The Atlantic Route to Europe and the Border Regime in Mauritania

by Hassan Ould Moctar who completed his PhD in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London. His doctoral research examines the effects of EU border externalisation in Mauritania, and was supported by the National University of Ireland.

In a laneway in central Nouakchott in December 2017, a small group was gathered near an informal car washing site that they had carved out of the urban environment for themselves. Here, Mustafa[1] had a captive audience in several young Malian, Guinean and Mauritanian men, who listened entranced to his first-hand accounts of the clashes at the Spanish-Moroccan border fence at Ceuta. He described the barbed wire at the top of the fence that tore the skin from his back, the batons of the Moroccan security forces that greeted him as he fell back to the earth, the orders to “break their legs” issued by the head of the Moroccan forces. Zein, an energetic youth from war-torn northern Mali, gazed determinedly into the distance as these stories were regaled. “I’m going there, insha’Allah.” To my surprise, however, a few weeks after this conversation took place it was not Zein but Sidi, another member of the same group, who had left for Morocco on a mission to get a boat from Tangier across the strait of Gibraltar to Spain.

For his part, Mustafa no longer wanted to make the journey to Europe. Instead, he told me, he planned to work in Mauritania before eventually earning enough money to start a business back home. For him and countless others on the margins of Mauritanian society, this means floating in and out of informal employment as car washers, bricklayers, street vendors, electricians, plumbers, domestic workers, and other such precarious activities in Nouakchott. Crucially, however, the fact that many of these racialised migrant workers have no intention of reaching Europe has not prevented European border policies from reaching them.

Pioneering externalised migration and border governance

In recent years, Mauritanian state territory has provided Europe-bound travellers with both an overland route to Spanish territory via Morocco and a more treacherous sea route across the Atlantic to the Canary Islands. This dual positioning means that Mauritania occupies a key strategic position within the EU border regime’s architecture of suppressing Europe-bound movement. This architecture was significantly bolstered in 2006, when Spain deployed an array of military and technological resources along the coasts of Mauritania with EU support, following an increase of arrivals on the Canary Islands that year. These offshore maritime surveillance operations were a watershed moment in the development of externalisation as a strategy of EU migration and border governance. For the first time, European boats and helicopters were deployed alongside West African forces in the joint task of patrolling irregular migration. In the years that followed, these militarised defensive externalisation measures were supplemented by more subtle and deep-seated preventative ones. Oriented around the slippery concept of “underlying causes of irregular migration”, the latter entailed cash injections of development aid and civil society initiatives. But in each case, the underlying principle of suppressing the right to free movement – lest it be oriented toward Europe – has remained constant.

This irredeemably Eurocentric approach to migration stands in contrast to that which had subtly underpinned earlier decades of Mauritanian independence. During this period, immigration went largely unregulated, but also played a structural economic role. In the years following the externalisation measures of 2006, the Eurocentric view of migration was further embedded through the publication of the Mauritanian national migration strategy. Drawn up by EU technical experts and launched by the Mauritanian government in 2010, the strategy put forth a long-term response to the 2006 arrivals on the Canary Islands through its “comprehensive” approach to migration management. On paper, this meant presenting militarised security measures and more developmental “root cause” approaches to be of equal priority. In practice, however, the former has progressed well ahead of the latter. This has primarily taken the form of a border infrastructure project, aimed at upgrading the state’s territorial entry and exit points and centralising the data collected at them. At the same time, the Seahorse Operations have ensured that West African coasts remain technologically and militarily fortified against unwanted sea departures. Collectively, these measures embed what is at origin a Eurocentric conception of migration management within the Mauritanian state, equipping it to more efficiently detect and prevent “potential candidates for irregular migration” at “source”.

The macabre cycle

As indicated by Sidi’s example, however, any regional migration policy approach that is premised upon the suppression of free movement is structurally (and, in a sense, deliberately) destined to fail. Indeed, despite all of the defensive and preventative measures that have been put in place to avoid a re-occurrence of the events of 2006, the Canary Islands have over the past year once again become a locus of the human catastrophe created by the EU border regime. Within a regional context of escalating conflict-induced displacement and structural unemployment exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, an EU-financed strengthening of border controls in Libya and Morocco has pushed greater numbers south to attempt the far more treacherous sea route. Arrivals in Spain last year consequently exceeded those of 2006, making the Atlantic route to Europe the most frequented of 2020.

As a direct result, the death rate on this route also skyrocketed in 2020. Numerous deaths and incidents were reported off the coasts of Senegal and Mauritania, including the loss of 140 Senegalese nationals in a single shipwreck in October. In all likelihood, the number of dead on the Atlantic route has surpassed the 1,000 who perished in the Atlantic in 2006, perhaps even reaching twice this figure, making it the most lethal maritime passage to Europe. It has long been observed that the strengthening of border controls only heightens their financial and human cost. The human displacement and structural unemployment currently facing the Sahel region has brought this fact into sharp, stark, relief.

And yet, the immediate response to these developments has been a ratcheting up of externalised border management in Mauritania. In November 2020, a Spanish Guardia Civil maritime patrol aircraft was deployed to the capital of Nouakchott to provide naval and surveillance support to the Mauritanian coast guard in their interceptions of Europe-bound travellers. Deportations from the Canary Islands to Mauritania – temporarily suspended in light of the COVID-19 pandemic – were also reinitiated in November, bringing a readmission agreement signed between Spain and Mauritania in 2003 back into force. Under the terms of this agreement, Mauritania is obliged to readmit not only its own nationals, but also individuals deemed to have transited through Mauritanian state territory. This endows the three deportation flights from Spain to Mauritania that were carried out in January and February 2021 with a legal basis. But it is a questionable one, given that 36 of the 51 individuals on board the second flight were from Mali, where violence has displaced swathes of people across the centre and north of the country.

The month of February 2021 also saw a renewed crackdown by security forces on migrants in Mauritania’s urban centres, with deportations of people arrested on the shorelines in the northern port city of Nouadhibou, as well as in the town centre and within disadvantaged areas of Nouakchott. When in the hands of security forces in Mauritania, however, the border regime’s operational mandate invariably becomes enmeshed within a social context that is deeply polarised along racial and class lines. These social schisms predate the arrival in Mauritania of EU migration management protocol, but for this very reason, they definitively shape how it unfolds in the country.

Illegalisation and exclusion in Mauritania

In the laneway in Nouakchott, Zein, Mustafa, and their companions scattered in all directions as a police car pulled up to their informal car washing site. No arrests were made on this occasion, but the cleaning materials that the workers left behind them were duly confiscated by the authorities. Raids such as these were a regular occurrence across Nouakchott during my fieldwork period in Mauritania, but they became particularly prominent in the months leading up to an African Union summit that was held in the capital in July 2018. Zein told me about the ominous warning that was issued to them by authorities a few weeks before the summit: “Car washing is formally forbidden here now. If we come here, either we go to prison or get deported. That’s what they told us.” For migrant workers, the fact of being deportable is thus inextricably bound up in how the state treats those on the racialised margins of the urban informal economy more broadly.

This pre-existing structural exclusion has, however, been deeply exacerbated by the Eurocentric policy obsession with “potential candidates for irregular migration.” As far as informal migrant workers like Mustafa, Sidi, and Zein are concerned, it is impossible to regularise oneself on Mauritanian state territory. While bilateral agreements ensure that Malian and Senegalese nationals can reside in the country visa-free for up to three months, anyone who exceeds this length of time is legally obliged to obtain a residence permit. At present, the administrative requirements to obtain the permit include a medical certificate, a tenancy agreement, an employer contract, a judicial record issued by Mauritanian authorities, and a 3,000 UM fee (roughly €75). This lengthy list of bureaucratic requirements means that the residence permit belongs to a realm entirely distinct from the informal one in which the overwhelming majority of migrant workers in Mauritania get by. As a consequence, they form a vast pool of illegalised migrants, from which the state can draw to arrest and deport whenever the need to crackdown on “potential candidates for irregular migration” arises.

While Mustafa no longer wishes to reach Europe, he thus still has to reckon with the everyday uncertainty of undocumented status in Nouakchott. He once narrowly evaded deportation after being arrested for lacking a permit, following an intervention by his employer at the police station. Many others are not so lucky. In a call with European counterparts in July 2020, Mauritanian Minister of Interior Mohamed Salem Ould Zerzoug, spoke of 9,000 irregular migrants being deported from the country in the space of a year. Moreover, the policing operations that precede these deportations often take on a distinctly racialised character. According to human rights campaigners in the country, it is exclusively West Africans who are targeted during migration policing raids. In the words of one journalist I interviewed (Nouakchott, 26/2/2018), “the Moroccan nationals, for example, we’ve never seen them being chased left and right.” Numerous accounts were also related to me of police harassing and detaining Afro-Mauritanian citizens whom they suspected of being “illegal” migrants. This landscape of racialised policing and urban marginalisation is the context into which the Eurocentric imperative of detecting and deporting “potential candidates for irregular migration” takes form.

Conclusion: Enmeshed Mauritanian and European regimes of exclusion

This pre-existing social context is of little importance to the logic of the EU border regime. Its primary objective is quite simply to ensure that the small segment of the world’s disenfranchised population that does attempt to reach Europe should face conditions that are sufficiently precarious, violent, and lethal as to discourage as many others as possible from following their example. As regards those who, by choice or coercion, remain in countries such as Mauritania, their experience of racialised urban marginalisation is now supplemented by this Eurocentric strategy of identifying and deterring “potential candidates for irregular migration.” The result is an enmeshment of hitherto distinct regimes of violence, precarity, and exclusion.


[1] All names of migrants in the piece are pseudonyms.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Nach oben scrollen