• Lynn Tramonte

USTR Terminates Mauritanian Trade Preferences Due to “Scourge of Hereditary Slavery”

Columbus, OH – Recognizing that “Mauritania continues to have the highest prevalence of hereditary slavery in the world,” the Office of the United States Trade Representative announced the termination of Mauritania’s trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The Mauritanian government’s lack of progress on and commitment to ending slavery was cited, along with its crack down on human rights advocates.

“Specifically, Mauritania has made insufficient progress toward combating forced labor, in particular the scourge of hereditary slavery. In addition, the Government of Mauritania continues to restrict the ability of civil society to work freely to address anti-slavery issues,” the Office of the USTR said in a statement.

Still, the U.S. government continues to deport Black Mauritanians at risk of arrest, extortion, slavery, and worse to a country that considers them non-citizens and dissenters.

Ahmed Tidiane, a Columbus leader with African Immigrant Relief, said: “We are very happy to see the US Government taking action against Mauritania based on its record of human rights violations and slavery which continues in the country today. However, we want the US Government to recognize that these violations of human rights also mean that people should not be deported there. We expect more sanctions to come until Mauritania completely complies with human rights laws.”

Tidiane continued: “Our main goal is to have the cases of all Mauritanians living in the United States with deportation orders reconsidered, and appear before a judge. The country has changed since these cases were decided. Aziz came into power--and remained in power--by force. There are arrests and human rights violations happening on a daily basis. Deporting people to Mauritania only helps the government there. The government considers them opponents, enemies of the state. They are issuing temporary travel documents to these people so that they can be arrested and tortured when they are returned. The U.S. government should not deport people into this situation.”

“We are also demanding the immediate release of human rights defenders who remain detained in Mauritania to this day, including Biram Dah Abeid,” Tidiane concluded.

The USTR is the third major Trump administration office--in addition to the First Lady Melania Trump--to criticize the rampant human rights abuses occurring in Mauritania today. Meanwhile, the same administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to deport individuals who are most vulnerable to these practices, without care for the consequences.

The CIA World Factbook for 2017 includes these searing indictments about human rights abuses in Mauritania today:

The denial of education to black Moors also helps to perpetuate slavery. Although Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 (the last country in the world to do so) and made it a criminal offense in 2007, the millenniums-old practice persists largely because anti-slavery laws are rarely enforced and the custom is so ingrained….
Mauritania is a source and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking; adults and children from traditional slave castes are subjected to slavery-related practices rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships….
[A]nti-trafficking law enforcement efforts were negligible; one slavery case identified by an NGO was investigated, but no prosecutions or convictions were made, including among the 4,000 child labor cases NGOs referred to the police; the 2007 anti-slavery law remains ineffective because it requires slaves, most of whom are illiterate, to file their own legal complaint, and the government agency that can submit claims on them did not file any in 2014; authorities arrested, prosecuted, and convicted several anti-slavery activists; NGOs continued to provide the majority of protective services to trafficking victims without support from the government.

The State Department’s “2017 Trafficking in Persons Report” states:

The Government of Mauritania does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so; therefore, Mauritania remained on Tier 3…. The government continued to prevent certain anti-slavery groups from bringing forward criminal charges against slaveholders by not officially recognizing such organizations, and it allegedly tortured some of those advocates. Despite long-standing reports that prosecutors and judges refused to prosecute alleged slaveholders or prosecuted them for lesser offenses to avoid bringing a slavery case to trial, the government did not investigate these claims…. Government agencies charged with combating trafficking and slavery continued to lack the resources, personnel, and political will to prosecute politically connected offenders, and there remained a fundamental lack of commitment to make serious and sustained efforts to combat hereditary slavery.

“It’s clear from this announcement that the Trump administration itself realizes and is taking action based on the fact that there is still slavery in Mauritania, and its consequences are rampant. Human rights activists are not able to do things such as get together to march or conduct simple organizing business without reprimand. It is time for the Trump administration to take notice that the ‘country conditions’ have not changed for the better, and as a result they should stop deporting Mauritanians in the US to a country that will violate their every right and very humanity,” said Houleye Thiam, another leader with African Immigrant Relief.

As the Washington Post wrote in the editorial, “ICE is sending Mauritanians back to modern-day slavery,” the Trump administration’s own analysis of conditions in Mauritania “provides an obvious reason for the administration to use its discretion and spare unauthorized Mauritanians who have lived productive lives in the United States from the possibility of a horrific fate. But discretion and common sense have not been the hallmarks of this administration’s immigration policy. The result, in this and other cases, is tragedy and suffering.”

This is why a team of non-profit and private attorneys is working together to combat the Trump administration’s reckless insistence on deportation, filing emergency stays of deportation and motions to reopen the individuals’ deportation cases.

Julie Nemecek, one of the leaders of the legal effort and a representative of African Immigrant Relief, said: “The Trump administration has officially recognized and denounced the prevalence of slavery in Mauritania. To say that this is not a good thing would be disingenuous. But the real question is will Donald Trump take the next step and issue an executive order calling upon ICE to immediately cease in the apprehension and deportation of all Black Mauritanians living in the United States? Will Donald Trump uphold international human rights laws and principles by taking action to stop the deportation of an entire class of immigrants into modern-day slavery? The clock is ticking.”

Lawyers working on the Mauritanian deportation crisis have filed sixteen emergency stay applications and motions to reopen. Eleven of these stays have been granted, and only three have been denied.

Still, more legal resources are needed to get lawyers to other Black Mauritanians at grave risk if they are deported, which is why African Immigrant Relief is teaming up with the Ohio Immigrant Alliance and Cleveland Jobs with Justice to raise money for legal fees, bonds, and related expenses (text to donate ATHOME to 44321)

For more information on deportations to Mauritania and the modern-day human rights crisis unfolding there, read this backgrounder from America’s Voice and this op-ed from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

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