press releaseBy Mariama Mary Fall-Diaw
Richard Toll — Eighty-year-old Mauritanian refugee Fatou has seen a lot in her long life, but she still got excited when she went to pick up her new biometric identity card from the UN refugee agency.
"Finally I have it! I know I'm old and I won't use this card much but I'm happy to have it," she cried with delight after picking up the card at a school in Richard Toll, a town on Senegal's border with Mauritania. "At least I have an identity now. I exist," added Fatou, who was issued ID valid for only three months after fleeing to Senegal in 1989 with a daughter living with disability.
UNHCR, in partnership with the Senegalese government, recently launched a campaign to provide digitized and biometric ID cards to some 19,000 refugees by the end of this year. About 14,000, including Fatou, are from Mauritania and have said they do not wish to return home. More than 24,000 Mauritanians were repatriated from Senegal under a programme launched in 2008 and completed in March this year.
The cards include a picture of the holder as well as fingerprints and biographical data. They are aimed at easing local integration and they guarantee the holder the same rights as Senegalese citizens, including the right to residence in the country and to travel to member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). One of the things it does not grant is the right to vote. They are being distributed to all refugees aged five years or above.
Despite her age, Fatou was determined to collect her card and, with the help of a walking stick, she made her way slowly from her nearby village to a school in Richard Toll that was being used by UNHCR to process and hand out the relatively sophisticated cards, which store data about the holder.
The old lady left her homeland after a long-standing border dispute between Mauritania and Senegal escalated into ethnic violence in April 1989. Some 60,000 Mauritanians fled to Senegal and Mali. UNHCR provided assistance to the Mauritanian refugees in northern Senegal until 1995 and facilitated the reintegration of 35,000 refugees who decided on their own accord to return to Mauritania between 1996 and 1998.
Amy, aged 30, came to Mauritania as a child. She was also delighted about the new ID card, which she said would make life easier for her family. "My [three] children will be able to attend good schools with these cards," she said, adding: "We couldn't do anything without them. Banks wouldn't trust, us as no bank would want to lend money to someone who doesn't have a valid ID card and it's hard to start a business with no money."
She said that getting an ID card was very important for the refugees. "We've lived here more than 20 years with no official identification document. Can you imagine? Everywhere you go, it's the first thing you're asked for. It hurts when you don't have any... That's why we all came today to get them. Nobody went to work, the few people left at home are making lunch."
Aside from the 14,000 Mauritanians, Senegal also hosts some 5,000 other refugees from 18 different nationalities. They will also receive biometric ID cards. UNHCR has sent teams to remote areas to give ID cards to those who would otherwise have problems getting transportation to card distribution centres, mainly in northern Senegal.