Mauritania: a transitory zone

Sunday 26 October 2008, by France-Isabelle LANGLOIS

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

At first glance, the importance of Mauritania in the global chess game appears insignificant. That said, the European Union, led by the likes of Spain and France, are paying close attention to this sandy corner of the world. Geopolitically, Mauritania is strategic. Here, the battle against illegal immigration and the battle for development intertwine.

Historically a land of caravans, today Mauritania is a land of trafficking- drugs, arms and humans. Since 2005, following a tightening of policy in Morocco, human trafficking has reached record heights with Spain’s Canary Islands sitting 800 km off the coast.

In March 2008, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Jean Ziegler wrote in the Monde Diplomatique, “We estimate that, each year, about 2 million people try to illegally enter the European Union and that, of these people, around 2,000 of them die in the Mediterranean and as many die on rafts in the Atlantic. Their objective is to reach the Canary Islands from Mauritania or Senegal, or to cross the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco.”

According to Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, few Mauritanians are amongst these desperate migrants. They are mostly Senegalese and Malians who are trying their luck. The Spanish government said that, in 2006, 47,685 African migrants managed to reach their shores.

Mr. Ziegler believes that people undertake these perilous voyages in an attempt to escape from crushing poverty largely caused by “the rapid destruction of fishing communities on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.”

The level of indebtedness of coastal states leads their governments to sell their fishing rights to the Japanese, Europeans, and Canadians. Whatever leftovers these fishing powers have are then sold back to African markets.

Europe’s Worries

Due to the influx of illegal immigrants, Spain and France (and therefore the rest of the EU as well) are paying closer attention to Mauritania. Mauritania’s annual budget approaches one billion dollars (all figures in US) and each year they run a deficit of nearly $60 million. It is a poor country, ranking 137th out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index in 2007-08, with an annual per capita income of $406. A country that imports 70% of its alimentary and energy needs, the recent spike in commodity prices took a heavy toll. Although Mauritania can boast of having lucrative mines, they are all owned and operated by foreign companies, of which several are Canadian.

France had planned on giving the struggling country $150 million over three years, but it has since frozen its aid following the military-led coup d’état that struck in August. The European Union is threatening to do the same.

Mauritania is amongst the eleven sub-Saharan priority countries given special status in Spain’s 2006-2010 Africa Cooperation Plan. This has much to do with their geo-strategic interests in the area, i.e. fishing and immigration. Over the past few years, Spain has nearly tripled the aid it gives to Mauritania.

In a mine field

The majority of would-be immigrants who set sail on rafts by nightfall in the hopes of making it to the Canary Islands alive, do so from the northern city of Nouadhibou, known as the regional capital of illegal immigration. In 2006, the Spanish government financed the conversion of an old school into a retention centre under the auspices of Frontex, the EU’s external border security agency.
Mauritania has signed an agreement with the agency whereby they accept European planes, boats, helicopters and military personnel on their territory. The country has also agreed to manage the deportation of intercepted Europe-bound immigrants. The past two years have seen nearly 19,000 people escorted back to the Malian or Senegalese borders.

An International Red Cross worker describes the conditions in the Nouadhibou retention centre as unfit for habitation and notes that you find people there who come from as far away as Afghanistan. In addition, a delegation from Amnesty International recently compil-ed a report on the situation in which they condemned the mass arrests and expulsions of unauthorised migrants.
The Nouadhibou reten-tion centre has no official name, which Amnesty points to as proof of it lacking legal status. The local population refers to it as Guantanamito.

More worrying still, many migrants interviewed by Amnesty stated that they wound up in Mauritania only after having been abandoned by the Moroccan authorities in an area nicknamed Kandahar. Located on the border of Western Sahara and Mauritania, this corner of the desert is littered with land mines.

Finally, Mauritania is in itself an immigration destination for many West Africans. These migrants, who dream of ending up in Europe, benefit from already established social and family networks to prepare themselves for their eventual voyage. It is predicted that this trend will continue to grow, which risks to further strain tensions between the Moor and the Black populations of the country.

Illegal immigration is also a profitable business. It provides a considerable income for Senegale fishermen and Mauritanian soldiers alike. This explains why those at the higher levels of the ladder drive Mercedes’ on a $150/month government salary.

If the Europeans plan to freeze aid until there is a “return to constitutional legality,” it is a safe bet that the $580 million earmarked for putting a stop to illegal immigration won’t feel a chill.

France-Isabelle Langlois is assistant director at Rights and Democracy.

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