The return of over 4,000 Mauritanian refugees who have been living in exile in Senegal for almost two decades has been smooth on the whole, but in some cases tensions are arising as refugees complain about their new living conditions and come up against difficulties in reclaiming their land.
In 1989 the authorities reportedly appropriated the land of many refugees when they expelled them from the country, forcing them to flee to Senegal and Mali.
“We still have not recovered our land or our property that was stolen in 1989,” said a woman who was repatriated to Boynguel Thilé, near Boghé, 225km southeast of Nouakchott.
The returnees have either been resettled on new land near their old villages or have been asked to make land claims to try to resettle on their former properties by negotiating with the current owners, according to Sidi Sow, prefect of Rosso in southern Mauritania and site of the first returnees in January 2008. But in many cases this land is no longer available to them, and the problem is particularly acute in Trarza, a region east of the capital.
“We have many land problems in Trarza. People have raised this at every returnee site. Returnees there know where their land was and how many acres they owned, and they want it back quickly so they can restart their agricultural cooperatives,” Angèle Djohossou, senior repatriation officer for the UN Refugee Agency (UHNCR), declared.
“We have to negotiate when it comes to returning farmland. An investigation will be conducted when there are disputes and we will propose a number of different solutions to people who are occupying land that is not their own, just as some of the refugees will [have to] accept resettling in locations different from where they lived 19 years ago”, she said.
But for Moussa Fall, head of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) National Agency for the Reception and Integration of Refugees (ANAIR), this involves more engagement from the local authorities, who must also be careful to ensure returnees are skilled at exploiting the agricultural land they are given, since they are returning to one of the country’s few productive agricultural zones in the south.
“We have to match the available land with the ability of the people to exploit it,” he said.
There are other problems, too. Some returnees who are waiting to be resettled are staying in tents provided by the UNHCR. But a number of its standard tents destined for Mauritania have been sent to Myanmar to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis, leaving a shortage, so they have to look at alternative possibilities.
“We have decided to construct hangars, with a cement floor to protect the animals, a wire perimeter and a prefabricated roof,” said Didier Laye, UNHCR’s Mauritania representative.
Some who have already settled in new houses say the facilities are inadequate. Diouldé Amadou, a recently repatriated refugee now lives in the village of Joudallaye on the outskirts of Boghé. “We only have one four-by-five metre shelter for me and my 12 children,” he exclaimed. “Living in N’Dioum [in Senegal] was easier. We had three bedrooms there – we had a better set-up.”
But Tfeïl ould Sid’Ahmed, the UNHCR representative in the Brakna region in southern Mauritania, said the organisation cannot be held responsible for everything. “These people must understand that they are no longer refugees!” he exclaimed. “Now they are Mauritanian citizens in their own right and if they are dissatisfied with something, they must learn to turn to the local authorities, not just to us the UN.”
Village by village study
ANAIR’s Fall is upbeat about the prospect for finding solutions to these problems provided the local authorities get more involved. There has already been progress. The local authorities are currently getting prepared to receive people’s land claims and the UNHCR and NGOs are trying to help them. “We have done a village by village study to map out how we can respond to each claim,” he said.
UNHCR, the government, returnees and donors will get together in October to discuss any remaining concerns.
Meanwhile not everyone is complaining. One returnee said: “With time, everything will eventually return to order. Problems usually find solutions bit by bit. Look, before we had no water, and now a fountain has been installed by the side of the road. We must just be patient.”