Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Mauritania, on the border between ‘Arab’ and ‘Black’ Africa, has seen its Arab-dominated governments deploy multiple forms of discrimination against its residents of black African ancestry, including mass expulsions in 1989-1990. In 2010, the government adopted amendments to the law that removed rights based on birth in Mauritania, and also made it significantly more difficult for those without existing documentation of nationality to prove their status. These amendments, coupled with the roll-out of a new national identity card and the legacy of the expulsions, have left tens of thousands of black Mauritanians stateless or at risk of statelessness.
The territory that today forms Mauritania, previously a dependency of the Moroccan kingdom, was gradually conquered by the French during the European expansion into sub-Saharan Africa in the 19th century, and eventually formed part of Afrique occidentale française (AOF, French West Africa).
The population is made up of three principal groups: people speaking Hassaniya Arabic and of mixed Berber-Arab ancestry (collectively known as Beydanes or White Moors); those of dark skin colour who also speak Arabic (a group known as Haratines, descended from former slaves to the Berber-Arabs, many still in servile roles); and dark-skinned people who belong to sub-Saharan African ethnic groups (mainly the Fulani – known as Peul in French – Wolof, Soninké and Bambara, herders and cultivators who mostly live in the south of the country, along the Senegal river valley). Since independence from France, political and economic power has been in the hands of the Beydanes, and the government has increasingly followed a state policy of Arabization.
In 1958, Mauritania gained semi-autonomy, along with other AOF territories, as part of the short-lived Communauté française, and, like the other AOF countries, gained its full independence in 1960 and adopted a nationality law the following year. The transitional provisions of the law allowed any person habitually resident in Mauritania who did not fulfil the general criteria to opt for Mauritanian nationality, but did not attribute nationality automatically based on residence. Generally, the law provided for nationality to be attributed by paternal descent (with rights to the mother’s nationality if the father was stateless or of unknown nationality), and to a person born in Mauritania of one parent also born there (the rule of double jus soli). All facts relating to place of birth and parentage had to be established on the basis of the civil register, but the conditions for double jus soli were presumed fulfilled on the basis of possession d’etat de mauritanien, of long-standing treatment as a national.
In 1989/1990 the Mauritanian government expelled tens of thousands of people of black African descent, following a dispute over grazing rights in the Senegal river valley, the country’s most fertile land. Those expelled were claimed to be of foreign nationality illegally present in the country, though many held identity documents as Mauritanians. They were transported in trucks to the Senegalese border, with or without their families, and with few or no possessions. Most of those expelled were pastoralists and peasant farmers, but the policy also targeted soldiers, civil servants and senior executives. Others fled the country to escape killings and political persecution which continued throughout 1989 and over the next two years. Ultimately UNHCR estimated that some 60-65,000 became refugees in Senegal and another 10-15,000 in Mali, while a few others fled to Chad.
A decade later, these actions were condemned by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which found that the expellees had been arbitrarily deprived of their nationality, were entitled to return to Mauritania, and should have their identity documents and property restored, and that they and other victims should also receive compensation for the harm done.
From 1994, after a détente with Senegal, the Mauritanian government invited the deportees to return, and approximately 30,000 refugees did go back between 1994 and 1997. However, many returnees later left again for exile because they could not get back their lost properties, regain their jobs, or obtain national identity cards to replace those destroyed during the deportation in 1989. By the mid-1990s, when it ceased providing material assistance to the refugees in Senegal, UNHCR stated there were 25,000 people who had not repatriated from Senegal and Mali, though other estimates were 45,000 to 60,000. Following a series of changes of government in Mauritania, by coup d’état and election, a tripartite agreement for repatriation was signed between Senegal, Mauritania, and UNHCR in October 2007. Mauritania undertook to restore the citizenship rights of the refugees, return their properties, and reinstate former civil servants. The programme progressed slowly, affected by further changes in government in Mauritania.
In December 2010, the Mauritanian government decided that the issue of all national identity documents would be put on hold as the national population register was replaced with a new biometric version. In advance of the new identification process, the government amended the nationality law to make it more difficult for undocumented persons to gain recognition of their nationality. The 2010 amendments removed previously existing rights based on birth in Mauritania to create a purely descent-based regime, with the exception only of abandoned babies; they also reduced (though did not eliminate) discrimination on the basis of sex in transmission to children. The changes also removed the possibility of late registration of birth and other civil status events, required to prove facts relating to place of birth and parentage.
Discrimination during the census process and in the issue of new identity cards led to the creation of a protest movement, Touche pas à ma nationalité. The movement accused the authorities of ‘biometric genocide’ in the roll-out of the new documents. Demonstrations against the delays in restoring papers to those who had already been repatriated led to violent clashes with police in Nouakchott in late 2011.
Eventually repatriation from Senegal was resumed, and more than 24,000 refugees had returned under the voluntary repatriation agreement by March 2012, when the programme was declared completed.
However, many of the former refugees who returned to Mauritania had difficulties recovering Mauritanian documents: Although the Mauritanian government stated that 90 percent of the 24,000 who returned under the voluntary repatriation agreement had received identity documentation, refugee representatives in Senegal asserted that only 8,000 had recovered Mauritanian documents as of mid-2014 (leaving some with the paper approving their voluntary repatriation as their only identity document); and even fewer had recovered land and other property. Several hundred of the repatriated Mauritanians staged a march from the Senegal Valley to Nouakchott in May 2014 to protest their situation.
There is little independent information about the size of and challenges faced by the population at risk of statelessness inside Mauritania because of the difficulty of doing research in rural areas, especially the Senegal river valley. However, given that it seems likely that many tens of thousands have been affected by discrimination during the roll-out of the new national identity card programme. In some localities, it seems that local arrangements have restored property to the returnees, but elsewhere they remain deprived of land, leaving them significantly impoverished. UNHCR reports that Senegal still hosts some 13,700 Mauritanian refugees, and Mali more than 15,000.
The most effective way to ensure non-discriminatory access to nationality in Mauritania and reduce statelessness among its black population would be for the 2010 amendments to the law to be reversed to permit late registration of birth and to restore rights to nationality based on double jus soli, and confirmation of nationality based on possession d’état de mauritanien.
In addition, Mauritania should remove the remaining gender discrimination in transmission of nationality, in both law and procedures. Procedures for the issue of national identity cards should provide that once a prima facie case has been made that a person is Mauritanian that person should be issued a card unless the authorities can show and obtain confirmation that the person in fact holds another nationality.
Updated: November 2017.