Saturday, August 15, 2015

Fleeing Mauritanian Slavery

Slavery is a matter of hereditary caste in traditional Saharan and Sahelian cultures. Because his mother was an unpaid domestic laborer, Ahmet Falla was preordained for the same fate. There's a family in Mauritania that considers him their property.
"If I'd stayed in Mauritania, I'd have had to work without pay for my whole life," Falla said in French. "I have no rights down there." That's why Falla is in Germany as an asylum applicant. "If I returned to Mauritania, the family that thinks of me as their property might kill me as a punishment for my having fled," Falla said. "I'd rather kill himself than go back."

Falla's prospects for being granted asylum in Germany are slim. Slavery was officially abolished in Mauritania in 1981, and holding slaves was criminalized in 2007. Officially, slavery no longer exists. The German government classifies some countries - Syria and Eritrea, for example - as particularly dangerous or repressive places to which asylum applicants cannot be sent back home. It doesn't classify Mauritania that way.

De facto slavery remains widespread in Mauritania. Mauritanian society was traditionally organized into clans - large extended families - with the clans divided into various castes. Occupations were hereditary: Islamic scholars, musicians, artisans and workers of various kinds, domestic and agricultural slaves - everyone inherited their roles and their social status. In theory, the system no longer exists, but in practice it's still very much alive and quite difficult to escape.

The problem has three elements. First, though there are laws against slavery, they're scarcely enforced. Second, many Mauritanians are illiterate or live in remote rural settings, and have no knowledge of their legal rights. Third, and perhaps most difficult to overcome: People who leave their clans to escape their hereditary status have few real options. They often move to one of Mauritania's towns, where they're shunned. No one gives them work or lends them money to start a business. They live in poverty on the margins of society.

In that light, it isn't hard to understand why Ahmet Falla doesn't want to go back to Mauritania. It's something of a miracle that he managed to leave the country in the first place. If necessary, he'll go to ground in Europe, and live a life without a residency permit, without the right to find a job, without insurance, on the margins. "Better that," he said, "than slavery."

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