MAURITANIA: Tier 3
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. Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government took some steps to address trafficking. As mandated by the 2015 anti-slavery law, the government opened three regional courts to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over human trafficking and hereditary slavery cases and prosecuted and convicted two slaveholders—its first convictions under the 2015 anti-slavery law and its first two convictions for any trafficking offense since 2011. The anti-slavery courts did not receive adequate funding, however, and the government did not train judges on the 2003 anti-trafficking or 2015 anti-slavery laws, which limited the government’s overall effectiveness in investigating and prosecuting such cases. 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. Although NGOs documented over 7,100 cases of child domestic workers with indicators of forced labor and police identified more than 649 child slavery and forced begging victims in 2016, the government did not investigate any of those cases or remove the victims from their situations of exploitation. Tadamoun, the government agency mandated to address poverty and the “vestiges of slavery,” continued to make efforts to reduce socio-economic inequality but did not fulfill its role to submit criminal cases on behalf of victims and represent victims in cases against their alleged traffickers or slaveholders. 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.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR MAURITANIA
Significantly increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers and slaveholders with sufficiently stringent sentences using the 2003 anti-trafficking and 2015 anti-slavery laws; hold government officials accountable for trafficking-related complicity, including the failure to investigate alleged slavery offenses and efforts to interfere with ongoing investigations; sufficiently fund the anti-slavery courts and train prosecutors and judicial officials on the 2003 anti-trafficking and 2015 anti-slavery laws; provide victims with easier access to legal assistance, and enhance Tadamoun’s efforts to submit criminal claims on behalf of victims; protect victims who participate in legal investigations from intimidation and threats from their alleged traffickers or slaveholders; develop standard procedures to identify and refer trafficking and slavery victims to services, and train law enforcement on such measures; in partnership with NGOs, increase efforts to provide protective services and vocational training to victims; investigate and prosecute individuals accused of fraudulently recruiting Mauritanians abroad for exploitation; with input from civil society, develop and implement a plan to provide economic resources—through monetary or property allotment—to former slaves and members of traditional slave castes to allow them the opportunity to leave their communities of enslavement, if they so choose; devote staff to implement the national anti-trafficking action plan; raise public awareness of trafficking, including hereditary slavery and the 2015 anti-slavery law; and legally recognize all legitimate anti-trafficking and anti-slavery NGOs, including the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement.
The government modestly increased anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. The 2003 Law Against Trafficking in Persons prohibits almost all forms of trafficking and prescribes penalties of five to 10 years imprisonment, which are sufficiently stringent and exceed those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The 2015 anti-slavery law criminalizes hereditary slavery and prescribes sufficiently stringent penalties of five to 20 years imprisonment, which exceed penalties for other serious crimes. The law also includes prohibitions on forced marriage. The 2015 anti-slavery law mandated the creation of regional anti-slavery courts with exclusive jurisdiction over trafficking and slavery cases, and the government opened and made operational all three courts during the reporting period; the courts are located in Nema, Nouakchott, and Nouadhibou. The courts lacked the staff, funding, and resources to investigate and prosecute trafficking and slavery crimes throughout their regions, and none of the appointed judges were specifically trained to address the unique challenges of investigating slavery cases, including how to prevent slaveholders from intimidating victims and victims from withdrawing their cases.
The anti-slavery courts received 47 cases for investigation under the 2015 anti-slavery law involving at least 53 suspects and prosecuted and convicted two slaveholders, compared with two investigations and no prosecutions or convictions the previous reporting period. The Nema anti-slavery court completed one investigation from the previous reporting period that led to the conviction of two defendants for slaveholding; the court sentenced them to five years imprisonment, with one year to be served and four years suspended. Each defendant also had to pay a fine of 100,000 Mauritanian ouguiya (MRO) ($282) and one million MRO ($2,817) in damages to each of the two victims. These were the government’s first convictions under the 2015 anti-slavery law and its first convictions for a trafficking or slavery offense since 2011; with the suspension of most of the prison time for both convicted slaveholders, however, the judge minimized the deterrent effect of these law enforcement measures. Forty-six slavery investigations remained pending among the three regional courts, including 17 cases from the previous reporting period. The special brigade for minors identified more than 649 child slavery and child forced begging victims in 2016; the government did not report launching investigations into suspected traffickers or slaveholders in any of the cases. During the reporting period, the Nouakchott Court of Appeals ruled in favor of two former slaves who were appealing the leniency of their slaveholder’s 2011 sentence. While the court upheld the original prison sentence of two years with release after three months, which the defendant had already served, it increased the victims’ compensation, ordering the defendant to pay a total of 2,248,000 MRO ($6,332).
Efforts to address hereditary slavery remained weak. Despite its directive to do so, Tadamoun did not submit any criminal claims on behalf of victims during the reporting period. The 2015 anti-slavery law authorizes human rights associations that have been legally established and operating for at least five years to bring forward criminal charges on behalf of victims; however, this authorization bars one of the country’s leading anti-slavery NGOs—which the government has not legally recognized—from bringing forward such claims. During the reporting period, reports emerged that authorities tortured members of this anti-slavery organization while they were in police custody for alleged participation in a riot; several of the members were acquitted of all charges or had convictions overturned, and some advocates claimed the alleged torture was intended to discourage them from future anti-slavery advocacy. During the previous reporting period, the government had sentenced three activists to two years imprisonment for anti-slavery advocacy. In May 2016, the government reduced the sentences of the two activists who were still in prison from two years to one year imprisonment—after they had already served 18 months—and released them from prison, but it did not overturn their convictions. The government continued investigations from previous reporting periods into a tribal leader and former military colonel for alleged complicity in human trafficking; it did not report any prosecutions or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking offenses. Serious corruption and complicity concerns remained, including reports of police, prosecutors, and judges who refused to investigate and try cases of hereditary slavery and heavy governmental influence over the judiciary, which restricted its independence. Reports persisted that prosecutors and judges often prosecuted alleged slave owners for lesser offenses to avoid bringing a slavery case to trial, calling into question the political will of law enforcement and judiciary officials to address such crimes. Despite the government’s recognition that law enforcement and judicial officials lacked critical understanding of how to conduct trafficking investigations and the 2015 anti-slavery law, it did not provide training during the reporting period.
The government maintained minimal efforts to protect trafficking victims, including those exploited in hereditary slavery. The special brigade for minors identified more than 649 child slavery and child forced begging victims, and courts reported at least 46 victims were involved in 46 investigations. NGOs did not collect comprehensive trafficking victim statistics, but several reported identifying significant numbers of potential child trafficking victims in 2016. NGOs identified 6,353 cases of abuse of child domestic workers—an indicator of forced labor, and a second identified 1,258 child labor victims who were deprived of proper care or public services, marginalized, or living in difficult conditions and isolated areas—which increased their vulnerability to human trafficking. The government did not report removing any children from exploitative situations, referring them to care, or investigating the potential forced labor offenses. Twenty-four Mauritanian females were identified in domestic servitude in the Gulf states during the reporting period.
The government did not provide financial or in-kind support to NGOs that continued to provide the majority of protective services to trafficking victims. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Childhood, and the Family (MASEF) continued to manage seven public centers for the protection and social integration of children, which child trafficking victims could access. The centers provided services to 540 children during the reporting period, an increase from 373 children the previous reporting period; however, it is unclear how many were trafficking victims. The special brigade for minors had the authority to refer children to the centers, but it is unclear if they did so in practice and if other law enforcement knew these procedures. The government allocated 35 million MRO ($98,600) to these facilities to fund staff and psycho-social assistance—a significant decrease from 76.9 million MRO ($217,000) allocated the previous reporting period. The facilities only provided short-term protections, and even in situations of trafficking, staff generally returned children to their families or the imams who had facilitated their exploitation. MASEF sometimes referred children to other government centers or NGO facilities for additional care and vocational training; it is unclear how this referral mechanism worked and if any trafficking victims received additional services. There are no shelters dedicated specifically to trafficking victims, nor are there shelters available for adult trafficking victims; victims must depart MASEF centers at age 18. Tadamoun could offer assistance to slavery victims, commonly in the form of income-generating activities; it reported providing assistance to 61 slavery victims since 2013, although it was unclear how many—if any—received assistance during the reporting period and how victims could access this assistance. The lack of long-term rehabilitative care rendered victims vulnerable to re-trafficking after identification.
The 2015 anti-slavery law provides for comprehensive legal assistance for victims of hereditary slavery, requiring officials to provide them information on their rights and exempt them from judicial fees; however, it is unclear whether the government applied such provisions during the reporting period. The law also mandated the creation of support centers to facilitate such assistance in each province, but no such centers were established during the reporting period. The law allows for the government to provide victim compensation, but officials did not report if any victims received compensation during the reporting period. While victims may seek restitution from their traffickers, the complex and opaque legal system made such efforts extremely difficult. There were no reports the government detained, fined, or jailed victims for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, but the absence of measures to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations was likely to have led to some victims being penalized. For example, officials often jailed women suspected of prostitution and held illegal migrants in detention until their refugee status had been resolved. In 2016, the Ministry of Interior deported 5,800 foreign residents to their countries of origin and did not screen for indicators of trafficking. Mauritania does not provide legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they may face hardship or retribution.
The government maintained modest efforts to prevent human trafficking. No single government agency was responsible for leading national anti-trafficking efforts, which hampered the government’s effectiveness. The government did not finalize its draft national action plan. It did not provide staff to implement its 2014-2017 roadmap to fight the vestiges of slavery—a separate plan drafted in collaboration with an international organization—as it had committed to doing the previous reporting period. The inter-ministerial anti-trafficking committee, which reports to the prime minister and was responsible for the implementation of the action plan, met three times during the reporting period, compared with twice the previous reporting period, but did not make tangible efforts to implement the plan. Tadamoun continued to construct schools and provide income-generating activities in poverty-stricken areas, focusing particularly on communities of slave descendants and groups vulnerable to exploitation. In partnership with international organizations, the government organized two workshops on trafficking. The first workshop addressed the rights of children in Quranic schools, encouraging the modernization of the schools’ learning methods and underlining legal protections available to students, in an attempt to reduce occurrences of forced begging. The second workshop trained 50 magistrates and 50 court clerks on the definition of trafficking, the difference between human trafficking and illegal immigration, and a review of international and national frameworks that address trafficking; the training did not address the 2015 anti-slavery law. The government continued its campaign to register all citizens and foreign residents and to issue secure biometric identity documents; despite these efforts, however, a significant portion of children continued to lack identity documents, which prevented some from enrolling in school and increased their vulnerability to trafficking. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for forced labor or commercial sex acts. Despite large groups of Mauritanians fraudulently recruited for work abroad, the government did not make efforts to oversee labor recruitment or investigate labor recruiters or brokers allegedly involved in fraudulent recruitment. The government did not provide anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel. A foreign donor provided human rights training that included an anti-trafficking element to Mauritanian troops before their deployment abroad on international peacekeeping missions.
As reported over the past five years, Mauritania is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Adults and children from traditional slave castes in the Black Moor and Afro-Mauritanian communities are subjected to hereditary slavery practices rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships, where they are often forced to work without pay as cattle herders and domestic servants. Although reliable data on the total number of slaves does not exist, local and international experts agree hereditary slavery continues to affect a significant portion of the country’s population in both rural and urban settings. Separately, some boys from Mauritania and other West African countries who study at Quranic schools are forced to beg for food and money to pay corrupt imams. Boys from low-income families in the Halpulaar community are most vulnerable to forced begging by unethical imams. Street gangs force Mauritanian children to beg and sell drugs in Nouakchott. Approximately 41 percent of Mauritanian children lack birth certificates and are thus generally not permitted to enroll in school, which increases their risk for trafficking. Mauritanian women and girls—especially those from the traditional slave castes and Afro-Mauritanian communities, as well as women and girls from Mali, Senegal, The Gambia, and other West African countries—are forced into domestic servitude in Mauritania, sometimes by recruiters who fraudulently promise parents they will provide shelter and education for the children. West African women and girls are vulnerable to domestic servitude and sex trafficking in Mauritania. Sub-Saharan African migrants transit Mauritania en route to Morocco and Europe, where some are exploited in forced labor and sex trafficking. Mauritanian women and girls are fraudulently recruited by foreign recruitment agencies and Mauritanian middlemen for nursing and teaching jobs abroad and exploited in forced labor and sex trafficking in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. Men from Middle Eastern and North African countries use legally contracted temporary marriages to sexually exploit Mauritanian girls and young women. Mauritanian women and girls from poor families enter into these forced marriages, facilitated by brokers and travel agencies in both Mauritania and in the Middle East promising substantial payment, and are exploited as sex slaves in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. During the reporting period, international authorities identified and removed from a refugee camp in southeastern Mauritania six Malian child soldiers who had been forced to work as cooks, porters, servants, and messengers for rebel groups in Mali. Due to the proximity between the countries and their porous borders, it is possible that Malian armed groups also forcibly recruited some Mauritanian children.