I recently concluded optimistically that Mauritanian exiles in Ohio, who had arrived between the mid-1990s and early-2000s, are struggling to overcome histories of social and racial discord in their country of origin as they create a new, American identity. Their children, “the generation born in the United States” will live its future.
Thanks to Donald Trump and his monstrous Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, there is not likely to be such a future—certainly not for the more than 80 Mauritanians already deported this year and probably not for the 40-or-so currently in detention or the 200 on “final” deportation lists. As for the several thousand living in and around Columbus and Cincinnati Ohio, all have good reason to fear they will soon appear on that list. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee charges that: “The targeting of this community serves no purpose and the spread of terror by ICE is unfathomable. We know that families are being separated, and the livelihood, health and wellbeing of our community members’ families are put at substantial risk.”
The question of community identity now pales into insignificance in the face of what The Atlantic calls “ethnic cleansing.” In a piece devoted to the “chill” of ICE’s history and mandate, attention is drawn to the fact that Mauritanians who made their homes in Ohio a generation ago, are being quietly identified, detained and deported. These particular deportees stand out among thousands of others because they are described as being sent into slavery.
Mauritania is known as a modern slave nation: its laws only abolished slavery in 1980-1981 and punished those who practiced slavery in 2007. But few prosecutions are made and protests about government failure to respect its own laws are violently suppressed, their leaders repeatedly imprisoned. These include internationally recognized human rights advocate Biram Dah Abeid who provided a “Declaration” on the slavery issue in Washington DC this past June. For many now suddenly aware of the deportations, his information is their primary context for framing activist and advocacy objections, and there is no shortage of credible documentation to support it.
The problem is that the Mauritanians being deported and under threat of deportation are not those identified by Dah Abeid and Amnesty International (among others) as slaves. Even the oft-cited 2011-12 CNN slavery documentary reporting on the exiles acknowledged that those of slave-descendant (haratine) were very few among them. The deportees of today (and tomorrow) were victims of a genocide targeting African Mauritanians (especially those of the Halpulaar ethnicity), which unfolded in Mauritania between 1989 and 1991. The irony of their them being expelled from their chosen country of safety, for their ethnicity, is painful.
The origins of the genocide date back to 1968 when the bidan’s Hassaniya Arabic became an official national language and struggles began to establish Mauritania as a Maghrebian rather than sub-Saharan African country. Cultural Arabization, downgrading the use of French, emphasizing the role of Islamic law (especially in land-reform), was an acknowledged policy throughout the 1980s; it came to fruition in the 1991 Constitution. African Mauritanians, who had used their French colonial education and rights to cultivatable riverine lands to be successful in their newly-independent country, were being side-lined. Haratine, on the other hand, shared their former masters’ culture and language. While their inferior social status generally kept them from prominent positions, their traditional role within the bidan world gave them access to benefits increasingly denied to Francophone African Mauritanians.
By the mid-1980s, African Mauritanians politicized their frustration, calling for the overthrow of what they termed an “Apartheid Government.” Their African Mauritanian Liberation Front (FLAM) was forced underground and into exile in Senegal. Internal government purges of intellectuals and the military were inflamed by Senegal’s purported support for the FLAM. In spring of 1989 a minor border dispute erupted into war. As Senegal forcibly returned home as many as 500,000 Mauritanians, Mauritania unleashed its police, army and own haratine on African Mauritanians. The ostensible reasons for arresting, torturing, raping and ultimately forcing into exile an estimated 70,000-80,000 black Mauritanians, were that they supported FLAM and were really Senegalese nationals without rights to Mauritanian property and/or citizenship. Both property and identify were taken from them: homes, lands and herds were confiscated—redistributed to bidan and haratine; birth certificates and other official documents were destroyed. They became citizens of UNHCR refugee camps in Senegal, where tens of thousands spent up to a decade as literal prisoners of statelessness.
The fall-out from these initial évenements continued through the end of 1991; thousands more were detained and tortured. At least 500 mysteriously disappeared in the process. On National Independence Day, (November 28) in 1991, 28 African (Halpulaar) Mauritanian soldiers were publicly, symbolically hanged outside the northern town of Inal where they had been imprisoned. The “Martyrs of Inal” are still remembered—both in Mauritania and in Ohio.
This government-sanctioned violence against those of “African” ethnicity is what the majority of Ohio’s Mauritanians were fleeing when they sought asylum in the United States.
Forced return to Mauritania today presents them with a potential triple threat: One, most left their country illegally, many with accusations of treasonous associations with FLAM still following them. Although FLAM is now reconciled with the government, this does not negate the illegality of those early associations, which remain punishable with imprisonment.
Two, African Mauritanians are distinct from haratine in their ethnicity (and in many instances, are still bitter about the role haratine played in the events that brought them to Ohio), but some have become politicized around US-based Mauritanian anti-slavery activism. To the extent that this is seen by the Mauritanian government as supporting activism declared illegal domestically, returnees are also likely to be arrested and detained.
And Mauritanian prisons have been internationally documented for the beatings and torture they routinely permit—and the basic human rights (visits by family, lawyers; treatment by doctors) that they do not.
Three, Mauritania undertook a census registration (2011–2013) that overrode all previous identity documentation. It necessitated birth/death confirmations that were complicated, and in practical terms, excluded thousands of African Mauritanians with the use of nationality- “proving” questions rooted in bidan culture. For those who were victims of “1989-1991,” this cultural exclusion will be compounded by the documentation and/or parental witness requirements that the killing of their families and the destruction of their identity documents render impossible. They will join the documented thousands of voluntary returnees from exile in Senegal who are still denied access to citizenship, the essential services of government and the right to vote.
The Mauritanian deportees will not be sent into slavery. But they will be made stateless—an internationally recognized crime.
The Mauritanian government is providing passes to allow these deportees to be returned. Given its failure to deliver papers even years later to refugees it has officially welcomed home, how likely is it that these pieces of paper will carry any weight beyond first-point-of-entry? A reported anonymous case from earlier this year, three deportees named by Dah Abeid and the experience of Seyne Malick Diagne give us some indication. All were imprisoned immediately upon return because they were undocumented. Two we know of were able to bribe a jailer to secure release; in Diagne’s case after having been beaten for several days. Each of those has sought refuge in a third country—Diagne, ironically, in Senegal where he was first interned in a UNHCR camp in 1989. Both are once again illegal, stateless and in need of asylum.
We do not know the fate of the other three. Or of the other 70-plus deported. Nor can we predict the fate of those who will follow in their wake, inevitably, unless some intervention has impact.
As well-meaning and passionate as advocates are, asserting slavery to contest deportation is more a conflation of American sensitivities to its own past and racially-shaped politics than a credible legal argument which can be—and must be firmly rooted in Mauritania’s history of genocide and contemporary practices of discrimination.