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Advocates Cite Mauritania’s Ongoing Slavery in Pushing for End to Deportations

Human rights advocates are pushing the Biden administration to end deportations to Mauritania, a country in the northwest of Africa where they say the practice of slavery is still prevalent.

In a letter Wednesday to President Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, more than 100 groups asked the administration to immediately halt deportation flights to the country, secure the return of Mauritanians who were “wrongly deported,” and implement measures to protect other Mauritanians from deportation.

“It has been a longstanding bipartisan agreement to not deport Mauritanians from the U.S. due to the prevalence of horrific race and ethnicity-based human rights violations in the country including enslavement, forced statelessness, and ethnic cleansing,” wrote the advocates, led by the UndocuBlack Network, an advocacy group run by currently and formerly undocumented Black immigrants.

“As immigrants’ rights and human rights advocates, the recent uptick in the detention and deportation of Mauritanian asylum seekers is alarming to us. The recent deportation of eight asylum seekers, some of whom narrowly escaped slavery is unconscionable.”

Though there are only around 8,000 Mauritanians in the United States, the human rights community is especially sensitive to the group’s plight, given Mauritania’s history of ongoing slavery.

Mauritania has historically been ruled by an Arab minority with cultural links to Saharan nations like Algeria, while other ethnic groups in the south have more connections to other West African countries like Senegal.

Slavery in Mauritania largely follows ethnic lines with certain ethnicities of Black Mauritanians targeted for the practice. 

Though the country abolished slavery in 1981 and passed laws criminalizing the practice in 2007 and 2015, human rights observers say the practice is ongoing.

“Mauritania has a history of deeply entrenched racial discrimination and systemic human rights abuses, particularly against its Black population,” wrote the advocates.

“When Mauritanians are deported from the United States, they face imminent danger and harm upon their arrival. Those deported have reported that they are arrested and jailed upon arrival in Mauritania. They are also put at risk of enslavement.”

Mauritania’s government claims it has taken important steps to do away with slavery, an issue that’s become central to the country’s politics.

In a January email to The Hill, Mauritanian Human Rights Commissioner Cheikh Ahmedou Ould Sidi said the country had been recognized in 2022 by its neighbors in the Sahel “as a reference model in the fight against slavery.”

Yet advocates say between 90,000 and 680,000 people remain enslaved in the country.

The best way to avoid the United States sending people into slavery and other human rights violations, they say, is to avoid deportations to the country altogether.

“Despite international disapproval and efforts to address these issues, Black Mauritanians continue to endure severe hardships and injustices. The Mauritanian authorities continue to severely restrict freedom of expression and assembly, especially when Black activists protest against racism and ethnic discrimination,” the advocates wrote.

Apart from a deportation ban, advocacy groups have long called for the Biden administration to designate Mauritania in the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, a move that would grant temporary respite from deportation to nearly all Mauritanians in the United States.

The groups also criticized alleged human rights violations against Mauritanians in the U.S. immigration system.

The allegations include lack of access to language services during detention, deportation and asylum proceedings, and disparate treatment for Mauritanian asylum seekers.

“Advocates have also raised concerns around the detention of over one hundred Mauritanian asylum seekers in an annexed section of the Adelanto detention facility, separated from other detained individuals,” they wrote, noting the facility in California.

“These discriminatory and anti-Black practices harm the overall well-being of asylum seekers navigating a foreign and daunting environment after escaping slavery and other very traumatic conditions.”

Department of Homeland Security officials declined to comment on this story.

The issue of Mauritanian deportations has gained some resonance in political circles — Vice President Harris, while serving as California’s junior senator, called on the Trump administration to amp up protections for Mauritanians.

And in January, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) teamed up with Rep. Mike Carey (R-Ohio) to call on the Biden administration to designate Mauritania for TPS. About 3,000 of the 8,000 Mauritanians in the United States have settled in Ohio.

The Biden administration has yet to publicly address the issue, and deportations to Mauritania have continued despite advocates’ ongoing pleas.

A strong U.S. condemnation of human rights conditions in Mauritania could threaten the country’s relative stability in an explosive region.

President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, who is up for reelection in 2024, first took office in 2019 in Mauritania’s first peaceful transfer of power since its independence. Ghazouani’s party came out on top in parliamentary elections in May, according to Radio France Internationale.

Source : The Hill