Hors Camp

There is no road to Aghor. The village emerges from a trail worn by off-road vehicles, which meanders between copses of acacia trees and herds of goats and camels. Situated about 20 kilometres from Mauritania’s eastern border with Mali, and more than 1,200 kilometres east of the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, Aghor is the largest settlement in the sparsely populated rural commune of Megve, with a population of three thousand or so. One could be forgiven for thinking that local politics here have little bearing on the national or regional stage.

In December 2023, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani received a letter from Aghor’s mayor about the growing presence of Malian refugees, whose tarpaulin tents and huts had been springing up on the village periphery since August that year. Relations between locals and the refugee population had so far been amicable, with efforts made to provide for the new arrivals. But their number was now on par with that of the village residents and the influx showed no sign of abating. With lean season approaching and local water sources already strained, the situation was, the mayor wrote, becoming untenable. A number of other villages in Mauritania’s sprawling south-eastern Hodh El-Chargui region found themselves in a similar predicament. On the outskirts of its capital Nema, within the border communities of Fassala, Amourj and Bousteila, and around the market town of Bassikounou, there were more and more Malian nationals seeking refuge from the conflict in their home country.

This is what the UNHCR refers to as ‘hors camp’ – indicating those who have not been accommodated within the M’bera refugee camp also located in Hodh El-Chargui, southwest of Aghor. While M’bera’s population has fluctuated over its twelve-year lifespan, it has recently reached unprecedented numbers, coming close to 100,000. The ‘hors camp’ population, meanwhile, is estimated to be over 80,000, posing a serious challenge to Mauritania’s extant model of refugee resettlement.

The M’bera camp was built shortly after a coup d’état in Mali that coincided with a resurgence of conflict between Tuareg separatists, the Malian army and jihadist militants. In 2013, the French government launched Operation Serval, a tactically limited military intervention in northern Mali aimed at quelling an advance of jihadist groups towards the south. Emboldened by its success, the mission was expanded to the entirety of the Sahel in the form of Operation Barkhane. But much like the global War on Terror, of which Barkhane was a provincial iteration, the French counterinsurgency against jihadist violence merely seemed to multiply it.

Ten years into this vicious circle, the Sahel’s populations had grown weary, as had its armed forces. In August 2020, a military coup in Mali set the script for others in Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, each of which was accompanied by mass mobilizations against Western intervention. In response to these protests, Sahelian military leaders suspended not only French diplomatic and military missions, but also those of the EU, the UN and the US. Russian security actors entered the fold instead, lending their weight to the counterinsurgency in Mali, which has rapidly intensified. Recent arrivals in Aghor spoke of a merciless approach to suspected ‘terrorists’, with reports of summary executions and the routine burning of crops and livestock by counterinsurgency forces. Combined with an aerial drone campaign, this gloves-off approach has accelerated the flight into eastern Mauritania over the past year.

The UNHCR has begun to discourage new arrivals from joining the camp. It continues to coordinate basic services for those already settled in M’bera, but amid squeezed budgets and growing demand, it has advised recent migrants to install themselves in local communities – whose resources are often overstretched. As a result, a profound disparity has opened up between those within the camp and those outside it. Some discerning Mauritanians from surrounding areas have even claimed to be Malian refugees so as to gain access to M’bera’s better services.

To ease this imbalance, the UNHCR is seeking to share the burden with the Mauritanian state, sparse as its presence may be in places like Aghor. This means support is to be offered to the government in providing essentials, rather than constructing new water towers under the auspices of the UNHCR or international aid agencies. There has also been a discursive shift: the informal settlement around Aghor is now described as a ‘welcome site’ rather than a ‘camp’, thereby relieving the UNHCR of its formal governance mandate; though for many residents of Aghor this distinction is yet to sink in.

The Mauritanian government has encouraged this transition. Since 2018, it has pushed to integrate refugees into a range of state services: health, education, social insurance, the national civil registry. This allows it to check off a number of commitments made under the Global Compact for Refugees while also affording more control over its eastern border regions. Whereas the EU is preoccupied with the country’s western maritime border, given increased migrant arrivals on the Canary Islands, Mauritanian politicians have insisted that the security situation on its eastern frontier is more pressing – with reports of Mauritanian nationals being killed in drone strikes while crossing from Mali as well as Tuareg militants entering M’bera.

In recent months these tensions have threatened to boil over. Following the alleged killing and burning of a number of Mauritanians by Malian armed forces and Russian mercenaries in April, the Malian ambassador to Nouakchott was summoned and the Mauritanian defence minister flew to Bamako. The Mauritanian government has since come out strongly against Malian incursions into its territory, promising to defend Mauritanian nationals both within its border and beyond it.

Of course, had French colonial whims differed, Mauritania would not have any jurisdiction in this region. For much of the colonial period, Hodh El-Chargui was part of the Soudan Français, the French colonial precursor to the Malian state. The modern-day border between Mauritania and Mali was created by a 1944 colonial decree which expanded the territorial scope of the colony of Mauritania eastward into what had previously been French Sudanese territory. The logic was incipiently ethno-national, insofar as it sought to incorporate into the colonial territory of Mauritania as many ‘Moors’ as possible. Malian forces are now seeking to invert such ethno-territorial expansionism, with videos circulating online of soldiers removing Mauritanian flags and erecting Malian ones in villages near the border.

Among some self-proclaimed pan-Africanists, this newfound irredentism is part of a regional shift away from French colonial influence. If nothing else, it indicates the multiplication of interests and claims that has followed the collapse of unrivalled Western hegemony in the Sahel over the past four years. In its place, we are now seeing distinct geopolitical camps staking out their claims – with Russian security partners on the one hand, and a beleaguered Western military, diplomatic and cultural presence on the other. For the EU, Mauritania’s strategic significance lies not only in its migration profile, but also in its status as one of a shrinking cohort of Western partners in the region.

Mauritania itself is ambivalent about how to respond to this new conjuncture. While Niger has repealed an EU-backed migrant smuggling law and suspended EU capacity-building missions in the country, Mauritania has decided to enhance its EU security cooperation – most recently in the form of a migration partnership deal, stridently opposed by much of the Mauritanian population. At the same time, however, it has ruled out any US military presence in the country and has kept diplomatic and economic channels open with Sahelian military leaders, even as they have come under international sanctions.

How Mauritania positions itself in this emergent period of inter-imperial rivalry will partly depend on how things play out in places like Aghor. The possibility that Mauritania’s foreign policy could mediate between its Western partners and Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso was already distant, but it has further diminished as Malian incursions have become more frequent and intense. For those living in the border region, meanwhile, the continued influx of refugees, combined with the non-encampment policy for new arrivals, may inflame a highly precarious situation.

Read on: Rahmane Idrissa, ‘Mapping the Sahel’, NLR 132.