Voluntary Repatriation and the Participation of Mauritanian Refugees

By MacEwen, Leonora | Forced Migration Review, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Voluntary Repatriation and the Participation of Mauritanian Refugees


MacEwen, Leonora, Forced Migration Review


The conditions put forward by Mauritanian refugees for a successful voluntary repatriation included "a full and real inclusion of their interests in each step of the process."

Popularly known as "the events", the 1989 violence between Mauritania and Senegal was triggered by a dispute over grazing rights in the Senegal River valley which forms the border. In Senegal, where many shopkeepers were Mauritanian, shops were looted and most Mauritanians were expelled to Mauritania. Retaliation and riots targeting black Mauritanians in the river valley and white Moors in Dakar ensued throughout the following month.

Mauritania's south is heavily populated by black African Fula/ Toucouleur, Wolof, Soninké and Bambara peoples, while the northern Moorish (Arabo-Berber) population had long dominated the politics of the country.

To stamp out this violence, the Mauritanian and Senegalese governments organised flights to repatriate their respective citizens, which ended in the forced exile of about 70,000 Mauritanian southerners to Senegal, despite most of them having no links to the country. These Mauritanian refugees would slowly trickle back into the country during the following years but some 20-30,000 remained in Senegalese refugee camps.

The voluntary repatriation programme

In March 2007, the newly-elected Mauritanian president demonstrated his government's political will to repatriate and "rehabilitate the rights of the black Mauritanians who suffered from acts of violence". In collaboration with the Mauritanian and Senegalese governments, UNHCR launched an appeal for funding to repatriate and reintegrate 24,000 refugees between August 2007 and December 2008.

In June 2007, a Mauritanian interministerial committee visited the River Valley to sensitise and listen to the population's views on the repatriation programme. A refugee committee was created in order to facilitate government and UN access to the population and so that the refugees could speak with a single, unified voice.

With its members elected by 167 of the 284 heads of refugee sites in the River Valley, the committee's diverging opinions reflected the differences that exist between the refugee groups. Some refugees felt that it would be harder to respect the interests of the refugees if there were divergences among the group's leaders - and therefore more difficult to ensure a return under good conditions. There were even accusations of possible corruption among the refugee leaders who would potentially be able to take advantage of their position as mediators between the refugee population and the international community.

Some representatives of the refugee community were present at the signing of the tripartite agreement1 in November 2007 between Senegal, Mauritania and UNHCR. This agreement set out the signatories' responsibilities for implementation of the voluntary repatriation programme. While it was understood that the governments of Senegal and Mauritania, together with UNHCR, would manage the programme and thus be responsible for its financial aspects, several refugees expressed regret over the lack of refugee participation in drawing up the agreement and indicated that the refugees should also have responsibilities to uphold with regard to the repatriation programme. As the chairman of the committee said: "There should be four parties involved. The refugees should have some responsibilities. [Under this agreement] they are not responsible for anything. . ."

Other representatives, although they had been invited to attend the signing, refused to attend as they had not received the agreement and its contents prior to the signing.

Refugee conditions for repatriation

At first glance, the Mauritanian refugee population seems to have played an active role in the organisation of their return home. It appears, however, that refugee participation took place only in the actual implementation, not at the decision-making stage. …

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