A group that claims to represent some of the 30,000 Mauritanian refugees living in Senegal says the recent arrest of some returnees is a sign that the planned repatriation of thousands of others should not go ahead until their rights and safety can be assured.
The Collective of Mauritanian Refugees for Solidarity and Durable Solutions (CRMSSD) says seven refugees who returned to Mauritania in 1998 were recently incarcerated for about 10 days after a dispute over land in the village of Ngawlé, in Mauritania’s south-western Trarza region.
The CRMSSD is one of several organisations in Senegal representing Mauritanian refugees and is not part of a newly formed committee that was to regroup and represent all refugees before the United Nations.
The Collective nonetheless alleged recent press conferences that police jailed the black parties to the dispute and left their neighbours, lighter-skinned Moors, untouched – a move it says reveals the racist climate into which other refugees would return.
“We cannot accept that the rights of these refugees, who have been in Senegal for 18 years, be trivialised now,” Amadou Ndiaye, spokesperson for CRMSSD, said on 19 October.
“We have been very patient… So we are not now about to accept that our rights be harmed,” Ndiaye added.
Problem of land
Some 75,000 black Mauritanians were forcefully expelled from the Mauritania in 1989 after a border dispute erupted into ethnic violence.
“The problem of land is recurrent,” said Ibrahima Mangara, secretary general of the CRMSSD. “It was at the root of the deportations in 1989.”
After years of neglect, newly elected Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi promised in June to make repatriation of refugees a priority and formally asked for assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The first phase of the voluntary repatriation was set to begin in October. UNHCR, which calls the situation “one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world”, says signature of a tripartite agreement between Senegal, Mauritania and UNHCR is the last remaining step.
But the Collective says it wants to ensure the agreement truly protects refugees’ rights.
“We really do not want UNHCR and the Senegalese government to rush this repatriation without the reassurances that the return to Mauritania will meet all the conditions set out by refugee associations,” including reparations and assurances of safety, Mangara said.
Abdellahi Mohamed Mahmoud, governor of the Trarza region where the arrests took place, confirmed that five women and one young man were jailed, but said it was not due to racism or to the land dispute that had erupted between villagers.
Rather, he said, when police arrived to handle the disagreement, women began threatening the officers with axes and batons. “That’s why they were arrested,” Mahmoud said. “It was not over the question of land.”
The governor insisted refugees’ right to their land is a government priority and “those who return will find their land before them.”
He told IRIN he ordered the jailed refugees released on 20 October because police had made a technical error when arresting them.
The CRMSSD insists their liberation was due to media attention following their press conference.
Another refugee-representing association, The Coordination of Associations of Mauritanian Refugees in Senegal and Mali, which is composed of two national associations in Senegal and Mali, has however accused the CRMSSD of creating a “diversion”.
“They want to put into question the repatriation [process] … because they favour relocation in third countries,” said Moustapha Toure, spokesperson of the coordination of associations.
At a meeting between UNHCR and the CRMSSD on 20 October, UNHCR promised to involve the Collective in its plans and assured the refugees that repatriation would not begin until the agreement between Senegal, Mauritania and UNHCR is signed.
“For the international community, it’s important to have a legal document to protect these people,” Francis Kpatindé, spokesperson for UNHCR’s West Africa office, told IRIN. He said UNHCR has set up an office on the other side of the border and will be assisting refugees when they arrive.
“We’re not going to bring them back and then abandon them,” Kpatindé said.
Still, the CRMSSD, alarmed by the “premature” presence of trucks stationed along the Mauritanian border and pirogue boats along the Senegal River ready to transfer refugees, said it is not yet satisfied.
“So far, there’s no [signed] agreement. There’s nothing but promises,” said the Collective’s Mangara. “And with regard to those promises, we will now see if they will materialise.”