UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has wrapped up a visit to Mauritania after witnessing the end of a repatriation programme for more than 24,000 Mauritanian refugees in Senegal and visiting thousands of refugees from Mali.
On Sunday, Guterres and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz took part in a ceremony to welcome home a group of 277 refugees, who had arrived a day earlier on the final UNHCR-organized convoy from Senegal to Mauritania under a repatriation programme launched in January 2008.
“The main reason for my presence is to congratulate the government and the people of Mauritania on the remarkable success of this operation. You had the wisdom and the commitment to open the doors of your country to your brothers and sisters, to make them come home, to make them participate in the common future of this glorious country,” the High Commissioner said.
The refugees had left a transit centre in the Senegalese town of Richard Toll on Saturday and headed to the Senegal River, where they boarded a ferry and crossed to the town of Rosso in Mauritania. With their arrival, a total of 24,272 Mauritanians have repatriated from Senegal with UNHCR help.
Many had not been home in more than two decades, while others were born in exile. In April 1989, a long-standing border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal escalated into ethnic violence. Some 60,000 Mauritanians fled to Senegal and Mali.
UNHCR provided assistance to the Mauritanian refugees in northern Senegal until 1995 and facilitated the reintegration of 35,000 refugees who decided on their own accord to return to Mauritania between 1996 and 1998. The repatriation programme was launched in 2008.
Those on the last UNHCR-organized convoy were given a medical check-up two days before their journey home. At the Richard Toll transit centre, they were given food and water. Once in Mauritania, they were registered by the authorities and issued with census forms. Their Voluntary Repatriation Form allows them to move freely while waiting for the delivery of ID documents.
UNHCR is contributing to reintegration programmes in Mauritania for the returnees, including activities in the areas of shelter, water and food as well as agro-pastoral and income-generation projects.
About 14,000 Mauritanian refugees chose to stay in Senegal and benefit from a local integration programme supported by UNHCR and its partners. They will be given plots of land and other support.
Some of the returnees on the final convoy had mixed feelings about returning to Mauritania after so many years in Senegal. Momodou was working in a state company when he left in 1989. “It is very difficult to revisit these events,” he said. “I hope this situation never happens again.”
Momodou, aged 53, married a Senegalese woman in exile and has two children. The family lived in Thiès, 70 kilometres north of the capital Dakar, and he earned a living as a trader. “I’m a little scared to go back, but it’s a fight that must be fought, especially for my children, who have no nationality at this time,” he said. “I will feel better in Mauritania because I can at least claim my rights,” he added.
UNHCR will continue until April 30 to help in the return of refugees whose repatriation procedures are still under way.
On Monday, Guterres travelled to the south-east border with Mali and visited the refugee camp of M’Bera, where some 44,000 Malian refugees have found shelter. They had fled to Mauritania since mid-January to escape fighting between a rebel Tuareg movement and Malian forces.
He appealed to the international community to show solidarity with the Malian refugees by responding to the emergency arising from their displacement.
During his visit, the High Commissioner held talks with senior government officials, including President Aziz and the ministers of interior and foreign affairs. He also thanked the Mauritanian authorities for the fruitful collaboration with UNHCR on the elaboration of a national asylum system.
By Elise Villechalane in Rosso, Mauritania and Mariama Mary Fall Diaw in Richard(unhcr) Toll, Senegal