The first group of Mauritanian refugees have returned to their home country from Senegal, as the United Nations refugee agency’s repatriation scheme resumes following a 10-month break.
More than 120 refugees were transported yesterday to the southern Mauritanian town of Rosso, across the Senegal River that marks the border between the two West African countries.
Voluntary repatriation of refugees from Senegal to Mauritania was suspended in December 2009 pending a tripartite meeting of the two countries with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), took place in July, allowing repatriations to resume now that the rainy season is over.
“We are planning weekly convoys to transport home some 2,500 refugees by the end of this year,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva. “These are people who have been given clearance by the Mauritanian authorities to go back to the Trarza region of southern Mauritania,” she said.
At the meeting in July, it was also agreed that Mauritanian Government’s involvement in the repatriation will be strengthened. Starting this week, the Government has taken over the transportation of its returning citizens to their final destinations, the allocation of temporary shelters and construction kits to returnee families, as well as distribution of hot meals upon arrival.
Previously, these activities were carried out by UNHCR while the authorities mainly handled the administrative formalities of refugee returns into the country.
“UNHCR welcomes Mauritania's greater involvement in the process and will continue to support its authorities in making returns sustainable,” Ms. Fleming said. The assistance includes cash grants, mosquito nets, blankets and provision of shelter kits to vulnerable families. UNHCR will also continue providing micro-credit to help returnees to become self-reliant, and maintain protection monitoring activities.
Refugees from Mauritania have lived in Senegal for more than two decades. They are among the tens of thousands who fled when a border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal descended into clashes in April 1989. The voluntary return to Mauritania only became possible after the Mauritanian Government called in 2007 on its citizens to return home from exile.
Yesterday’s departure of the first group of people to return to Mauritania after the gap in the repatriation exercise was the 80th convoy UNHCR has organized since launching the repatriation operation in January 2008, which saw the return of more than 19,000 Mauritanian refugees.
There are still 21,300 Mauritanian refugees in Senegal and another 10,500 in Mali, of the initial 60,000 people who fled to both countries in 1989.