360° Analysis

The Forgotten Ones


June 22, 2012 03:31 EDT

The fate of refugees from Mauritania and Mali is often overlooked even though they face extreme challenges every day.

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. In Senegal, on the eve of World Refugees Day 2012, Mauritanian refugees staged a peaceful march to draw attention to their situation, which they say is being neglected by the National Commission for Refugee Protection. In addition to the mass protest, a group of refugees began an indefinite hunger strike outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Sy Abdourahmane, spokesman for over 20,000 Mauritanian refugees in Senegal, told reporters that people had reached the end of their patience as the situation was too much to bear. Abdourahmane stated that the hunger strike was the refugees' last resort. He explained that Mauritanian refugees are overwhelmed by legal and social problems and frustrated by being unable to establish their identity.

In January 2012, former refugees, repatriated from Senegal, staged a protest outside the National Assembly, demanding the return of agricultural land confiscated after their expulsion in 1989. Others, lost jobs, homes and businesses, while no restitution plans exist.

In March, the UNHCR and Mauritanian authorities declared that the voluntary repatriation process for Mauritanian refugees from Senegal was complete, and held a ceremony in Rosso to mark the occasion. Reports at the time suggested that everyone who wished to return to Mauritania was now back in their homeland and being cared for, while others chose to remain in Senegal and were given financial assistance and plots of land. However, as protests and other reports of returnees in Mauritania being stuck in limbo indicate, the repatriation process remains incomplete.

At present, there are thousands more Mauritanian refugees waiting to return. In October 2011, a group of 15 Mauritanian NGOs called for a tripartite agreement between the Mauritanian and Malian governments, and the UNHCR, for the repatriation of Mauritanian refugees in Mali. Their demand was provoked by the Mauritanian Interior Minister, Mohamed Ould Boilil, who had denied the existence of the group in the National Assembly.

It is believed that the UNHCR census in Mali might have been perturbed by recent instability, but in its 2012 Operations Report for North Africa, the UNHCR mentioned over 12,000 Mauritanian refugees registered in Mali, of whom 9,000 wish to return. The report adds that voluntary repatriation from Mali would be considered once repatriation from Senegal was completed.

Unregistered Urban Refugees

Stories of Malian refugees flooding into isolated border camps like Fassala and Mbere receive much publicity and attention. Yet in the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, an estimated 4,500 unregistered Malian refugees live in difficult circumstances, according to a report by local and international charities. This is up from 3,000, reported by the independent magazine CityMag in June 2012.

The situation began with ethnic Tuareg civilians 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 Carrefour de la République Islamique de Mauritanie (CRIDEM) reporters in February that they fled in fear of their lives after attacks against "light skinned" people in Bamako. Many left possessions behind, as 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 that the UNHCR was not aware of any "urban refugees" and that the new arrivals should ask the host country to transport them to the border camps. The alternative was to remain unregistered – a non-status equivalent to being classed as vagrants or even illegal immigrants. Even so, many chose this option rather than to surrender to the terrible conditions of the isolated and overcrowded camps, where approximately up to 2,000 people were reportedly arriving almost daily in May.

These "urban Tuareg" refugees do not receive any support or recognition from Mauritanian authorities or international aid agencies. Mauritania's famed culture of offering hospitality to visitors goes far beyond the polite offer of tea; one might almost call it a national obsession. Despite the tradition the community attempts adhere to, there are signs that even their best efforts are falling short.

Times are hard in Mauritania, with spirallingfood and fuel prices, high unemployment, and low wages pushing more people towards the poverty trap. A reporter for the Latest Network News who investigated current conditions on June 17, 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.

Indeed, a cursory search will reveal similar stories abound: Iranian refugees trapped in Turkey, Burmese marooned in Thailand, Africans stuck on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and thousands stateless in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. International aid agencies seem ill-equipped to cater for these "niche" groups, yet together they represent the population of a small country.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.


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