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Analysis file

, Grenoble, January 2013

The repatriation and reintegration of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal: entry-points for conflict transformation A case study analysis

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As one of many conflicts that ran its course in silence, the Mauritania-Senegal dispute expressed itself by no means exclusively as a clash of territorial claims, but more so as a reminder of ethnic divisions, the concept of statehood and a pondering call for identity and its ownership. The UNHCR repatriation programme, which concluded its mission on March last year, managed to relocate 24,000 Mauritanians back to their land of origin (UNHCR 2012). But does that mean all the work is done, and if so, how, when and under what circumstances will this re-exiled population re-integrate itself? What are the broader implications of this event and how can we, as researchers and practitioners, ensure their well-being is secured and their rights are respected?

This paper will not be a critique of the international repatriation procedures in place, nor will it try to analyse the shotcomings of how the refugee question is being handled; this paper will present an analysis of a new take on transforming this conflict in the most sustainable and effective way.

1. The refugee ‘question’: current policies and procedures

Today, the international community operates around three so called ‘durable solutions’ addressing the refugee ‘question’; these are: voluntary repatriation; local integration; and resettlement (Jacobsen 2001). As the durable solution of choice for the largest number of refugees, voluntary repatriation, as defined by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), refers to the “personal right of a refugee or a prisoner of war to return to his/her country of nationality under specific conditions laid down in various international instruments” (IOM 2004, p. 57).

The UNHCR states voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity requires the full commitment of the country of origin to help reintegrate its own people.(UNHCR 2004). While there is no concrete international law norm for the ‘voluntariness’ of repatriation, as Hansen (2008) points out, we should note that the standard operating procedures in place with regard to voluntary repatriation policies are moving increasingly toward being a part of a complex reconstruction process on a political level (Hansen 2008, p. 9).

The UNHCR has outlined the steps of its reintegration process using the four R’s: Repatriation, Reintegration, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction (UNHCR 2004, p. 23). While these terms of reference are considered the best way of ensuring long-term stability for repatriated and subsequently reintegrated refugees, the key question at hand is to what extent – and for how long - do NGOs and INGOs involved continue providing assistance to those returning home (Hansen 2008, p. 21). In other words, the true test of successful repatriation is genuine reintegration.

2. Case Study: The Senegal-Mauritania conflict

A border dispute that resulted in an ethnic conflict between Mauritania and Senegal in April 1989 lead to approximately 60,000 Mauritanians seeking refuge in communities across the Senegal River Valley. While many ascribe the reasons for the outbreak of violence to long term instability within Mauritania - a country that was, at the time, ridden with ethnic and political divides - according to a report published by The Sahel and West Africa Club(SWAC) in 2010, the events of 1989 illustrated how economic opportunities, created by hydroelectric and agricultural investments, have the potential to heighten tensions over land and water assets, while simultaneously awakening an old dispute over a border demarcation between the two countries (SWAC 2010, p. 3). Thousands of Mauritanians residing in Senegal were also forced to return to Mauritania following the events of that year. With diplomatic relations put on hold, the border crossings re-opened in 1992. Although the conflict was formally over by then, the tension has not been fully settled and remains present to date (Diallo 1993, p. 17).

The UNHCR provided assistance to Mauritanian refugees in northern Senegal until 1995 and facilitated the reintegration of 35,000 spontaneous returnees in Mauritania through the Special Programme for Rapid Integration (SPRI) from 1996 to 1998 (UNHCR 2007). While many exiled refugees managed to attain a certain degree of self-sufficiency in Senegal through agricultural, animal husbandry or fishery activities, nearly 25,000 Mauritanian refugees decided to return to their native land following the government’s call to its citizens asking them to return home from exile in 2007 (CARIM 2010).

2.1 The UNHCR repatriation programme

Under a tripartite agreement with Senegal and Mauritania, the UNHCR launched an assisted voluntary repatriation programme in January 2008, enabling Mauritanian refugees to return to their country of origin. The programme incorporated aid and protection during the repatriation process, including initial legal and socio-economic reintegration assistance upon arrival in Mauritania; and community-based assistance to support returnee communities (UNHCR 2012). By March 2012, the repatriation was complete following the assisted return of 24,000 Mauritanian refugees from Senegal to their homeland. About 14,000 Mauritanian refugees chose to stay in Senegal and benefit from a local integration programme supported by UNHCR and its partners. There are also more than 12,000 Mauritanian refugees registered in Mali, of whom some 8,000 have expressed the wish to return (UNHCR 2013).

Although the restoration of citizenship documentation forms a defining pillar of international protection in the context of voluntary repatriation, the reality of what happens in practice remains quite different. Despite their return, many Mauritanians lack the documentation and identification papers necessary to renew or gain access to their old farmland, make use of public services and other privileges and opportunities which citizens benefit from (The Guardian 2013). Moreover, while the repatriates had the chance to benefit from UNHCR’s reintegration activities in the areas of return until December 2012, the question remains how effective were these efforts and how are the former refugees dealing with the challenges today, without the help or assistance provided throughout the initial stages of change.

The following section will elaborate on this point by introducing two conflict transformation tools and using them to address the issues at hand.

3. A combined approach to conflict transformation

In order to transform conflicts and diminish their negative undertones and drawbacks reflected on society, we must realise that violent disputes and wars – whether inter-state or intra-state- often take place within structures of complex interactions, which have the potential within themselves to transcend into more peaceful realms of a symbiotic nature (SFCG, n.d.).

As outlined in the previous section, the current internationally recognised policy approaches focused on dealing with the refugee ‘question’ can be called effective and efficient; yet we can rightfully say there are a number of areas that remain either unaddressed or inadequately dealt with. One of these areas of concern is, as mentioned already, the successful reintegration of expatriates into their country of origin. Therefore, a detailed analysis of the present structures can serve as a basis for a longer term assessment of conflict-related themes and risks to consider.

3.1 Connectors and Dividers

As part of an evaluation methodology under the Do No Harm framework, the Connectors and dividers analysis, introduced by Mary Anderson, underlines the need to systemically analyse and support capacities for peace that connect people across conflicting lines (Method Finder, [n.d.] p.3). The approach, developed by peacebuilding and nonviolence experts, highlights the reality of peace which goes beyond the absence of violent conflict. Moreover, it can help us identify what can be done to create a climate of trust, and use the space of peace as points to expand and develop on (CLP [n.d.] p.2).

While ‘connectors’ are defined as capacities for peace, ‘dividers’ are elements which have the potential to create or aggravate tensions and increase the likelihood of hostility, or tendencies to incline towards them. Furthermore, the breakdown is further complemented by a set of subcategories relating to systems and institutions in place; attitudes and actions present; values and interests of involved parties; their experiences; and symbols they use to project a sense of identity and belonging (Monzón [n.d.] p. 4).

The underlying assumption of this tool is that when local actors have ties that keep them connected in a constructive manner they will be able to work collaboratively and to address the elements that generate, or have the potential to, create conflict (Method Finder [n.d.], p.5). By using this approach, we can focus on the potential outcomes of the integration process while creating alternative ways of containing or eliminating the negative forces present. The table below outlines how this methodology can be applied to the circumstances faced by repatriated Mauritanians today.

Table 1. Mauritanian refugees’ reintegration process: connectors and dividers analysis
Dividers / Sources of tensionConnectors/Capacities for Peace
Systems & InstitutionsPolicies and legislation ; absence of repatriation and rehabilitation policyPolicies and legislation ; presence of UNHCR and NGOs
Attitudes & ActionsTraditions and beliefsTraditions and beliefs
Values & InterestsCulture and ethnicityCulture and ethnicity
ExperiencesHistorical experiencesHistorical experiences
SymbolsTraditions and beliefsTraditions and beliefs

As Table 1 shows, there are a number of elements present within our analysis which would require further attention, particularly in relation to those that appear in both columns. Initially, when I decided to use this tool for this case study, I was astounded by how an element such as a shared culture or sense of identity, which one automatically assumes plays a clear connecting role, can act as a divider at the same time. This is when the importance of interaction between these layers of research comes into place, and I believe this is why systems and institutions have been placed at the top of the list, as they undoubtedly set the tone and define the nature of related policies and actions designed to address these complex relationships. Whether these are favourable to their own (government) cause or benefit the interests of the repatriates, is another question.

In regards to the absence of certain institutional and systemic factors - as in the case of a structured repatriation or a rehabilitation policy – this can, to a certain extent, be perceived as positive; merely because this allows for policy makers to adapt and design an approach that will address the specificity and uniqueness of the Mauritanian repatriates’ particular needs, rather than enforcing a rigid structure of unrelated or outdated guidelines on a different contextual setting.

Without a systemic and case-specific conflict transformation approach, the interaction of these dynamic elements - which, we can say, encompass a ‘dual function’ - with the remaining forces could, potentially, reignite the eco-social and cultural roots of the conflict itself; or more so, re-enforce forgotten traumas experienced during the refugees’ exodus, while expressing itself in the form of structural or political violence. This deadly blend of impulses could relate to the role within society which the repatriates may be ‘forced’ to take on upon their return; on the other hand, this could also reflect on their limited access to resources, services or employment opportunities.

A strategy with long-term positive effects is usually directed at improving the ‘connectors’ within the given scenario. We should note, however, that the focus of the analysis is not on resolving conflicts but on transforming the conflict conditions in the environments where they arise (Method Finder [n.d.], p. 7). Therefore thanks to the dissection of the networks as they exist, the peace agenda could have a positive effect on elements that generate tension, and the factors that cause division among the involved actors; in this case, the returning Mauritanians and the local population. In other words, this tool can assist us in better understanding a post-conflict scenario, while setting the foundations of a sustainable peace initiative.

To conclude, we must mention that in order to achieve a thorough and precise analysis of connectors and dividers in a post-conflict situation using Anderson’s table, this tool should be applied with an emphasis on participation (Monzon 2010, p. 34) ; which leads us to our next point.

3.2 Participatory Action Research

The Participatory Action-Research (PAR) tool was developed in order to render academic research more applicable to the needs of those being studied, and encourage them to actively participate in the research design, methodology and projected outcomes (Quixley 2008, p. 2). The aim of the approach is to produce both a body of research knowledge on priorities for a country beginning the post-conflict rebuilding task, and a process of consensus building that addresses the core issues at hand, which often relate to rebuilding relationships and trust between communities (Johannsen 2001, p. 6). In adition to this, the PAR tool also helps external actors identify how their projects and programmes may be customized in order for them to include the needs and priorities of vulnerable populations into them, while facilitating an understanding of the rebuilding tactics necessary and the resources available to achieve the outlined objectives (Johannsen 2001, p. 15).

In relevance to our case study, the PAR process can be used to highlight the importance of dialogue and interaction between the Mauritanian repatriates themselves, and in coherence with reintegrating into their ‘old’ – yet new – community. Furthermore, the close relationship between research and action within this approach allows for the implementation and use of the tool to adapt to events and new findings with time and at a pace set by those who are being ‘studied’ (Quixley 2008, p. 3); meaning, with a high degree of initiative and focus, the PAR could, potentially, result in great benefits not just for the smooth and sustainable reintegration of exiled Mauritanians, but also in ensuring grudges, prejudices and negative attitudes caused by the conflict have been eliminated and no longer pose a security or destabilizing threat to social cohesion.

An in-depth analysis of the local situation, with participation at its core, could ensure that those taking part also took ownership of the process and feel responsible for it. In order to achieve this, areas covered and topics to be addressed need to be decided upon collectively. The outcome dialogue would then raise more questions for the research, thus characterizing the whole process by action from within. As part of our hypothetical and methodological exploration, we can also mention that a network aimed at providing the ‘soft’ structure, which would allow all members of the community affected by the return of thousands of repatriates to become true partners, could contribute to the joint addressing of outstanding development problems (Johannsen 2001, p. 18). This could subsequently raise questions on preconceived notions about inequality, which is when previously discussed connectors and dividers could come into place, underlining the common values and dismissing the role and significance of hindering negative forces. It is due to its flexible methodology and research tactics that the PAR tool can, as we can see, be applied to scenarios with different post-conflict experiences and profiles, regardless of their nature and specificity.

3.3 A customised approach for a durable solution

As discussed in chapter two, the three durable solutions to the refugee ‘question’ emerge from the point of view of the host country, third countries and the international humanitarian regime; therefore they do not necessarily serve as a useful tool when analysing the needs of refugees or the options available to them in their daily life (Hansen 2008, p. 13). As neither of the tools proposed in the previous section should be perceived as a set of fixed actions, there is, clearly, no recipe for one entry point or strategy that can be applied universally and that will result in the results we desire.

By combining an analysis of connectors and dividers, alongside features presented in the PAR tool, I believe it is possible to develop a specific analytical framework which will be applicable and relevant only to our particular case study. While the scheme will allow us to broaden our understanding of the post-conflict scenario at hand, the framework will also demonstrate an innovative approach to development, social empowerment, and will encourage the long-term prospects of well-being and peace as experienced by Mauritanian repatriates seeking reintegration in the homeland.

3.3.1 The “Speak, Listen, Learn” (SLL) framework for sustainable reintegration

According to the Do No Harm framework (CLP [n.d.]), peace is holistic, dynamic and changing in every local setting. This concept of peace focuses not just on the transformation of relationships and structures within a society, but more so challenges the support systems that underlie the injustice projected against marginalized groups in a polarised society. In order to break away from these cycles of ‘recycled’ anguish and repetitive references to illegitimate animosities, we must adopt a series of transformative actions which tackle these transgressive elements from a different point of view. The Speak, Listen, Learn (SLL) framework presents an alternative approach to conflict transformation, based on three core layers of analysis based on principles of participation, innovation and empowerment.

  • Reconciliation through livelihood-sharing

Building livelihood security requires a co-ordinated approach between humanitarian agencies, government authorities and the communities themselves (Refugee livelihoods 2005, p. 37). Reconciliation mechanisms, which relate closely to issues of social reintegration, can help rebuild former (or new) social structures, and create the baseline for reliable access to services, land and employment opportunities and resources.

While successful reintegration must be accompanied by parallel efforts to build up local institutions that support and are in favour of this process, according to Young and Sing’Oei (2011) NGOs need to focus on supporting processes fostering mutual understanding by run projects and programmes which bring the central actors – in our case, the Mauritanian expatriates and local Mauritanians – together. Such initiatives can prove to be quite effective if they are designed to address the needs of both parties involved and are built on identities that cross former conflict lines, such as ethnicity, gender, class or race (Theissen 2004, p. 9). However, as NGOs and civil groups can hardly impact or fundamentally alter the structural constraints typically present in many conflict-ridden societies, these institutions and organisations can, in turn, play a central role in monitoring the rebuilding the justice system and ensuring the rights and needs of the marginalized are not excluded (Finding Durable Solutions 2013, p. 47).

An adaptation of customary land management regimes to accommodate the new arrivals could ensure secured access to local resources, while encouraging efforts aimed at diversifying livelihood capabilities (Young and Sing’Oei 2011). Furthermore, the formation of women’s cooperatives aimed at securing their access to livelihoods, in combination with a flexible micro-credit scheme, could have a far-reaching impact on the welfare and well-being of repatriated families (UNHCR 2009). Therefore, as reconciliation is a legitimate long-term vision, building capable institutions and secure livelihood approaches should be the first aim. Although it is up to the key actors themselves to reconcile with one another, the ownership of initiatives for reconciliation or institutions dealing with past injustices should be at the core of the participatory approach to livelihood sharing and reintegration (Theissen 2004, p. 12).

  • Community media

Communicating about issues across social boundaries can act as an important conflict resolution strategy (Young, and Sing’Oei, 2011 p. 11). A report produced by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) in 2011discusses how community radio in East African post-conflict scenarios is being used as a tool to mitigate and prevent conflict. As radio programmes allow for people to discuss a wide range of issues with a wide coverage and impact web, this could, in the Mauritanian context, create a promising forum for community members from both sides of the table to discuss how the conflict had affected them and how their experiences reflect on their current attitude toward the repatriation process.

Furthermore, while radio can act as a particularly effective communication means for rural communities in which literacy rates are low, these programmes could also provide act as a forum for raising awareness on the feelings shared between the locals and the exiled population, while giving a voice to those who haven’t had a chance to speak of their concerns and fears. By facilitating this type of informal dialogue, community media could be used as a strategy to diffuse tension – or its roots – while, at the same time, modeling a new approach to dispute mediation, reintegration and community reconciliation (Young, and Sing’Oei, 2011 pp. 28-30).

  • Participatory theatre

As we found through the conflict transformation analysis introduced at the beginning of chapter three, most elements that act as connectors within a post-conflict setting can also pose as dividers, depending on how we decide to analyse them. As is the case with ethnicity, although this powerful force may initially appear to connect the repatriated Mauritanian population with the locals, we must bear in mind it was this precise element that forced them into exile in the first place. This dangerous blend of push and pull factors sourced from the same principles, is present throughout a wide array of forces that create strong tendencies towards expressions of extremism within vulnerable societies characterized by social and cultural diversity.

Participatory theatre presents an opportunity to actively reflect on a specific issue together by using the stage as a place to explore new ways of expressing visions of the past and the future (SFCG [n.d.] p. 7). By inviting the audience to play a role in the solution to a problem - which are often difficult to discuss in regular settings - this interactive and engaging median encourages communities to challenge their differences, discuss their perceptions of themselves and others, and address their disagreements in a creative, yet personal, manner.

As an effective outlet for questions related to identity, values and experiences - which, as outlined in the connectors and dividers table, play a crucial part in forming relationships between members of a community and ground individuals in their beliefs and sense of belonging - participatory theatre can act as a mirror to problems related to the loss of land, traumas linked to being forced into exile and the identity crisis that (presumably) followed with the Mauritanian exodus to Senegal. This tool could, hereby, allow for these problems to be channeled out in a healthy way, while transforming the persistent elements of tension into opportunities for better communication, growth and development(SFCG [n.d.] p. 16).


As one of the most viable solution for dealing with the refugee ‘question’, voluntary repatriation is frequently being employed as a solution to a forced migration situation, primarily for reasons of durability (Hansen 2008, p. 17). Following the events of 1989, thousands of Mauritanians found themselves stateless and seeking refuge in neighbouring Senegal.

In March 2012, the UNHCR completed an extensive repatriation programme, which marked the return of part of the exiled population to their country of origin. However, this process has underlined the dire need to sustain the assistance received by repatriates in order to ensure the success of reitegration efforts. While the analysis of connectors and dividers can help define the starting points for the transformation of a complex post-conflict scenario, we also found that participatory action research contributes to creating a better understanding of respective actors, their interests and thus enabling us to develop system for addressing their needs accordingly.

One way of safeguarding the delicate peacebuilding process is to involve the former refugees themselves in participating in the design and implementation of programmes targeted at extending their livelihood capacity and strengthening their reciprocal relationship with the local community. Furthermore, a tailored approach to addressing the issues of conflict transformation, presented in this paper as the SLL framework, could contribute to creating long-term prospects of well-being and thus encouraging an environment of mutual respect and tolerance to flourish and grow.

While the implementation of a similar framework may be difficult to action, I believe the successful rollout and upkeep of any conflict transformation approach depend largely on local and state-level government support; not exclusively for financial reasons; but most importantly, it is the reliance on the interests of policy makers to ‘make things happen’ that leads to the endless recycling of long-forgotten traumas that resurface in times of change or increased tension. One can only hope that the lessons learnt from history will allow the repatriates, government and local communities in Mauritania to rebuild their lives based on the new circumstances and redefine themselves as citizens of a country they share, without judgment, persecution or hostility.

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