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Mauritania (Tier 2 Watch List)

The Government of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. These efforts included implementing the Law on Associations (“NGO Law”), which allowed anti-slavery NGOs to operate more freely following a simplified registration process, establishing a permanent coordinating committee for anti-trafficking efforts, significantly increasing funding for the anti-trafficking national action plan (NAP), and initiating three hereditary slavery investigations. The government conducted public awareness campaigns and outreach to vulnerable populations, and it co-organized a sub-regional symposium on combating slavery. The Minister of Justice issued a judicial circular reiterating the importance of prosecuting slavery cases and awarding restitution to victims. However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity. Although the government demonstrated some commitment to address human trafficking and hereditary slavery, it did not implement existing measures to hold traffickers and slaveholders accountable or protect victims, and its efforts did not yield tangible results. The government did not prosecute or convict any alleged traffickers, and courts dismissed or reclassified all pending cases against alleged slaveholders from the previous reporting period. Officials did not identify any trafficking victims for the fourth consecutive year, and observers alleged that some officials had detained or harassed anti-slavery activists. Government agencies charged with combating trafficking and hereditary slavery continued to lack resources, training, and personnel; and reports of officials refusing to investigate or prosecute perpetrators persisted. Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Mauritania was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore Mauritania remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year.

  • Increase efforts to investigate and prosecute cases of human trafficking and hereditary slavery and sentence convicted traffickers and slaveholders to appropriate prison terms in accordance with the 2015 anti-slavery and 2020 anti-trafficking laws; refer all human trafficking and hereditary slavery cases to the anti-slavery courts.
  • Direct law enforcement to investigate all allegations of hereditary slavery and human trafficking and hold government officials accountable for failure to investigate such cases and for interference in ongoing investigations.
  • Develop standard procedures to identify and refer human trafficking and hereditary slavery victims to care, and train authorities on the procedures’ implementation.
  • Proactively screen for trafficking indicators among vulnerable populations, including irregular migrants, communities historically exploited in hereditary slavery, sexual abuse victims, women in commercial sex, and children exploited in forced begging; cease detaining, deporting, or otherwise penalizing potential victims.
  • Significantly increase training for law enforcement, prosecutors, and judicial officials on both the 2015 anti-slavery and 2020 anti-trafficking laws.
  • Provide adequate funding and dedicated prosecutors (procureurs), investigating magistrates, and trial judges for each of the anti-slavery courts.
  • Partner with NGOs to provide shelter and services to all trafficking victims, including adults.
  • Implement procedures to support human trafficking and hereditary slavery victims during investigations, including by ensuring access to legal assistance and protection from intimidation from alleged traffickers.
  • Increase protections for labor migrants and reduce risks to trafficking by regulating labor recruitment, enforcing provisions banning worker-paid recruitment fees, and investigating and prosecuting individuals accused of fraudulently recruiting Mauritanians for exploitation abroad.
  • Implement the anti-trafficking NAP to address human trafficking and hereditary slavery with input from civil society; and, as part of this effort, empower the Instance Nationale to act as the government’s permanent coordinating committee for anti-trafficking efforts.

The government decreased already insufficient anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. The 2020 Law on the Prevention and Punishment of Trafficking in Persons criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking, and it prescribed penalties of 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 250,000 to 500,000 Mauritanian ouguiya (MRU) ($6,760 to $13,510). These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The 2015 anti-slavery law criminalized hereditary slavery and prescribed sufficiently stringent penalties of five to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 250,000 to 500,000 MRU ($6,760 to $13,510).

As in previous years, the government did not report comprehensive law enforcement data. Due to the pandemic, courts were closed for four months of the reporting period. The government reported initiating three hereditary slavery investigations, compared with no investigations in the previous reporting period. Courts did not prosecute or convict any traffickers, compared with four prosecutions and convictions of three traffickers in absentia during the previous reporting period. None of the three traffickers convicted in absentia were serving their sentences, and authorities issued arrest warrants for all three traffickers during the previous reporting period. Pending cases before the anti-slavery courts were reclassified as non-slavery crimes, settled outside of the courts (a practice forbidden according to the law), or dismissed by authorities.

Three regional anti-slavery courts had exclusive jurisdiction over hereditary slavery cases; however, the courts lacked adequate staff, funding, and resources to investigate and prosecute hereditary slavery crimes throughout their regions. In practice, authorities did not automatically refer slavery cases to the anti-slavery courts. Rather than prosecuting alleged slaveholders, the courts continued to prosecute slander-related cases. The three courts received a total of 1.8 million MRU ($48,650), the same amount allocated the previous reporting period. The government opted not to rotate any of the existing anti-slavery court judges for the third consecutive year. Appointed judges received minimal specialized training on the 2015 anti-slavery and 2020 anti-trafficking laws. Unlike other topical courts, the anti-slavery courts did not have specialized prosecutors. The appeals court lacked training on the anti-slavery and anti-trafficking laws, impeding the anti-slavery courts’ effectiveness. The Commissariat of Human Rights (Commissariat) had the authority to introduce cases on behalf of victims of hereditary slavery but reportedly did not do so. The Ministry of Interior created the Central Office for the Suppression of Migrant Smuggling and Human Trafficking, a unit responsible for actively screening migrants for trafficking indicators. The government trained administrative, judicial, and security authorities on legal and institutional frameworks for combating human trafficking; it also held a roundtable with government and civil society stakeholders in collaboration with an international organization on the anti-slavery law and implementation barriers. However, an international organization reported the government did not adequately disseminate information or train judges, police, social services personnel, or NGO stakeholders on the 2020 anti-trafficking law. Law enforcement officials continued to lack sufficient understanding of human trafficking and hereditary slavery.

The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes; however, corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year. Some police, prosecutors, and investigative judges reportedly refused to investigate and try cases of hereditary slavery, and courts sometimes relied on lesser statutes to punish slavery crimes due to a lack of training. NGOs reported some local authorities encouraged victims and their families to resolve trafficking and hereditary slavery cases through social mediation rather than through the criminal justice system. Although prosecutors had a legal obligation to transfer hereditary slavery cases to the anti-slavery courts, some prosecutors encouraged victims to withdraw their complaints in exchange for a small amount of financial compensation. However, in October 2021, the Minister of Justice issued a judicial circular reiterating the importance of prosecuting slavery cases and awarding restitution to victims. Corrupt marabouts (Quranic teachers), suspected of exploiting talibés (Quranic students) in forced begging, were rarely prosecuted and usually entered agreements with prosecutors to drop cases. Although not explicitly reported as human trafficking, the UN organization reported there were two new allegations submitted in 2021 of alleged sexual exploitation with trafficking indicators by Mauritanian peacekeepers deployed to the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (CAR). There were also pending allegations of sexual exploitation against Mauritanian peacekeepers deployed to CAR reported in previous years, including two reported in 2020, one in 2019, and one in 2017. The government had not yet reported the accountability measures taken, if any, for the open cases at the end of the reporting period.

The government maintained negligible efforts to identify and protect trafficking victims. The government did not report identifying any trafficking victims for the fourth consecutive year. The government did not have formal procedures to identify trafficking victims or refer them to care, but the Ministry of Social Affairs (MASEF) continued using existing referral procedures for child victims of crime. Border agents were provided a manual, produced by an international organization that detailed victim identification procedures, but agents did not consistently use it. An NGO reported identifying and providing care to 1,881 vulnerable children and adults, which may have included some trafficking victims. NGOs noted government-employed social workers lacked training to identify trafficking victims, including in domestic work and commercial sex, and did not know where to refer identified victims for care.

NGOs continued to provide the majority of protective services to trafficking victims, including shelter, medical, psychological, legal, social, and educational assistance, without government financial or in-kind support. MASEF managed seven centers nationwide for the short-term protection and social integration of vulnerable children, including potential trafficking victims, with financial support from an NGO; one of the centers in Nouakchott provided overnight care for child victims of crime. MASEF operated six regional centers that provided short-term care to vulnerable children with disabilities, including potential trafficking victims. MASEF centers provided care to 860 vulnerable children, including some potential trafficking victims. The MASEF generally referred victims to NGOs for long-term care. MASEF centers resumed daytime services for vulnerable families, including psycho-social, food, and vocational assistance, which it had previously suspended due to the pandemic. The government operated one day center in Nouadhibou for adult female victims of sexual violence, including potential trafficking victims, and placed them with host families at night; the center also accommodated migrant and refugee women and girls. However, shelter and services for adult victims remained severely inadequate. Foreign nationals and Mauritanian victims were eligible for the same services. Foreign national victims who faced hardship or retribution in their country of origin could apply for asylum or refugee status, but authorities did not report granting these protections to any victims.

The government did not have a formal policy to encourage victims to assist in investigations and prosecutions against their alleged traffickers, nor did it report providing any services, including witness protection or confidentiality protocols, to protect victims from threats or intimidation from their traffickers. NGOs reported the government often brought victims and accused traffickers together when conducting interviews, which placed enormous pressure on victims to change their testimony. Pursuant to existing laws, access to victim services was not conditioned on cooperation with law enforcement; however, this provision was not always respected, and officials sometimes required victims to participate in law enforcement proceedings to receive services. The 2015 anti-slavery law called for comprehensive legal assistance for victims of hereditary slavery and the creation of support centers in each province. The government operationalized legal aid offices, which were available to all victims of crime, in all regions and allocated 10 million MRU ($270,270) to their operation, the same amount allocated the previous year. It also allocated an additional 3.6 million MRU ($97,300) for legal assistance to trafficking victims. However, the government did not report providing such legal assistance to any victims. The law allowed victims to obtain restitution, although the complex and opaque legal system made such efforts extremely difficult. Courts did not award restitution to any victims, compared with awarding 500,000 MRU ($13,510) in restitution to four victims during the previous reporting period; the government did not report whether the previously awarded restitution was paid. Victims could also file civil suits against their traffickers, although victims lacked awareness of this option. According to an NGO, victims filed two civil suits against their traffickers during the previous reporting period but have not yet received compensation.

Due to a lack of formal identification procedures, authorities may have detained or deported some unidentified trafficking victims, including victims of domestic servitude and sex trafficking under fornication and adultery charges. Law enforcement officials jailed women suspected of engaging in commercial sex and held irregular migrants in detention until their refugee status was resolved without screening for trafficking.

The government maintained efforts to prevent human trafficking. The Commissariat, under the direction of the prime minister’s office, coordinated the human rights inter-ministerial committee, which was responsible for implementing the government’s anti-trafficking NAP and met twice. Additionally, the Ministry of Justice, Commissariat, and an international organization created a sub-committee to coordinate anti-slavery efforts in collaboration with the human rights inter-ministerial committee. The government allocated 10 million MRU ($270,270) to implement the NAP, a significant increase from 5.4 million MRU ($145,950) allocated the previous year. In March 2022, the government adopted the implementing decree establishing the Instance Nationale, a designated committee charged with coordinating the government’s nation-wide anti-trafficking response, as called for in the 2020 anti-trafficking law.

The government, in collaboration with civil society, held awareness campaigns and workshops to engage local and civil society leaders and increase public awareness of the anti-slavery and trafficking laws, particularly among vulnerable communities. In March 2022, the government co-chaired a sub-regional symposium on slavery. The symposium marked the first of its kind to take place in Mauritania and included civil society actors from Europe, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, and the United States. The Agency for National Solidarity and the Fight Against Exclusion (Taazour) provided substantial socioeconomic support to vulnerable populations, including communities traditionally subjected to hereditary slavery. The government made some efforts to combat child forced begging, including conducting visits to some mahadras (Quranic schools) and working with religious leaders to raise awareness of child protection issues. The government provided financial support to an NGO hotline for victims of crime, including trafficking; the hotline assisted 336 victims of sexual violence, including some potential trafficking victims. Despite efforts to raise awareness, some local officials reportedly denied the existence of slavery, and some high-level officials claimed NGOs and anti-slavery activists fabricated or overstated the number of cases.

The government adopted the NGO Law implementing decree, allowing all NGOs, including anti-slavery NGOs, to legally operate in the country following a simplified registration process. In December 2021, several NGOs, including anti-slavery NGOs, registered and began operations. Some critics reported the law contained administrative barriers that may have been burdensome to smaller NGOs and permitted the government to suspend NGOs engaged in activities that “threaten the country’s morals.” There were no reports the government prevented anti-slavery activists from operating in Mauritania; however, authorities allegedly harassed and detained some activists. Observers claimed officials retaliated against an NGO worker after the organization criticized the government’s handling of a slavery-related investigation. Authorities also detained four individuals—including NGO activists, a survivor of slavery, and a journalist—while they were investigating an alleged slavery case. The government made efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts by arresting and convicting buyers of commercial sex; however, officials also arrested potential trafficking victims during these operations.

Under a 2003 agreement with Spain, Mauritania received deported migrants, including its citizens and third-country nationals presumed to have transited Mauritania en route to Spain. According to international organizations, the government processed and transported these migrants to the Senegal and Mali borders, within hours of arriving in Nouadhibou, without systematically screening for trafficking or allowing international organizations to offer protective services. Authorities were, however, reportedly responsive to international organization requests for screening when civil society actors identified potential trafficking victims among the migrants. NGOs and media reports alleged officials detained some migrants without due process, placed unaccompanied children in detention with adults, abused migrants during arrest and detention, and failed to provide access to adequate facilities, including food and sanitation.

The Ministry of Labor hired 15 new labor inspectors and provided some training on child trafficking and child labor. However, the government lacked the capacity to regulate the large informal sector, where most cases of forced labor occurred. Despite reports of labor abuses, including potential indicators of trafficking, the government rarely inspected fishing vessels, processing plants, and boat factories. The government did not effectively regulate foreign labor recruiters or penalize them for fraudulent recruitment. Although the law prohibited worker-paid recruitment fees, the government’s limited capacity hindered its ability to enforce this provision. The government continued working with an international organization to study the scope of forced labor in Mauritania. In 2021, the government lifted identity documentation requirements for secondary school that had previously restricted access to education, especially among communities traditionally exploited in hereditary slavery. In partnership with an international organization, officials continued to issue identification cards to Malian refugees—as well as birth certificates to Malian refugee children born in Mauritania—in Mbera camp. The government signed a memorandum of understanding with an international organization to formalize the organization’s role in facilitating and accelerating issuance of refugee documentation in urban areas. The government collaborated with the same organization to register vulnerable refugees in its national social protection program. The government provided peacekeepers with pre-deployment briefings on human rights, including trafficking, prior to their deployment. Although not explicitly reported as human trafficking, there were six open cases of alleged sexual exploitation with trafficking indicators by Mauritanian peacekeepers deployed to the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Mauritania, and traffickers exploit victims from Mauritania abroad. Adults and children from traditional slave castes in the Haratine (Black Moor) and Afro-Mauritanian (Halpulaar, Soninke, and Wolof) 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 forced labor and hereditary slavery do not exist, local and international experts state hereditary slavery continues to affect a small, but not insignificant, portion of the country’s population in both rural and urban settings. Many survivors of slavery and their descendants remain in dependent relationships with the family of their former slaveholders due in part to cultural traditions as well as a lack of skills and alternate economic opportunities; some survivors reportedly continue to work for their former masters or others under exploitative conditions to retain access to land they had traditionally farmed. Corrupt marabouts force boys from Mauritania and other West African countries who study at mahadras to beg for food and money; boys from low-income families in the Halpulaar community and increasingly children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. According to a 2018 survey, more than 50 percent of Mauritanian children younger than the age of five lack birth certificates. It is especially difficult for children of Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian descent to obtain birth certificates, resulting in their denial of services, education, and assistance, and increasing vulnerability to trafficking. Fraudulent recruiters promise Mauritanian women and girls—especially those from the traditional slave castes and Afro-Mauritanian communities—shelter and education but force them into domestic servitude, especially in larger cities such as Nouakchott, Nouadhibou, and Rosso. Children of Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian descent working in the fisheries sector are vulnerable to forced labor. Traffickers reportedly coerce some women and children to smuggle illicit drugs.

West African women and girls, especially Senegalese and Ivoirians, are vulnerable to domestic servitude and sex trafficking in Mauritania. Traffickers also exploit Senegalese children in fishing, domestic work, drug production, and sex trafficking. Migrants and refugees in Nouadhibou have reportedly engaged in commercial sex due to their dire financial situations, increasing their vulnerability to sex trafficking. Mauritanian, Nigerian, and Senegalese traffickers in the port city of Nouadhibou exploited Sub-Saharan African migrants transiting Mauritania en route to Morocco and Europe in forced labor and sex trafficking. Foreign agencies and Mauritanian intermediaries fraudulently recruit Mauritanian women for nursing and teaching jobs abroad and subsequently exploit them in domestic servitude and sex trafficking in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. Traffickers from Middle Eastern and North African countries fraudulently enter into marriages with Mauritanian girls and young women, facilitated by brokers and travel agencies in both Mauritania and the Middle East; the traffickers promise substantial payments to the family and subsequently exploit the girls and women in sex trafficking in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future