GENEVA, June 22 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday welcomed the Mauritanian government's decision to allow some 20,000 refugees to return home from neighbouring Mali and Senegal, where some of them have spent almost two decades in exile. The Mauritanian decision coincided with this year's World Refugee Day, which fell on Wednesday this week.
"UNHCR is very happy about this development and we will work closely with all concerned parties to ensure the smooth, dignified and secure return of all those who volunteer for such an option," said Radhouane Nouicer, the Geneva-based director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The refugee agency will in the coming weeks work out the modalities of return with the Mauritanian, Senegalese and Malian governments as well as with the refugees. At the same time, UNHCR will assess and register the number of people willing to return from Mali and Senegal.
In 1989, a long-standing dispute between Mauritania and Senegal over the location of their common border escalated into ethnic violence. Tens of thousands of Mauritanian southerners fled to Senegal and Mali, while many Moorish citizens of Senegal moved to Mauritania.
Many have returned spontaneously to both countries since 1989, but considerable numbers remain. They have been waiting for the right moment to return with assistance and guarantees for their safety.
Most of the refugees from Mauritania live in makeshift settlements along a 600-kilometre stretch of the Senegal River Valley, bordering Mauritania. In Mali, most of the refugees are settled in areas close to the border with Mauritania.
The refugees have maintained strong ties with their homeland and continue to claim their Mauritanian identity. At the same time, they have tried to integrate as best as possible. UNHCR has provided support.