The U.N. High Commission for Refugees is signing an agreement to repatriate more than 10,000 Mauritanian refugees who have been in Senegal for almost two decades. Analysts say this is a much-needed repatriation, but warn ethnic divisions may sour the homecoming. Selah Hennessy reports from the VOA West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar.
Government officials from Mauritania and Senegal joined the U.N. organization in Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, to sign the agreement.
U.N. High Commission for Refugees field officer Alphonse Munyaneza says the agreement sets out the framework for the repatriation of about 12,000 refugees.
"We are turning a page," he said. "For me the Mauritanian government wants to close a sombre chapter in the history and they want to consolidate the national unity."
More than 60,000 dark-skinned Mauritanians fled the country in the late 1980s following ethnic-purges by the Arab-dominated government of former dictator Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya.
About half have returned to Mauritania in recent years. Now a new government, elected earlier this year, has invited the remaining refugees to return home.
Munyaneza says the government of Mauritania is working hard to ensure the repatriation runs smoothly.
"The government of Mauritania has agreed to restore the citizenship for the refugees so that they receive their ID cards back and they are receiving their rights back - rights to land, rights to property," he said. "It is really a major step that is taking place there."
But analyst Kissy Agyeman of the London-based research group Global Insight says some fears have been raised about how well the refugees will be treated when they arrive back in their homeland.
"An NGO whose mandate is to ensure the safe return of the refugees, they recently alleged that some returnees were in fact incarcerated just recently and they say that this is demonstrative of the suspicion that the returning refugees will not be given equal status in Mauritania," she said.
Agyeman says Mauritania President Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi has made it one of his priorities to heal the divisions within his country.
But, she says, ethnic division remains rife.
"You have got very distinct groups in the country and the blacks of Mauritania have long claimed that they have been marginalized from the higher echelons of society and from holding government positions and so-forth; so it is very much an issue," said Agyeman.
UNHCR representative Munyaneza says repatriation will begin in December. He says a pilot group will be sent first, to test the process and ensure that the refugees will be well-received.
He says the most important issue at this point is making sure the Mauritanian government commits to the financial investment needed to make the process work.