Mauritania: Appeal for US$7 million for Mauritanian refugee return

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is launching a US$7 million appeal today to fund the voluntary repatriation of 24,000 Mauritanian refugees from Senegal and Mali - a return that will help resolve one of the most protracted refugee situations in the world. Some of the refugees have spent more than two decades in exile. The 17-month operation, which faces some major logistical challenges, is scheduled to start in October.

Mauritania announced its decision to invite the refugees to return home on World Refugee Day, 20 June, this year.

Background information: 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, with most settling in hundreds of villages along the Senegal River valley. Many Mauritanian citizens were expelled from Senegal to Mauritania.

UNHCR provided assistance to the Mauritanian refugees in northern Senegal until 1995 and facilitated the reintegration of 35,000 returnees who decided on their own accord to return to Mauritania between 1996 to 1998. Most of the refugees remaining in Senegal live in rural areas where they have been granted access to land and public services. Many of them have achieved a certain degree of self-sufficiency.

The newly-elected Mauritanian government (March 2007) has now prioritized the return and reintegration of its nationals in exile with UNHCR's assistance. According to preliminary results of a recent survey which we conducted together with the Senegalese authorities, some 24,000 Mauritanian refugees living in over 250 different locations in Senegal wish to return to some 50 communities in four regions of Mauritania. In addition, there are a few hundred Mauritanian refugees in Mali, some of whom have also expressed a wish to return home. The talks on the tripartite agreement between the governments of Mauritania and Senegal and UNHCR, which set the legal framework for the return, are in the final stages.

UNHCR will help the Mauritanian refugees return home by organizing safe transport and providing initial reintegration assistance in their places of origin.

There are several logistical challenges to be overcome in this return operation, particularly the lack of adequate roads in Mauritania along the repatriation routes. First, most of the refugees in Senegal who live along the 600-kilometre Senegal River will be transported with their possessions across the river to Mauritania. Then, off-road vehicles are needed to take the refugees back to their places of origin which are mostly located at a significant distance from the main roads. The operation has been carefully planned to avoid the rainy season and its travel difficulties.

The Mauritanian government will ensure that returnees enjoy the same rights and have access to the same services as other Mauritanian nationals. This includes access to documentation and participation in social and economic activities.

Due to limited absorption capacity and poor infrastructure in return areas we plan to repatriate up to 7,000 refugees before the end of this year. Other refugees will return during 2008. The repatriation programme will also seek to improve the infrastructure and welfare of impoverished communities receiving returnees. We plan to strengthen the existing education and health services and help to increase income from agriculture and animal husbandry.

In order to maximize the use of existing resources and minimize the cost of this new operation, UNHCR will redeploy as many assets as possible from other programmes currently phasing down in West Africa.