Source: Global Insight
by Kissy Agyeman
A tripartite alliance was signed between the UNHCR, Senegal and Mauritania for the repatriation of some 24,000 refugees, an operation which is to start in December.
This mammoth task will enable thousands of refugees to return to their homeland after almost 20years in exile.
A number of logistical and social challenges lie ahead and it will put the government to the test over its preparedness to deal with the situation. It was on World Refugee Day on 20 June this year that Mauritania formally invited the thousands of Mauritanian refugees to return home, close to two decades after they were forced from their homeland.
The initiative forms part of President Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi’s drive to bring about a more cohesive society, a promise he made during his election campaign manifesto earlier this year (see Mauritania: 26 March 2007).
A series of meetings between Senegalese and Mauritanian delegations have taken place in the lead up to the signature of this alliance and inter-ministerial committees were formed to engage with local residents to ascertain the desires of the refugees.
The tripartite alliance sets out the legal framework guaranteeing the rights of the refugees but there are fears that certain challenges may thwart the chances of a smooth transition for the thousands of returnees.
Back to Their Roots
Back in 1989, a bitter land dispute culminated in the ousting of tens of thousands of black Mauritanians from their homeland, over fishing and grazing rights. This dispute was notoriously exacerbated by the government at the time—dominated by people of Arab descent under the tyrannical leadership of Maaouya Ould Sid Taya—which exploited the discontent by using it as an excuse to conduct an ethnic purge of the black minority, which constituted about one-third of the three–million-strong population. Hundreds of black Mauritanians were killed in the purge and somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 of them fled abroad, with the majority taking up refuge in nearby Senegal and Mali.
The majority of refugees in Senegal inhabit rural areas and have been accorded access to land and public services as well as provisional registration documentation. Nevertheless, the desire to return to their homeland manifested itself and in the mid-1990s, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided support for the reintegration of 35,000 spontaneous refugees, under the aegis of the Special Programme for Rapid Integration (SPRI).
However, an estimated 24,000 refugees still wish to return to their homeland, and a recent UNHCR survey shows that they will return to four of Mauritania’s regions. The operation is costly—with the UN recently appealing for US$7 million in assistance for this venture (see Mauritania: 11 September 2007)—and will take an estimated 17 months from start to finish. The UNHCR will provide logistical support for the transportation of the refugees as well as reintegration support.
Inadequate roads along the repatriation routes in Mauritania will pose a challenge for this operation: indeed, in Mauritania, the road network is basic and largely unpaved. Out of a total of 7,660 km of roads, only 866 are paved. Firstly, those refugees who live along the 600-km stretch of the Senegal River will be taken across the river into Mauritania. The next stage of the process will involve the transportation of the refugees by off-road vehicles to their homes, likely to be off the beaten track.
Delays to the operation could frustrate the plan because everything has been carefully coordinated to ensure that the repatriation does not occur during the rainy season. In fact, the process is already running one month behind schedule. Another potential hurdle relates to life in Mauritania after the repatriation. While, under the deal, the Mauritanian government is mandated to ensure that the refugees are given equal rights and access to services as other Mauritanian citizens, there are fears that this may not be achieved.
Indeed, a non-governmental organisation which has been representing Mauritanian refugees, the Collective of Mauritanian Refugees for Solidarity and Durable Solutions (CRMSSD), considers that it is not yet safe for the refugees to make that exodus back home. This sentiment was prompted by the recent incarceration of seven refugees who returned to Mauritania back in 1998, over a land dispute in the South Western Trarza region. However, the governor of Trarza denies that the incarceration of the seven had anything to do with a dispute over land, and he insists that “those who return will find their land before them”, IRIN reports.
For those who were ousted, the story does not end there; they are clamouring for justice and reparations for the time spent in exile. As Alpha Sow, the head of one refugee camp in N’dioum put it: “We are happy, but we know racism still exists and we will return with fear,” Reuters reports. He continues: “Before we go back, we want guarantees of compensation for lost lands, jobs and houses… We want justice. Those who committed murder must be tried.” Refugees want guarantees.
Outlook and Implications
As Francis Kpatinde, regional information officer for UNHCR told Reuters, the situation in Mauritania “is important and complex: it is connected to race, water and land shortages. It encapsulates many of the problems of contemporary Africa.” Besides all the logistical hurdles, the government is under pressure to ensure that certain safeguards are put in place for the creation of a socially cohesive society. Although the challenge is great, it will be eased by the fact that the repatriation operation will take place in stages rather than in one fell swoop. But whether Mauritania has the absorptive capacity to deal with the voluminous inflows of returning nationals remains to be seen. It is undoubtedly a delicate situation which has the potential of sparking off a wave of insecurity if the government finds itself ill-equipped to deal with the challenges which lie ahead.