It began as a simple border dispute between two countries. It ended with the expatriation of 50,000 people, all of them black, all from Mauritania, a strangely multi-ethnic society split strictly along ethnic lines: 30 percent of the population is from Arabic (or Moorish) descent, 30 percent claim black-African descent and 40 percent make up a mix of the two.
The whole affair has been called Africa’s most protracted refugee crisis. It seems, however, it might be on the road to being solved.
The problems began on the boundary waters of the Senegal River, where villagers from both Mauritania and Senegal use the fertile lands to graze animals. Groups of black Mauritanians and Senegalese had long argued over the land and tensions were starting to rise during the spring of 1989. Fighting broke out after two Mauritanian border guards allegedly shot and killed two Senegalese herders. The two countries nearly went to war over the situation, and a peace deal was sought with both sides agreeing to expatriate villagers from the area in hopes of minimizing the tensions.
A purge by any other name
This decision allowed the Arab-controlled Mauritanian government of dictator Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya to begin what Human Rights Watch called a “systematic expulsion of thousands of black Mauritanian citizens to Senegal.”
Taya’s decision to exile the villagers wasn’t merely about maintaining peace, says Human Rights Watch. They, and other human rights organizations, have long claimed the Arab-dominated Mauritanian government used the conflict as an excuse to purge black-Mauritanians from the civil service and other parts of Mauritanian society. “The tension dates from the colonial era, when blacks who led a more settled life were able to take greater advantage of educational opportunities and thus dominated the administrative structure,” Human Rights Watch says in this report: “Since independence, political power has remained in the hands of Arab and Berber Mauritanians, called "beydanes," who have sought to purge blacks from major institutions and to effect the arabization of the country.”
Over the next 20 years, roughly half of the exiles returned home. The rest survived in refugee camps. They were joined in Senegal by another roughly 60,000 expatriates, mostly black Mauritanians, fleeing Taya’s harsh rule.
Taya was overthrown two years ago, and the new government, elected in March, called for the refugees to return home. A recent UNHCR survey counts 24,000 refugees living in 250 locations within Senegal hoping to return to nearly 50 communities in Mauritania, spread across four regions. (Mauritanian refugees also live in Mali, but the two countries have yet to meet to decide their fate.)
Because of “limited absorption capacity” and infrastructure problems of the Mauritanian communities, UNHCR says it will plan to repatriate only up to 7,000 refugees by the end of 2007. Others will return next year. The repatriation program will be responsible to attempt to improve the infrastructure and welfare of the communities receiving the refugees. Health and education sectors will be targeted for greater development as will programs to increase agriculture and animal husbandry incomes.
However, Reuters reports that some refugees claim they will not return home without compensation for lost jobs, land and houses. They have also called for trials against those responsible for the purges.
Not so fast
The biggest obstacle facing the returnees is land, says a human rights group that claims to represent some of the Mauritanians living in Senegalese camps. This point was underscored, the group says, by the recent arrest of six refugees who returned to Mauritania nine years ago. IRIN reported that the six were incarcerated stemming from a land dispute with villagers of Arab descent. The region’s governor disputed the land claim, saying they six were arrested for using axes and sticks to threaten the police officers called to mediate the situation.
A collective of human rights groups representing refugees pointed out that the governments of Mauritania and Senegal have not yet signed the agreement with UNHCR over the repatriation of the refugees. Until that happens, they would like to hold off on repatriation – even with pirogues waiting to transport refugees on the Senegal River and trucks ready on the Mauritanian side.
"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, a spokesman told IRIN.