UNHCR signs accord for repatriation of Mauritanians
NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania, November 13 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has signed an agreement with the governments of Senegal and Mauritania that will provide the legal framework for the repatriation and reintegration of some 24,000 Mauritanians in the north of Senegal.
Representatives of the three parties signed the agreement late Monday afternoon in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott. The ceremony was also attended by a delegation of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal.
The assisted voluntary repatriation programme is expected to begin in December, with UNHCR hoping to help some 2,000 Mauritanian refugees go back home from Senegal by the end of this year. The whole operation is scheduled to last 17 months.
UNHCR officials welcomed the signing of the agreement document, saying it would help resolve one of the most protracted refugee situations in Africa and represented the only durable solution for displacement in the Middle East and North Africa region at present. They also hoped it would boost donor response to a US$7 million appeal which UNHCR launched in August for the operation.
Mamadou Samba Niasse, one of the Mauritanian refugees invited to the signing, also hailed the development. "This is an historic date which will contribute a lot towards national reconciliation. I am sure that all Mauritanian refugees in Senegal will work with UNHCR to ensure the success of the repatriation operation," he said.
Aside from organizing safe transportation back home, UNHCR will also give returnees an assistance package to help them get started once in their areas of origin. They will each receive shelter and other non-food items as well as food rations for three months.
UNHCR will also help strengthen infrastructure and basic services, including health and education, in the areas of return.
To help ease the repatriation programme, UNHCR recently opened new field offices in the Mauritanian towns of Rosso and Kaédi, and in the Senegalese towns of Richard Toll and Ouroussogui. The refugee agency has also assembled a fleet of some 20 trucks and motorized pirogues to transport the returnees.
More than 60,000 Mauritanians fled to Senegal and Mali in April 1989 when a long-standing border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal escalated into ethnic violence. At the same time many Mauritanian citizens were expelled from Senegal to Mauritania.
UNHCR provided assistance to Mauritanian refugees in northern Senegal until 1995 and facilitated the reintegration of 35,000 spontaneous returnees in Mauritania from 1996 to 1998. Most of the remaining refugees in Senegal live in rural areas where they have been granted access to land and public services.
On World Refugee Day (June 20) this year, the newly elected Mauritanian President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi announced a decision to invite all remaining refugees to return home.
As part of the preparatory work during August and September, UNHCR together with the Senegalese authorities conducted a survey among Mauritanian refugees. The preliminary results showed some 24,000 Mauritanian refugees, living in more than 250 locations along the 600-km Senegal River Valley, wish to return to their homes on the opposite river bank.
UNHCR hopes to maximize the use of existing resources and minimize the cost of this new operation by redeploying as many assets as possible from other programmes that are currently phasing down in West Africa. Several of the vehicles and stores come from the operation in Liberia.
By Francis Kpatinde in Nouakchott, Mauritania