- The victims of the racial "purification" process in Mauritania 15 years ago are mostly not accounted for, according to a new report. Many of the expulsed dark-skinned Mauritanians were allowed to return home in the 1990s, but what happened to them after their return is mostly unknown. Others still remain in Senegal and Mali.
In 1989 and 1990, Mauritanian leaders and the majority of the nation's lighter-skinned population of Arab-descent began a campaign to "purify" the nation. They expelled tens of thousands of Mauritanians of sub-Saharan descent from their homes, claiming that none of them were truly Mauritanians due to their darker skin colour, according to a report released yesterday by the Washington-based group Refugees International (RI).
The report says that in this period, some 75,000-100,000 individuals of sub-Saharan descent were forced to leave Mauritania, and 15,000 nomadic Mauritanians who were in Senegal during this period were not allowed to return to Mauritanian territory.
During the 1990s, there were claims of progress in repatriation of this population - estimates vary from 20,000 to 60,000 - but in 1999 the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) ended its work, and "there is little information regarding how many of these people remain, nor of the conditions in which they live," says the report 'In Lives on Hold: The Human Cost of Statelessness'.
According to recent investigations by Refugees International, those who did return to Mauritania were facing numerous obstacles to full and sustainable repatriation. "The native 'Moors' who expelled them also confiscated their property while they were gone and do not offer them citizenship or try to integrate them into society." Some sources had claimed that those who repatriated had not received official citizenship cards and lacked freedom of movement inside Mauritania.
UNHCR had however offered a more positive assessment, reporting that most returnees were able to recover their land and get identity papers. "There has been no recent evidence to support either claim, but Mauritanians inside and out of the country speak of strong racism as the continuing source of their oppression and abandonment", resumes RI.
There are further uncertainties. Sources vary widely on how many Mauritanian individuals remain in camps in Senegal and Mali. In 1999 UNHCR claimed there were 25,000 persons who had not been repatriated, while other estimates range from 45,000 to 60,000. "Children born outside the camp do not have a nationality and are in a shaky situation," the RI report says.
In a general context, the new report concludes that 11 million individuals worldwide have no citizenship or effective nationality and RI called on the UN and individual countries to take measures to reduce the problem. In Africa, the report in particular notes problems faces by the Batwa ("Pygmies") in the Congo Basin, Eritreans and Ethiopians and almost one million stateless in Egypt, remnants from the old Ottoman and Russian Empires.
- Stateless people are international orphans who have fallen through the cracks of the United Nations, said Maureen Lynch, RI's Director of Research and the author of the report. "Unlike other populations of this size, the international community has largely ignored the problems facing the 11 million people who have no citizenship or effective nationality. This is especially true for those who are not classified as refugees," she added.
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