Mauritania hosted more than 27,000 refugees at the end of 2003. More than 26,000 Sahrawi refugees from the contested Western Sahara region claimed by Morocco comprised the majority of Mauritania's refugee population. Five hundred refugees of other nationalities, including some 300 from Sierra Leone and 100 from Liberia, also resided in Mauritania in 2003.

An estimated 4,000 Malians continued to reside in Mauritania in refugee-like circumstances.

Some 23,000 Mauritanians were refugees or asylum seekers at the end of 2003, including an estimated 20,000 in Senegal and more than 3,000 asylum seekers in other countries.

More than 6,000 Mauritanians lived in Mali in refugee-like circumstances.

Refugees from Western Sahara

Ethnic Sahrawi refugees from Western Sahara fled to Mauritania to escape violence began when Morocco annexed their homeland in 1976. As in previous years, uncertainty about the political future of Western Sahara deterred the ethnic Sahrawi refugees from returning home. Sahrawi refugees were largely self-sufficient, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian assistance agencies had virtually no contact with them. Most lived in the northern town of Zouérat and the coastal town of Nouadhibou on Mauritania's northern border.

Populations from Mali

A decade ago, about 30,000 Tuareg nomads sought refuge in Mauritania to escape a separatist war in northern Mali. Despite peace in Mali, about 4,000 remained during 2003.

The Malian refugee population lived without assistance in the remote southeastern Bassikounou area near the Mauritania-Mali border without much contact from UNHCR or Mauritanian officials. UNHCR has urged the Malian population to return home since the late-1990s, but most Malian refugees appeared to have settled permanently. The U.S. Committee for Refugees considered the Malians to be living in refugee-like circumstances.

Refugees from Mauritania

Following ethnic conflict, the Mauritanian government expelled approximately 75,000 black Mauritanians from the country during 1989-90, primarily to Senegal. Mauritanian authorities also barred some 15,000 nomadic Mauritanians from repatriating. Mauritanian officials claimed that the black and nomadic populations were not citizens. However, international human rights organizations charged that Mauritanian leaders – predominantly fair-skinned, Arabic-speaking Moors – sought to purge their country's black population and confiscate vacant property left behind by the refugees. The exact number of Mauritanian refugees in 2003 and the total who have repatriated since the mid-1990s were unknown. UNHCR estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 Mauritanians remained refugees in Senegal, many in Ngaole, Antenne, and Diolly refugee settlements along the northern border with Senegal. Approximately 30,000 to 60,000 have repatriated since the late 1990s.

A "Declaration of Mauritanian Refugees," issued by Mauritanian refugee groups in 2000, charged that most refugees who repatriated did not receive official citizenship cards and lacked freedom of movement inside Mauritania. UNHCR has offered a more positive assessment, however, reporting that most returnees recovered their land and identity papers, but did not regularly monitor southern Mauritania's returnee areas, which historically have been beset by ethnic tensions, banditry, and drought.


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