A breakdown recently occurred in negotiations between the European Union (EU) and Mauritania over a new fisheries protocol ; the protocol is a cornerstone of relations between the two, albeit a contentious one. The previous partnership agreement (expiring at the end of 2014) contained somewhat progressive measures, thanks to the lobbying efforts of local fishermen and activists. However, these measures may now be at risk of reversal due to the breakdown in recent negotiations. Having been the most vocal opponent of the equitable steps contained within the previous agreement, Spain has once again voiced its discontent following the latest collapse in negotiations, alleging discrimination against the Spanish fleet.
This is not the only area of cooperation between the EU and Mauritania that Spain has had an active role in shaping : Mauritania is currently in the process of implementing a national migration strategy to establish a long-term policy for dealing with irregular migration. The need for such a strategy became a public issue in 2006 following a Spanish media frenzy around a sudden increase in the number of sub-Saharan migrants arriving in the Canary Islands from Senegal and Mauritania, and the strategy was developed in 2010. Although effectively a non-issue in Mauritania before that time, the fact that irregular migration constituted a problem for the EU, and for Spain in particular, meant that it was soon to be treated as a problem in Mauritanian discourse and policy as well.
As a thought experiment, what might a juxtaposition of the progression of these two areas of cooperation reveal ? Is there any consistent underlying logic that might be teased out ?
On the one hand, the EU has succeeded in exporting “migration” as a policy issue to Mauritania. In treating Mauritania as “a transit country” from 2006, the EU ensured that all of the restrictive and preventative measures that this classification is seen to necessitate have been firmly embedded in Mauritanian policy considerations. On the other hand, since 1987, EU-Mauritania fisheries agreements have granted European national fleets privileged access to Mauritanian waters. These agreements often have devastating consequences for local artisanal fishermen whose fishing canoes have been no match for the large industrial trawlers.
If one is tempted to view these two issues as being disparate and unrelated, consider, for example, the fact that the coastal waters that European trawlers are given access to are the very same waters that came under the jurisdiction of Frontex, the European border agency, in 2006—the same year that migration began to be discussed as a “problem.” The Frontex presence began with an operation led by the Spanish Guardia Civil aimed at intercepting and detaining migrants attempting to reach the Canary Islands by boat.
However, the connection is more substantive than this. Accounting for fifty percent of export revenue and twenty-nine percent of GDP, the fisheries sector is an essential element of the Mauritanian economy, and is in fact composed primarily of migrants from West Africa. The Senegalese alone make up seventy percent of fishermen working in Mauritania.  In the port city of Nouadhibou in particular, fisheries have long constituted a central component of the local economy, with West African migrants at its backbone. The vitality of migrants to the fisheries sector, as well as to a variety of other areas of the Mauritanian economy, is indicative of how far removed the EU’s representation of migration (as an existential threat to be limited and restricted) is from the role that it has played in the Mauritanian context.
Following independence in 1960, the process of urban and industrial development generated a demand for labor in the expanding areas of construction, mining, and fisheries. Given the nature of the traditional division of labor within the Mauritanian Moorish society, the ruling elite was content to have foreign migrants fill these labor market shortages in the interest of generating national wealth. Mauritania signed bilateral agreements with Mali, Senegal, and Gambia in the 1960s that allowed for the free circulation of people between these countries. The fact that human mobility is ingrained in the country’s nomadic history likely meant that within the context of a burgeoning nation-state, migration was viewed as a benevolent and naturally occurring phenomenon,  one that could be strategically harnessed for economic purposes. Indeed, the legislation designed to regulate it was not only liberal in its provisions, but also rarely enforced in practice. For the large part, migration simply regulated itself informally.
Migration into Mauritania thus remained relatively unrestricted for decades ; despite Mauritania’s withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 2000, it retained bilateral agreements with many of its member states ensuring the free circulation of people within ECOWAS’s territory. No wonder then that by this time, migrants had come to constitute seven percent of the Mauritanian population,  filling an integral role within several areas of the economy, best exemplified perhaps by the fisheries sector.
In 2006, the laissez-faire approach to migration was gradually undermined and subordinated to European, and in particular Spanish, concerns about sub-Saharan migrants’ attempts to reach European shores. In the wake of the deadly events at the border fence of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in September 2005, the Western Sahara border with Mauritania was closed off to migrants. Reaching the Canary Islands from Nouadhibou in Mauritania now became the most viable option for migrants wishing to enter Europe. In the months that followed, African migrants set off in canoes from Nouadhibou destined for the Canary Islands in increasing numbers. Alarmed by the sudden influx, Spain appealed to the EU for assistance in curbing the flow of irregular migrants arriving on its shores.
As the number of arrivals continued to rise into 2006—along with the number of lives lost at sea—Frontex coordinated a military operation led by the Spanish Guardia Civil, dubbed Hera. It consisted of patrol boats, helicopters, and planes, as well as 150 Guardia Civil forces stationed on Mauritanian soil.  The operational goal was to bring a complete halt to irregular migration to the Canary Islands from departure points in Senegal and Mauritania, in particular from Nouadhibou. In joint operations with the Guardia Civil, Mauritanian authorities also preemptively detained those suspected of “preparing to migrate” and sent them to a detention center in Nouadhibou that the Spanish authorities established in order to facilitate their deportation to their country of origin.
Nicknamed “Guantanamito” (little Guantanamo) by the residents of Nouadhibou, between two and three hundred migrants per month were brought to the detention center over the course of 2006. In a 2008 report, Amnesty International condemned the conditions migrants faced awaiting deportation in the center, highlighting evidence of abuses by Mauritanian authorities, as well as the fact that the collective expulsion of migrants had no basis in Mauritanian law. The report notes that the act of punishing people by means of arbitrary detention and forced expulsion without any legal underpinning constitutes a violation of essential principles of international law. The report also accuses Spain and the EU of externalizing the issue of migration beyond Europe’s southern borders, turning countries like Mauritania into “Europe’s policemen.” Despite (or perhaps because of) these flagrant abuses, the operation achieved its goals ; by 2007 the flow of migrants from Nouadhibou to the Canary Islands had virtually stopped. Moreover, 2006 saw the establishment of a branch of the International Organization for Migration in Nouakchott in 2006 and the launch in June of that year of Spain’s “Africa Plan,” which sought to include African nations in migration management.
Rarely discussed the year before, the notion of immigration as a “policy problem” had been firmly instilled in Mauritania.
Meanwhile, the livelihoods of Mauritania’s fishing community continued to be undermined by the one hundred European trawlers given access to their waters under the terms of the 2006 Mauritania-EU Fisheries Partnership Agreement. . Coupled with the aggressive anti-migration operations, these policies have resulted in a double-devaluation of this local fishing community : The policy of preemptively detaining those who may have been preparing to migrate created an atmosphere of discrimination and suspicion toward all dark-skinned “foreigners” in Nouadhibou. In this transformed landscape, settled migrants, transit migrants, and black Mauritanians were all subsumed under the category of “potential illegal immigrant,” ergo criminal. The fishing community, overwhelmingly comprised of West African migrants as previously mentioned, felt these suspicions most acutely.
Additionally, years of over-exploitation of fish resources by foreign vessels have caused a need for local artisanal fishermen to spend increasing amounts of time at sea in the hope of bringing in a sizable catch from a severely depleted stock. Although difficult to quantify, it is not unreasonable to assume that fishermen whose livelihoods had been destroyed by the presence of foreign vessels in their waters constituted a portion of the migrants who decided to make the journey to the Canary Islands over the course of 2005 and 2006.
It is illuminating to place the recent suspension of negotiations over the new fisheries protocol within this general context. This is particularly the case considering the Spanish claim that European fleets are being discriminated against because of Mauritanian efforts to protect certain fish categories from further over-exploitation. The progressive measures contained within the previous protocol were the result of the direct input of the artisanal fishing community, which had been included in negotiations for the first time. And similarly in that instance, the Spanish stance was one of vehement opposition.
These positions are an expression of the same asymmetric power relation that caused such a rapid deterioration of a decades-old (even centuries-old) indigenous tolerance of migration. While the resulting policies were a success from the point of view of European priorities, their execution entailed significant human rights abuses and resulted in a total alteration of the manner in which migration has traditionally been perceived in Mauritania, disrupting important social and economic structures. This altered conception of migration is now institutionalized in the form of a Mauritanian national migration strategy that Mauritanian authorities crafted in 2010 in coordination with Spain and the EU. With negotiations on a new fisheries protocol stalled, it is difficult to say whether Spain’s grievances will result in a rescinding of the mildly progressive steps that the 2012 protocol contained. However if there is any form of logic connecting Spain’s role in fisheries protocol negotiations to that of shaping Mauritania’s approach to migration, it consists of facilitating the transfer of natural wealth from Mauritania’s coastlines to Europe, while ensuring that certain categories of people are systematically denied any comparable level of mobility.
by Hassan Ould Moctar
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