After Algeria started requiring visas for Syrians last year, Mauritania became the only country in North Africa that offered visa-free travel for Syrians. They flew into Nouakchott, the capital, from Turkey or Lebanon.
Officially, there is still no visa requirement for Syrians, but starting in February, dozens of Syrians have been turned back after arriving at the airport in Nouakchott.
Mohamed Abdellahi Ould Zeidane, from Mauritania’s interior ministry, confirmed that a prior agreement on visa-free travel with Syria was no longer valid.
Abdelaziz Abderzak, a doctor from Darah in southern Syria, moved to Mauritania as war broke out in earnest in 2012.
“Our family has lost many of its members, including children. The survivors, besides me, are between Jordan and border villages in Israel,” he said. “I left a son in Algiers who I can no longer see.”
Abderzak came to Mauritania alone, but has since met and married a fellow Syrian. The couple now live with their two-year-old son, Mohamed, in Nouakchott, where he works as a pharmacist. Despite being born in Mauritania, Mohamed is essentially stateless. “Other than his refugee card from UNHCR, he is without papers,” said Abderzak.
The question of papers is crucial for many of the Syrian refugees in Mauritania who view the poor, mainly Muslim country as a temporary refuge and are hoping for resettlement to Europe or the United States. “Without documents we cannot move, and as Arab countries do not want us, the hope of families who want to continue is in the West,” Abderzak explained.
Helena Pes, a public information officer with UNHCR in Mauritania, said that the cases of 30 Syrians had been submitted for resettlement in 2016.*
She noted that many Syrian refugees in Mauritania struggle to find work, despite being highly educated. “It is difficult for them to find employment in Nouakchott while being overqualified,” she told IRIN.
Zeidane, of the interior ministry, said the government had offered to accommodate the Syrians in a camp, but that they had refused and instead settled in Block C, a neighbourhood of Nouakchott.
“Most of them have become beggars, cramming themselves into rented flats with several other families,” he told IRIN, adding that in the last year, more had been approaching UNHCR to apply for refugee status in the hope of being resettled elsewhere.
UNHCR has now registered 405 Syrians, split between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, the economic capital. The figure does not include those hoping to make their own way to Europe who pass through the country. “Many Syrians are moving towards Europe, via southeast Mauritania to northern Mali and Algeria. We are developing a project to better identify them with the International Organization for Migration (IOM),” said Pes.
“Mauritania is a prime hub for illegal immigration towards Europe,” confirmed Momme Ducros, a spokeperson with IOM.
UNHCR is assisting the most vulnerable Syrians who remain in Mauritania to pay for their food, medical and schooling costs.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 40 Syrians had been accepted for resettlement.
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