Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2017, 16:28 GMT

World Refugee Survey 2008 - Mauritania

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2008 - Mauritania, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 16 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

MRT figures


Mauritania hosted some 30,500 refugees and asylum seekers, including about 26,000 ethnic Sahrawis from the disputed Western Sahara held by Morocco, many of whom moved back and forth from the camps in Tindouf, Algeria. There were also about 3,500 Malians, and nearly 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers recognized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from various countries, including Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire, and Liberia. There were also about 130,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, following massive expulsions from Morocco and Algeria, some of whom may have been refugees.

Most refugees and asylum seekers lived on the outskirts of the two major urban centers: the capital, Nouakchott; and the economic center, Nouadhibou on the coast.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

Mauritania deported at least two recognized refugees, one from Côte d'Ivoire and another from Liberia, to Senegal, but both managed to return with the help of smugglers. Another refugee chose to repatriate after seven months' unjustified imprisonment rather than remain in prison for another year and a half; another, faced with the same choice, went to Mali to seek asylum. The Government also helped the European Commission and Spain repatriate thousands of migrants trying to reach the Canary Islands.

Refugees and asylum seekers were likely among the many migrants who attempted the dangerous crossing by sea to the Canary Islands or the desert crossing to Morocco in which thousands died. Between January and February, Mauritania refused to allow Marine I, a stranded vessel from Guinea-Conakry with some 400 mostly South Asians and Africans, to land until Spain agreed to fly them out within 4 hours. Because they had no papers, however, Spain could not repatriate them and they remained in detention. A senior Mauritanian official said that the Government would not permit vessels to land in the future. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) claimed to have intercepted at least 4,500 migrants by August with the assistance of Spanish security forces.

In November, at least 47 died off the northern port of Nouadhibou after being at sea for 19 days trying to reach the Spanish island of Fuerteventura. Although Mauritania withdrew from the Economic Community of West African States in 1999 and imposed restrictions on nationals of member states in 2001, it still allowed visa-free entry and residence to Senegalese, Malians, and Gambians with papers.

Mauritania was party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugees in Africa, all without reservation, and its 1991 Constitution provided that international treaties were a superior authority to national law. The Constitution also prohibited extradition except according to international law and extradition treaties.

In 2004, Mauritania became the first country in North Africa to adopt a national refugee law. Under a 2005 decree, the MOI created the National Consultative Commission for Refugees (NCCR) through which asylum seekers could apply for protection. A committee of six civil servants from different ministries, under the supervision of UNHCR, could hear cases to determine refugee status. It did not approve its first cases, however, until January 2008. There was no appeals process. UNHCR continued to be the primary agency to determine refugee status and the Government accepted UNHCR's registration of about 800 asylum seekers from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and elsewhere.

Detention/Access to Courts

Authorities detained at least three asylum applicants for a week without offering reasons. UNHCR prevailed upon the MOI to free two of the aforementioned refugees who had spent seven months in prison. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) brought them to UNHCR's attention during the fifth month. There were some 30 cases of arbitrary detention of non-nationals released upon UNHCR's intervention.

Authorities detained many migrants in transit to and from Europe, some of whom may have been refugees, including some with legal immigration status in Mauritania, whom authorities merely suspected of attempting to migrate to Europe. Overcrowding prevented the separation of convicted criminals from mere suspects, let alone from immigration detainees. The UN Working Group on Detention also noted restricted access to medical care and violence in a February 2008 visit. The Government did, however, give UNHCR and ICRC permission to meet detainees.

In March 2007, the Spanish Red Cross reported that, because authorities did not allow the hundreds of South Asian and African migrants from the stranded Marine I ship detained in a warehouse in Nouadhibou out even to exercise in the courtyard, they suffered from scabies, respiratory infections, muscle pains, and abscesses. Authorities denied the BBC and the UN press agency, IRIN, access to the facility.

The MOI was responsible for issuing identity documents to refugees and asylum seekers but did not do so.

Instead, UNHCR recorded receipt of asylum applications under its mandate but, at the Government's request, did not give any acknowledgement to the applicant except in cases that it deemed vulnerable, which it decided in an average of two months. In Nouadhibou, most asylum seekers did not receive certificates acknowledging their applications until their first interviews. UNHCR issued attestation letters to all refugees it recognized under its mandate and sent copies to the MOI. Authorities respected them as identity documents, but refugees and asylum seekers had to renew them in person every six months, which was impossible for many who had to leave the two main cities for seasonal work.

The Constitution extended the presumption of innocence and protection against arbitrary deprivation of liberty to all, but reserved the right of privacy to citizens.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

The threat of identity checks hindered the movement of asylum seekers. Refugees with UNHCR attestations, however, could move around freely.

The Government did not issue international travel documents to refugees and had an agreement with Spain to accept the return of any migrant to the nearby Canary Islands who passed through Mauritania.

Mauritanian authorities and 20 Spanish civil guards conducted surveillance and interdiction operations at sea to prevent migrants from reaching Spain's Canary Islands. The Government maintained 100 police and gendarmerie checkpoints along the border with Mali and Senegal and the International Organization for Migration helped it to open 5 more.

The Constitution reserved its protection of freedom of movement and residence and the right to leave the country to citizens.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Since they lacked government documents, refugees could not receive work permits from the Government. Nevertheless, most worked in the informal sector for lower wages and under worse conditions than nationals did and almost never with social security coverage. Movement restrictions also hindered their ability to work.

Some Sahrawis worked in the iron ore mines in the desert, some herded camels and fished in the Nouadhibou harbor, and others worked in internet cafes or small shops. Most refugees fell below the national poverty level as did about 40 percent of the population.

The first receipts that the Government issued asylum applicants in 2006 stated that they had the right to work and the 2005 decree said refugees had the same right to work as other foreigners.

While the Government recognized diplomas from French- and Arabic-speaking countries, the European Union, and North America, graduates from other African countries and elsewhere had to take individual exams.

Some refugees started businesses that the authorities recognized as legitimate. Some refugees, especially those from Sierra Leone, found work as teachers in official schools.

Refugees did not have access to agricultural land even though the Constitution included general protections for private property and did not reserve them for citizens, and expressly protected the property of foreigners. It reserved its protection of intellectual property, equality in taxation, and the right to join unions and engage in commerce, however, for citizens.

Public Relief and Education

Although it did not mention asylum seekers, the 2005 decree offered refugees the right to health services and education on par with nationals and they enjoyed it in practice as well, sometimes with UNHCR's help with expenses, and authorities included asylum seekers under a broad, prima facie presumption. Free services at municipal clinics required prefectural registration, however, which was difficult to obtain. Free clinics for HIV/AIDS diagnoses, counseling, and treatment accepted refugees on par with nationals.

The Government cooperated with UNHCR and there were no reports that Mauritania hindered humanitarian aid to refugees, but Mauritania did not include refugees in the October 2006 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper nor in the Country Assistance Strategy that it prepared for international donors in January and June, respectively.

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