Migration policy in Mauritania: A successful migration blockade

In the past, Mauritania was mostly a transit country. These days, migrants traveling there are increasingly blocked. Police brutality toward the „foreigners“ is also on the rise.

Refugees from West Sahara in Mauritanias capital Nouakchott Foto: dpa

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is a country that has always been at the centre of significant migration movements. Small wonder, since major areas of the country include both the Sahara, with its former and still-existing caravan routes, and the Atlantic coast.

Eight to ten percent of the Mauritanian population currently lives outside its borders, a total of 319,000 people, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). In an interview from 2016, researcher Dr. Ousmane Lague, head of a master's study programme in the subject of migration at the University of Nouakchott, supplemented these figures: 59 percent of Mauritanian citizens abroad lives in other African countries, 9.6 percent in Persian Gulf states and eight percent on the national territory of the former colonial power of France. The overall ratio of emigrants to the entire population is still only about one-third as high as in the neighbouring county of Mali, where in 2016, the percentage of citizens living abroad compared to the domestic population was about 29 percent.

In a document commissioned by the ILO in 2010, listing countries where Mauritanian citizens now reside permanently, only France and Spain were mentioned. According to this source, in 2005, Mauritanian citizens living in France numbered 20,000; by comparison, in 2009 there were only 15,000. The return of older Mauritanian migrant workers who had finished their time in the labour force might have accounted for this. On the other hand, during the same period in Spain, the number of Mauritanian citizens grew from 2,000 to 10,000. This increase may have been due to crossings to the Canary Islands from the Western Mauritanian coast – which have mostly been halted since then – but also, to labour migration for jobs in Spanish agriculture. In both cases, this statistic, based upon numerical data provided by the Mauritanian foreign ministry, accounts only for those Mauritanian citizens living “legally“ in each receiving country; the number of “undocumented“ persons remains unknown.

Statistics from the European office Eurostat show fewer than 1,600 asylum applicants with Mauritanian citizenship in 2015. This is doubtless related to Mauritania's overall low population count, which leads to a numerical underrepresentation in the statistics. Within Europe, mostly in France, Mauritanian immigration most often consists of a population of ageing workers who had been recruited for the labour force starting in the 1960s and '70s.

Labour force from neighbouring countries

Yet Mauritania has long been an immigrant country as well. At first, this could be explained – in the period after the state gained independence from France in 1960 – as an outcome of the country's sparse population and correlating great need to expand its labour force. Yet as time went on, Mauritania became primarily a transit country for migrants from other parts of sub-Saharan Africa trying to pass through on their way to Europe, some of whom, due to increasing controls and travel barriers, “got stuck“ there. Over the course of the years, Mauritania's status successively evolved from transit to immigration country for these groups.

According to the 2013 state census, the “quota of foreigners“ among the country's inhabitants officially amounts to 2.2 percent, with the majority coming from the bordering countries of Senegal and Mali. Other sources estimate the ratio of non-citizens among Mauritania’s inhabitants to be more likely around seven percent. This figure accounts not only for refugees, especially since the outbreak of civil war in 2012 in (Northern) Mali – around 47,000 Malian refugees are registered in M'berra – , but for the many labour migrants as well. In some sectors of the economy such as fishing, construction, and mining, the latter have long been indispensable.

On 26 December 2000 – one year after a governmental announcement to that effect – Mauritania left the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS). A main reason for this decision was the desire to concentrate on its membership and role in the “Arab Maghreb Union“ (UMA), an association of states in Northern African that also includes Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. In the official explanation for the shift in focus, “cultural reasons“ were cited, but also the desire to “better represent“ the state's own interests. The dominating majority in the country is Arab-Berber (“Moor“), while a dark-skinned minority of the population, living mostly in the South, still faces ongoing discrimination and, even to the present day, lives partially under conditions resembling slavery.

The exit from ECOWAS has not hindered Mauritania from maintaining ongoing close ties to that group of states, and its re-entry is still periodically discussed (for instance, during the crisis in Mali in 2012-13). However, Mauritania's non-membership in the West African Economic Community has also had the ramification that citizens of ECOWAS member states must submit applications for residence permits in Mauritania, and these are often rejected by the authorities.

Special relations with France

Mauritania has signed many bilateral agreements with EU states on matters of migration policy. As to bilateral relations with its former colonial power, an existing and valid agreement on rights of residence and the free movement of persons between the Republic of France and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania was signed on 1 October 1992 in Nouakchott. With the publication of a governmental decree on 23 November 1995, this agreement was incorporated into current French law. Compared to the “general“ law on the rights of foreign persons, however, this agreement currently offers few actual advantages, since at most levels, it refers to the general law in any case; for example, in the points regulating the requirements for a valid visa, or the prerequisites for access to the labour market with an already-existing valid residence permit, among others.

In just one point, the bilateral agreement does prove more favourable to the Mauritanian citizens in question: after a minimum of three years' residence in France, they may apply for a carte de dix ans, a “ten-year card“: that is, a de facto unlimited, nearly automatically renewable residence permit. For other groups of foreign citizens, insofar as other bilateral agreements do not apply to them, this possibility is offered only after at least five years of legal residence.

The bilateral agreement between the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and the Kingdom of Spain, which was signed on 2 July 2003 in Madrid, is principally a return agreement, for all practical purposes. It allows full access to the labour market for citizens of Mauritania residing “legally“ in Spain, while “illegally“ residing Mauritanian citizens must be re-accepted by their country of origin. However, Mauritania also obligates itself to take back onto its soil all citizens of third countries who have passed through its territory on their way to “illegally“ reside in Spain, should Spain send them back to Mauritania. This applies especially to migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Co-operation with Frontex

Almost simultaneously to the signing of this agreement, Mauritania was declared a “priority“ country in development co-operation with the EU; furthermore, Mauritania was included in a support plan for the Canary Islands as an “ultra-peripheral region“ of the EU and its neighbour area, with the active coverage and backing of the Spanish government as well as the EU Commission. This tactic could be interpreted, as an article in the French newspaper Hommes et Migrations clearly did, as a kind of reward for political good behaviour,.

Starting in July 2006, the EU also distributed €2 million to Mauritania to “combat immigration“. Parallel to this, starting on 17 July 2006, several Frontex operations were set in motion, including the Operation HERA along the Mauritanian and Senegalese coasts. These actions were founded upon bilateral agreements, each in the form of a “memorandum of understanding“ between EU- and Frontex member country Spain, on the one hand, and Mauritania and Senegal on the other. Meanwhile, since 2006, the number of migrants entering the Canary Islands has fallen drastically, from 31,678 registered persons (2006) to only 2,264 in 2009. Concurrently, in the course of Frontex operation phases HERA I and HERA II, a total of 5,000 migrants traveling “illegally“ were stopped in transit. Frontex reports do not indicate where those persons were taken afterwards.

In the Mauritanian harbour city of Nouadhibou, located about 400 kilometres north of the capital Nouakchott and at the country's outermost north-western coastal tip of land, a detention centre for people traveling “illegally“ was opened in a former school in March 2006. Among migrants, it was often called Guantanamito (Spanish for “little Guantanamo“). Amnesty International denounced it in July 2008, stating that migrants were frequently robbed of everything they owned there. Furthermore, they were reportedly held in detention on “misdemeanour“ claims – which would not have been liable to prosecution under local law – of trying to exit national territory. A stay in the centre lasted a week on average, without any legal redress or right of appeal, followed by deportation to the corresponding country of origin. At that time, human rights organisation Amnesty International denounced these “policies of mass arrest and deportation“ resulting from the “intense pressure applied by the European Union, particularly by Spain“. In the years that followed, a series of critical reports appeared throughout European media.

Since then, a silence has fallen on the subject of the detention or deportation centre of Nouadhibou, owing to the fact that since 2013, not a single report about it has been published – neither in the European nor in the African media, nor by non-governmental organisations. However, the centre has not been closed.

Isolated crossing attempts

The main reason for the centre's current lack of significance is that the transit route along the Mauritanian coast and across the sea to the islands belonging to Spain – which lie within reach, just off the western coast of Africa – is now only rarely being traveled. This is a result of severely heightened control measures. In an interview published on 26 July 2016, El Hadj Amabdou M’Bow, General Secretary of the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (AMDH), spoke of a shift in migration routes toward the Mediterranean, Libya and Egypt. However, re-routing has apparently drastically increased the numbers of migrant fatalities during transit.

Migrants caught traveling “illegally“ through the region today are usually taken either to a “standard“ police station within Nouadhibou, or directly to the capital city Nouakchott. In any case, should their numbers start to rise again, authorities could put the centre back into service as a detention station for travellers trying to pass through or exit the country.

Clearly, a decrease in transit movements doesn't mean that all migrant passage through the area has ceased. This was demonstrated during the night from 24 to 25 February 2015, when eighteen Malian citizens in total were arrested at sea, offshore from Nouadhibou, where they were trying to cross over to the Canary Islands. They were taken in police custody to a station in Nouadhibou and later deported to their country of origin. In the night leading to 5 November 2016, as reported by the Mauritanian press, “people smugglers“ – led by a Senegalese and a Malian citizen – were arrested in Nouadhibou. They were reportedly making final preparations to transport 35 people to the Canary Islands. Nothing is presently known of their whereabouts.

Regardless of whether they are traveling through Mauritania or staying in the country for some time, migrants there face repeated violent attacks. On 9 May 2016, Malian citizen Mody Boubou Coulibaly died shortly after being taken to the hospital, following a brutal police check at a construction site in the capital Nouakchott. The police check had been carried out to monitor identification papers and verify residence permits. While trying to escape seizure by the police, Coulibaly fell from the 4th floor of the construction site. As he lay on the ground, severely wounded from the fall, he was then hit by a bullet, eyewitnesses said.

The circumstances of his death incited a protest by the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (AMDH), while in Mali, several media sources – La Sentinelle, Mali Actu – reported on the story, using the incident to criticise the passivity of their own government.

The co-operation between Spain and Mauritania has lately renewed in its intensity. On 19 and 20 January 2015, Spanish Foreign Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz conducted a second state visit to Nouakchott. Speaking to the press on the occasion, he expressed Spain's “thanks to the Mauritanian authorities for their contribution in combating illegal immigration“. In a conversation with his Mauritanian counterpart – Mohamed Ould Ahmed Salem Ould Mohamed Raré – Diaz celebrated the country's successes in the “fight against terrorism and organised crime, against the drug trade and illegal immigration.“ A remarkable recitation and amalgamation of vastly diverse societal phenomena. At the conclusion of the two-day visit, an agreement was signed to solidify the increased co-operation between the ministries of the interior of both states.

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