, but there are signs that even their best efforts are falling short. Times are hard in Mauritania, with spiralling food and fuel prices, high unemployment, and low wages pushing more people towards the poverty trap. A reporter for Latest Network News, who went to investigate current conditions on 17 June, told how he found some of the Tuareg reduced to begging on the street. He said they live in fear of being arrested by the police, and were too scared to talk on camera or allow their photograph to be taken.
An Invisible Population
The Tuareg are not the only refugee community in Nouakchott; for example, there is a group of Ivorians who have been campaigning for assistance for months. A cursory search will reveal similar stories worldwide – Iranian refugees trapped in Turkey, Burmese marooned in Thailand, Africans stuck on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and thousands of stateless in Kuwait and other gulf states. Al Jazeera reports more than 120,000 Syrians fleeing the violence in their homeland have taken refuge in Jordan, according to the Amman government. The United Nations has registered 20,000 of them. International aid agencies seem ill-equipped to cater for these “niche” groups, yet together they represent the population of a small country.
Note: Following ethnic clashes in late April 1989, hundreds of victims on both sides of the Senegal River and tens of thousands of Mauritanians were forced to leave their country and take refuge in neighbouring states. All countries of North Africa have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, with the exception of Libya, which is, however, party to the Organisation of African Unity’s 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.