.يولد جميع الناس أحرارا متساوين في الكرامة والحقوق. وقد وهبوا عقلا وضميرا وعليهم أن يعامل بعضهم بعضا بروح الإخاء‎
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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

MAURITANIA: UN refugee agency calls for funds to get Mauritanian refugees home

An 18-year-old Senegalese government-issued refugee card. Cards like these were issued to Mauritanians expelled from their homes in 1989
The UN refugee agency is asking donors for US$7 million to help tens of thousands of Mauritanians return home nearly 20 years after ethnic fighting forced them to leave.

Forced from their homes and livelihoods in 1989 the refugees – living in Senegal and Mali – have long insisted that their return be supervised and backed by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). In June the Mauritanian government formally requested UNHCR assistance with the repatriation.

“We call on the international community to help Mauritania turn this painful page in our history,” Moustapha Toure, spokesperson for the Mauritanian refugees, told IRIN.

Some 25,000 Mauritanians are expected to set off from Senegal and Mali next month in UNHCR-operated boats and trucks, with the refugee agency providing food and protection along the way as well as assistance to local communities.

Part of the funds – about $1.7 million – is earmarked for protection and monitoring of refugees’ legal rights. “The authorities will provide returnees with the necessary documentation to ensure their access to civil rights, land and property in a dignified manner,” UNHCR says in its appeal.

After years of refugees’ apprehension about their status upon returning home, the newly elected Mauritanian government in July formally invited them, saying they could return safely and with dignity.

Of some 60,000 people who originally fled Mauritania, about 30,000 remain in northern Senegal and some 6,000 in Mali.

An initial survey conducted by UNHCR and Senegalese officials in July and August found that some 24,000 refugees in Senegal expressed a wish to return home. A few hundred refugees living in Mali are also expected to return.

UNHCR says given “the limited absorption capacity of return areas”, it expects to assist 7,000 people to return by the end of this year and the rest in 2008.

Helping local communities

Part of the funds will be used to build up health and education facilities as well as boost agricultural capacity in communities where refugees will return, UNHCR says.

“It is assumed that returning refugees have maintained regular contact with their relatives in Mauritania, which will improve reintegration prospects in their communities of origin,” UNHCR says in the appeal document. “However, as communities in Mauritania are already facing a shortage of resources, returnee families, consisting often of up to nine members each, will put an important strain on already scarce food and water sources.”

The appeal covers the construction of 35 wells and the building or rehabilitation of 20 health centres and 20 classrooms. In addition, it calls for agricultural tools and seeds for returnees as well as host communities.

Refugees will receive two months food rations from UNHCR and three months basic food rations from the World Food Programme to further mitigate the strain on local communities.

UNHCR says it is negotiating a tripartite agreement with the Senegalese and Mauritanian governments, intended to provide a legal framework covering property rights and legal documentation for refugees. The agreement is expected to be finalised before repatriation begins in October, the agency says.

Truth and reconciliation

While refugees have welcomed the assistance of their government and UNHCR, many are calling for a truth and reconciliation commission to discuss the events of 1989 once repatriation is completed, refugee spokesperson Toure told IRIN.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi said in a speech in June: “I am urging all Mauritanians to get mobilised in order to welcome, as warmly and in as brotherly a manner as possible, our fellow countrymen and women in solidarity.”

“Our president has recognised the state’s responsibility to restoring our human rights,” Toure said. “We hope the international community will fully support that initiative so we can put ourselves firmly on the path of national reconciliation.”

Some 60,000 black Mauritanians were expelled from their country to neighbouring Senegal and Mali in 1989 when a border dispute erupted into ethnic violence. Thousands of Mauritanians living in Senegal at the time were also forced out.

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