Mauritania faces the Canary Islands, gateway to Europe and, at the same time, it is on the edge of the Sahara giving access to North Africa. For many years now, it has served as a transit zone for migrants coming from different countries of Africa who want to go to Europe. Their arrival is often linked to political events or war situations in their countries of origin. So we have seen at different times, waves of people from the DRC, Nigeria, Cameroon, and (at the time of Gbagbo crisis) from Côte d’Ivoire. The list is not exhaustive!
When I arrived in the country in 1995, it was still possible to leave for Europe or America by ship from Nouadhibou which is the principal port and economic capital of Mauritania, providing one had the necessary documentation. Then, for a number of years, there was the terrible period when people left on little boats, little more than canoes, only designed for coastal fishing. In our estimation only one out of two canoes ever reached the Canary Islands! The arrival of FRONTEX (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) at Nouadhibou put an end to this slaughter.
Since then, we are faced with a new situation: migrants continue to arrive but find themselves in a cul-de-sac. This means that they look for a place to stay and to work. The Church, especially the parish of Nouadhibou run by the Spiritans, has always been at the side of this migrant population, both at a time when they could hope to continue their journey and at the present time.
Little by little, things began to get organised. National Associations of people from different countries were set up thanks to the initiative of the Parish Priest. These took the responsibility to welcome the new arrivals. A dispensary, run by a religious sister, is at their disposition as well as legal advice. However, the main work is training: languages, computers, computer maintenance, sewing, hairdressing, dyeing, cooking and pastry-making, just to mention the most important.
An unforeseen consequence, but welcome all the same, has seen the local population, men and women, enrolling and profiting from this opportunity to learn foreign languages such as English, French and Spanish. This, in turn, favours integration.
The same thing goes for the Library, where our confrere, Georges Salles, has invested a lot of his energy since his arrival last year. In fact, he is a real pearl!| He coordinates the training programmes. Other people involved are some religious sisters or the migrants themselves, many of whom have many strings to their bow.
We do not and have never put pressure on people wishing to move on or to discourage them from undertaking this adventure. In fact, a certain number of them give up any idea of going further thanks to the qualifications they have obtained as a result of their training. They find work in Nouadhibou or Nouakchott. Others say that the diplomas they have received at the end of their training means they can now return home without losing face.
This all sounds very positive, but we cannot hide the reality that the situation of foreigners in Mauritania is becoming more and more difficult. As in many countries, Mauritania wants to favour its own nationals in the jobs market. To achieve this, the administration had made residence permit very costly and difficult to obtain.
Before I finish, I would like to say a word about our little Church in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. It is exclusively composed of non nationals from the Bishop down. To sum up, we are all migrants! Some are here for three generations while others are here for only a few days or a few weeks.
In these times of massive pressure on the country by the fundamentalist wing of Wahhabi Islam, of which even the representatives of traditional Islam (Sunni Maliki) are afraid, it seems that our presence in peaceful coexistence and in a spirit of dialogue is more important than ever! The presence of a community of White Fathers is therefore very appropriate.
Father Martin Happe
Bishop of Nouakchott