The United Nations refugee agency has signed an accord with Mauritania and Senegal that will allow an estimated 24,000 Mauritanians living in northern Senegal to return home and reintegrate into their former communities.
Under the agreement, signed yesterday in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will next month begin its programme of assisted voluntary repatriation.
UNHCR will provide safe transport to Mauritania and give the returnees an assistance package, which includes shelter, food rations for three months and other non-food items, to help them rebuild their lives. So far it has assembled a fleet of 20 trucks and motorized pirogues to transport the returnees.
Basic services such as health and education will also be strengthened in the areas of Mauritania where the refugees are returning to help those communities adjust to the new arrivals.
Some 2,000 Mauritanians are expected to return home by the end of this year, but the entire operation is scheduled to last 17 months, according to a UNHCR media release issued today. In August the agency launched an appeal for $7 million to fund the operation.
UNHCR officials attending the signing ceremony welcomed the accord, saying it would help to resolve one of Africa’s most protracted refugee situations. More than 60,000 Mauritanians fled their homeland for neighbouring Senegal and Mali in 1989 after a long-standing border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal erupted into ethnic violence. Many Mauritanian citizens were also expelled from Senegal to Mauritania at this time.
Until 1995 UNHCR provided assistance to Mauritanian refugees living in northern Senegal and helped facilitate the reintegration of 35,000 who spontaneously returned home between 1996 and 1998. Most of the remaining refugees in Senegal are living in rural areas along the Senegal River Valley, where they have been granted access to land and public services.
UNHCR said the programme’s formation follows the announcement by the recently elected Mauritanian President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, made on World Refugee Day on 20 June this year, inviting all remaining refugees to return home.