Tens of thousands of black Mauritanians living in exile for the past 18 years have officially begun the process of returning home from camps in Senegal and Mali but many said they were concerned Moorish Mauritanians would continue to discriminate against them.
“We realize that returning to our country will be hard,” a spokesperson for the refugees, Amadou Wane, told IRIN at a camp in Ndioum, one of 284 village-like sites along the border with Mauritania.
“We did not run from war or famine but were forced to leave based on the colour of our skin.”
For years Mauritania had claimed the refugees were free to return, but the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in late June the country had made its first official request to the agency for assistance to repatriate the refugees. UNHCR representatives met refugee leaders at a camp in Ndioum on 5 July.
“Now with this official announcement we can formally start the process,” Mahoua Bamba-Parums, senior regional legal adviser to the UNHCR, told IRIN at Ndioum camp. “We are here at the camps now to listen to the refugees and determine how best to help them.”
Refugees say they are hopeful the new government is serious about assisting their return. “After so many years of living in doubt and uncertainty we, the displaced sons and citizens of Mauritania, have finally been afforded a victory… We are ready to go home and quickly,” Wane said.
Refugee representatives say almost all refugees want to return to their country now even though many are concerned about what will happen to them once they go.
“Things have improved with the new government and we applaud the president for asking us to come home,” said Mariame Sy, a refugee and mother of two children, both born in Senegal. “But how are we to know that the violence will not repeat itself? The racism is still there. I want assurances from the Mauritanian government that my children will be safe if we agree to return.”
Refugee leaders told UNHCR representatives that certain conditions had to be met in order for them to feel safe to return home. The Mauritanian government would first have to acknowledge them as Mauritanian citizens and their repatriation would have to be aided and supervised by the UNHCR, Wane said.
He also said the refugees would require reparations for lost jobs and property and demanded that a truth and reconciliation commission be set up. “We deserve justice… repatriation is only the first step,” he said.
Another refugee told IRIN she was concerned her children had lived in Senegal all their lives and could not speak Arabic, the national language. “If they return to Mauritania without this language they will no doubt be excluded.”
Mauritania’s newly elected president, Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, promised to make repatriation of the refugees a priority during his inauguration speech in April and repeated the commitment in a speech he gave in June. "I am urging all Mauritanians to get mobilised in order to welcome, as warmly and in as brotherly a manner as possible, our fellow countrymen and women in solidarity," he said.
The UNHCR had stopped giving assistance to the refugees in 1998. “With a long-lasting crisis like this it is hard to keep donors’ attention,” Parums told IRIN.
Over 60,000 black Mauritanians were forcefully expelled from their country to neighbouring Senegal and Mali in 1989 when a border dispute erupted into ethnic violence. Many Mauritanian refugees have returned but 20,000 have remained in Senegal and another 6,000 in Mali, according to UNHCR estimates.