DAGANA, Senegal, July 18, 2007 (AFP) – A high-powered Mauritanian government team on Wednesday visited a refugee camp in Dagana, north of Senegal, ahead of a planned repatriation of some 20,000 Mauritanian refugees.
It is the first official meeting at the ministerial level between the Mauritanian goverment and the refugees who have been in exile for nearly two decades.
Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee to nearby Senegal and Mali following a border dispute that degenerated into ethnic violence.
Some have voluntarily returned home over the years, but about 20,000 remain in makeshift settlements along the borders of the two countries.
The delegation led by the Secretary of State in the President’s office Yahya Ould Ahmed El Waghef and the Interior Minister Yall Zakaria, met some 1,500 refugees at Dagana camp along the border with Senegal.
Repatriation of the 20,000 Mauritanian refugees in Senegal is one of the commitments of the new democratically-elected President Sidi Ould Sheik Abdallahi voted into office in March.
The representative in Dakar of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expects that the repatriation exercise could begin in September.
Abdallahi “sent us so that all Mauritanian citizens who took refuge in Senegal and Mali, who wish to return home can do so,” El Waghef told the refugees.
“This suffering you have endured for these long years must end,” he said, promising the refugees an organised and dignified return.
The repatriation “will allow each one of you to be restored the rights of a Mauritanian citizen (and) to recover your property in Mauritania to live in dignity in your country”.
The refugees’ spokesperson Ousmane Mbodj, said he applauded “President Abdallahi’s burning desire to recognise the refugee problem and his wish to see the refugees return”.
Asking that their return be conducted in a dignified way, Mbodj also sought that those reponsible for their deportation be identified and face justice.
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