This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
The governments of Mauritania and Senegal, together with UNHCR, signed in Nouakchott on Monday afternoon a tripartite agreement paving the way for the return of some 24,000 Mauritanian refugees. The signing ceremony was also attended by a delegation of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal.
We welcome the signing of this document as it provides the legal framework for the voluntary repatriation and reintegration of Mauritanian refugees who fled from their country in the late 1980s. This return will help resolve one of the most protracted refugee situations in Africa and represents the only durable solution for displacement in the Middle East and North Africa region at present.
The Mauritanian government’s decision to invite refugees to return home coincided with this year’s World Refugee Day, 20 June.
Refugees from Mauritania have spent nearly two decades in exile, mostly in neighbouring Senegal and Mali. In April 1989, a long-standing border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal escalated into ethnic violence. Some 60,000 Mauritanians fled to Senegal and Mali. Most of them have settled in hundreds of villages along the Senegal River Valley. At the same time many Mauritanian citizens were expelled from Senegal to Mauritania.
UNHCR provided assistance to Mauritanian refugees in northern Senegal until 1995 and facilitated the reintegration of 35,000 spontaneous returnees in Mauritania from 1996 to 1998. Most of the remaining refugees in Senegal live in rural areas where they have been granted access to land and public services.
As part of the preparatory work during August and September, UNHCR together with the Senegalese authorities conducted a survey among Mauritanian refugees. The preliminary results showed some 24,000 Mauritanian refugees, living in over 250 different locations along the 600-km Senegal River valley, wish to return to their homes on the opposite river bank.
At the same time, as part of our efforts to maximize the use of resources for the operation, we redeployed as many assets as possible, mostly vehicles and aid supplies, from other programmes currently phasing down in West Africa.
Weather and road conditions permitting, the first voluntary repatriation convoys are being scheduled for early December. Once under way, the whole operation is scheduled to last 17 months. We foresee that before the end of this year some 2,000 Mauritanian refugees will be able to return to their homes.
UNHCR will organize the voluntary repatriation of Mauritanian refugees by providing safe transport and initial reintegration assistance upon return to places of origin. The lack of adequate roads in Mauritania along repatriation routes is a major logistical challenge to this operation. Most of the refugees in Senegal are living along the Senegal River separating the two countries. They will be transported with their possessions across the river to Mauritania. Onward transport to their places of origin, of which many are located at a significant distance from main roads, will require off-road vehicles.
We also hope that the signing of the tripartite agreement will boost donor response to a US$7 million appeal which UNHCR launched in August. So far, we have received only $1.5 million, which will only cover the needs until the end of this year.