The Ministry of Defence of Mauritania declared the establishment of an indefinite military exclusion zone on July 12th, along the country’s northeastern border. This decision has been made in response to ongoing insecurity in the region due to the proliferation of militant groups. Primarily focused on the borders of Algeria and Mali, the Ministry of Defence aims at halting kidnapping and smuggling operations affecting the stability of its borders. Authorities in Mauritania have said that any civilians found in or entering the military exclusion zone will be treated as military targets.
Mauritania has seen an influx of both refugees and militants since the 2012 coup d’état in Mali. This led to an influx of al-Qaeda into Mali resulting in a security crisis which exasperated the ongoing refugee dilemma. The UNHCR and other international organizations provided aid to ease the tensions in the region but were not successful in bringing security to Mauritania. Because of increasing drug, weapon, and human trafficking, the Mauritanian Ministry of Defence decided to take action. This action, in conjunction with the ongoing political debate over an upcoming constitutional referendum vote, may lead to instability both within Mauritania and with the countries which border it.
On July 12, 2017, the Ministry of Defence declared a military exclusion zone in efforts to bring stability back to its borders. A few days later, Mauritanian army seized a vehicle laden with weapons which reports suggest came from the Tindouf Camp in Algeria. The vehicle was spotted using aerial surveillance placed in the region after the closing of the borders. The individuals found on board the vehicle were linked to a network of drug traffickers. With its first successful operation in the region following the establishment of the exclusion zones, the Mauritanian government may gain popular support in politically contested areas.
The military exclusion zone extends from Ain Be Tili (Tiris Zemmour region) in the northwest to Dahr Tichit (Tagant region) in the southwest to Mauritania’s eastern borders with Algeria, Mali, and Western Sahara. The affected area will include about half the country, including the military exclusion zone and areas bordering the zone. The population of Mauritania is only approximately 4 million people; of which, nearly 1 million live in the capital city of Nouakchott. The impacted area of Mauritania is mainly rural with a low population density. However, with the high number of refugees and local population in the zone, a massive migration of individuals to the capital or surrounding cities is likely.
Currently, Mauritania receives financial aid from multiple countries and non-profits through efforts made by the UNHCR. According to a report from July 15, 2017, 19.4 million dollars were requested for a UNHCR operation in Mauritania. The establishment of a military exclusion zone may halt these efforts as the UNHCR factors the situation. According to the same report, approximately 51,000 Malian refugees reside in eastern Mauritania. While many choose to stay in Mauritania, some had made efforts to leave. In 2017, 298 Malian refugees returned home despite ongoing conflict in the country. The new military exclusion zone would treat these refugees returning home as military targets and, in the event a refugee is impacted by such decision making, may spark international attention.
In addition to the aid that the UNHCR is planning to provide, the organization is actively working with the Mauritanian government to adopt a national refugee legislation. This would establish a national asylum law and increase the protections given to refugees once they arrive. Despite efforts by the UNHCR, it seems the Mauritanian government has other plans. The military exclusion zone, without a way of safe passage, shows its reluctance to promote the rights of refugees. Additionally, the upcoming constitutional referendum vote would completely restructure the way in which legislation is passed in the country. With both of these factors taken into account, a UNHCR solution is unlikely.
While the series of events that have unfolded will impact Mauritania and the people that reside within it the most, there are implications of regional instability as well. These types of wide-scale escalations have historically resulted in an antagonizing response. Similar to the events following the cut of diplomatic ties to Qatar, countries within the region will have very few choices in response. Countries can choose to either abstain completely from the issue as it possibly resolves itself, impose a stricter border control in response, or seek aid from the international community. While the exact demographics of individuals residing in Mauritania from surrounding nations isn’t clear, expats will definitely play a large role in resolving this issue.
In the meantime, the refugee crisis in Europe continues to grow. With many refugees traveling to Europe from Northern Africa, what happens as a response to recent developments in the region may have a greater geopolitical impact. Many European nations have shown their apathy towards refugees from the region. Recently, the EU restricted exports of inflatable boats to Libya, a hotspot for refugees traveling into Italy over the Mediterranean Sea. While the military exclusion zone has been reported to be indefinite, it’s only a matter of time before other parties get involved.