In 1989, Mauritania’s Arab-dominated government revoked the citizenship of an estimated 75,000 black Mauritanians. The police and army confiscated and destroyed their identification papers and deported most of them into neighboring Senegal and Mali. Many have been stranded in refugee camps ever since.
Many of those deported were black civil servants, prosperous merchants, and land owners, so the government found itself with a windfall of vacant jobs and unprotected assets to distribute to Arabic-speaking loyalists.
The government had reconsidered the expulsions by 1994. About half of the exiles had returned by 1997; however, many subsequently left again because they could not regain recognition of their nationality and get their lands back. In 2000, the African Commission ruled that Mauritania had breached the African Charter when it undertook the deportations.
This ruling and the installation of a new government in Mauritania in 2007 presented an opportunity to press for the return of the rest of the black deportees lingering in refugee camps. In January 2008, under United Nations auspices, a return began, and 4,760 people found their way back into Mauritania.
The challenges of the return are numerous. Many black Mauritanians returned only to find other people occupying and farming their land. Finding work is especially difficult since many black Mauritanians no longer have their official identification card.
The Open Society Justice Initiative continues to press for the return of the thousands of Mauritanians who remain in exile, still waiting to make their way back home.