ICE is Shipping Ohio's Mauritanians Back to Slavery's Last Stronghold in Northwest Africa

The Humanitarian Crisis in Our Backyard

ICE is Shipping Ohio's Mauritanians Back to Slavery's Last Stronghold in Northwest Africa
Davonte Butler/ UndocuBlack Network

Seyni Malick Diagne is a native of Mauritania, an Islamic republic on the edge of the Sahara Desert in Northwest Africa. But the 64-year-old is also an Ohioan. From 2001 until June of last year, Diagne lived in Columbus, where he was part of the nation's largest community of Mauritanian refugees and immigrants.

Like the roughly 6,000 other Mauritanians who have made Ohio home, Diagne was expelled from his native country in the late 1980s. A dispute with Senegal on Mauritania's southern border erupted into violent conflict and gave the Arab leadership in Mauritania an opportunity to disperse its black population.

Estimates vary among scholars and international human rights organizations, but anywhere from 70,000 to 150,000 black Mauritanians were accused of being Senegalese and deported. Diagne, then a school teacher, was among them.

These deportations were in keeping with a ruling strategy designed to dispossess, disempower and ultimately disappear black Mauritanians. The ruling Arabs (known as beydanes, from the Arabic word meaning "white," or simply Moors) remain in power to this day, controlling both the political and economic life of the country and subjugating the darker-skinned majority.

"They do everything they can to make the country uninhabitable for the black population," said Abdoulaye Sow, a Mauritanian activist from Cincinnati, at a recent forum. "That is the reason for many of their policies: so that the blacks will go away, so that the minority can become the majority."

Diagne lived in a refugee camp in Senegal for six years. When he returned to Mauritania in 1998, he was beaten and arrested on multiple occasions before finally immigrating to the United States in 2001 and making his way, as hundreds of others had before him, to Ohio, pursuing available jobs and rents far more affordable than New York City's.

On what are thought to be technical grounds, Diagne's claim for asylum was denied. He was likely among the hundreds of Mauritanians who were exploited by predatory immigration consultants, or bad translators, who submitted "shoddy or fraudulent" paperwork on the claimants' behalf.

But the U.S. government recognized the dangerous conditions on the ground for blacks in Mauritania and didn't deport Diagne. He received a work permit and established a life in the U.S. He learned English. He secured a series of warehouse and retail jobs. He paid his taxes. Though he has no immediate family in Ohio, many of his countrymen married and had children here. Many bought homes.

All they were required to do to remain in good standing with the U.S. government was check in periodically with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But one year ago, at his regular check-in, Diagne was arrested. Though he was in poor health, he was detained for two months without medical care and was then packed into a plane at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., and shipped back to Nouakchott, Mauritania's dusty capital city. Attorneys desperately tried to prevent the chartered flight from taking off, but failed to do so in time.

Diagne then faced the same reception that all black Mauritanian deportees face when they arrive: He was put in handcuffs and transferred directly to jail.

Prisons in Mauritania make the beleaguered Cuyahoga County facility look like the Ritz. Torture, overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure, including a lack of potable water, are commonplace. In 2018, according to an annual report from the U.S. State Department, the main prison in Nouakchott had a capacity of 350 inmates but held 943. Ten prisoners died in custody last year, one by suicide and nine from chronic diseases, including tuberculosis and AIDS.

click to enlarge Issa Sao and family. - Photo courtesy Issa Sao
Photo courtesy Issa Sao
Issa Sao and family.

Diagne was reportedly booked in a cell with 70 other men where they were forced to pee in plastic bottles and were regularly beaten by guards. Only because of his financial resources did he manage to escape. He bribed a jail official with a payment of $1,500 and fled to Senegal.

Diagne's story, documented by Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting, is something like a best-case scenario.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation reported on the Mauritanian crisis in December and encountered nearly identical scenarios. A West African correspondent spoke with six recent deportees, all of whom had been arrested and detained upon arrival. Five fled to neighboring countries after they escaped with the help of influential connections or bribes. All said that if they hadn't had friends or family to come get them, they would not have been let out. That story's primary source, a man anonymized as "Mo," was from Ohio, where his wife and children remain.

These stories are known to the thousands of Mauritanians in the United States, who are most densely concentrated in the Metro Columbus and Cincinnati areas. They are now fearful of making their regular check-ins with ICE.

"ICE is brutal," Columbus-area Mauritanian activist Houleye Thiam told Scene. "They can threaten you. They can step on your every right because they know you are vulnerable."

Thiam, the daughter of an intellectual and political revolutionary in Mauritania, came to the United States as a refugee in 2001 at age 19. She is now the president of the Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in the U.S. and an advocate with an organization called African Immigrant Relief. She said that one of her areas of advocacy is tracking down pro bono lawyers who are willing to accompany Mauritanians on their ICE check-ins.

"There is so much fear — it is constant," she said. "But with a lawyer, at least some of the ICE abuse would go down [decrease]."

Thiam said that the community's fear is not the only issue that the deportations have created. Another is money. The detainees are almost always men, who are generally the breadwinners for their families and who, as a rule, send financial assistance back to their networks in Africa.

These are men like Issa Sao, a 37-year-old from the Cincinnati suburbs who'd been jailed and tortured in Mauritania before he fled to the United State 14 years ago. Sao was arrested at his regular ICE check-in in May 2018 and was detained for five months in Arizona and Louisiana before he was shipped back to Mauritania. He has a wife, a stepson and a young daughter. He also, like many of the other Mauritanians who have been detained and deported, has no criminal record.

"Issa will be deported tomorrow in a chartered plane to a country that doesn't recognize him as a citizen, where he will be likely be tortured, enslaved, or killed," Sao's attorney tweeted the night before his flight in October.

Like Diagne, Sao was detained upon arrival in Nouakchott. The temporary travel document that had been provided for him was worthless in Mauritania.


The flagship reason why activist organizations and even some U.S. elected representatives have raised their voices against these deportations is because Mauritania has the highest prevalence of hereditary slavery in the world.

In an October letter to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielson, 37 Democratic congresspeople, led by Sen. Kamala Harris, requested the "immediate cessation" of deportations of Mauritanian nationals.

"It is unconscionable for the United States to deport these individuals back to Mauritania," the letter read, "where they will likely be denied basic human rights and possibly persecuted and enslaved."

The letter was signed by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and by presidential candidates Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker.

Mauritania officially abolished slavery in 1981 — the last country in the world to do so — but the practice is still tacitly sanctioned by the government. That is to say, the law is rarely enforced.

In fact, the law itself, which consists of four articles, deals principally with compensation: not reparations for former slaves (called Haratine or Hartani, Mauritania's largest ethnic group), but compensation for masters, in keeping with Sharia law.

The State Department's 2018 report on human rights in Mauritania noted that "slavery and slavery-like practices, which typically flowed from ancestral master-slave relationships and involved both adults and children, continued throughout the year ... Enslaved persons suffered from traditional chattel slavery, including forced labor and sexual exploitation."

The Mauritanian government's posture, however, has long been that slavery no longer exists. In 2013, it created an official government agency to erase the so-called "vestiges" of slavery.

click to enlarge Mauritanian women protest after a spate of imprisonments and - murders from 1981 to 1991. - Photo courtesy of Ohio Immigration Alliance
Photo courtesy of Ohio Immigration Alliance
Mauritanian women protest after a spate of imprisonments and murders from 1981 to 1991.

"They are talking about 'vestiges' when people are still in chains," Mauritanian antislavery activist Balla Toure said at the time. "[The agency] is nothing but smoke and mirrors."

Furthermore, the government has continually denied the registration of antislavery organizations, imprisoned journalists and activists, and stalled surveys to determine the extent of the abuse. The Global Slavery Index has estimated that about 21 per 1,000 people are enslaved in Maurtania, about 90,000 of the country's four million people. But the numbers are difficult to verify with precision. Other estimates, including the U.N.'s, have been as high as 10 to 20 percent.

"Why does slavery still exist?" Abdoulaye Sow asked at a panel in Cincinnati last month. "The first thing, in my opinion, is that the slaves in Mauritania don't even know they are slaves. They think God has willed them to be slaves and the only way for them to go to heaven is to obey their master."

(This is consistent with multiple studies and accounts from antislavery activists. A 2013 New York Times report quoted an expert in Mauritania who said that the master-slave dynamics varied widely, but that "often the most pressing element of coercion was extreme poverty or a belief that Islam forbids breaking out of bondage.")

"The second reason," Sow continued, "is because the government is not doing anything to end it. Right now, every single day, kids disappear in big cities, and the government is doing nothing. The government is behind the slave masters."

Many countries in the developing world have millions of people living in "modern slavery," or slave-like conditions, in which labor is exploited — children working in sweatshops, women forced into prostitution, etc. But in Mauritania, the slavery is traditional hereditary slavery (the U.S. kind), in which the slave is the total property of the master and slaves' descendants are automatically enslaved.

The United States knows this well. In November, President Trump announced that Mauritania would no longer be eligible for trade preference benefits specifically because the county has made "insufficient progress toward combating forced labor, in particular the scourge of hereditary slavery."

"Forced or compulsory labor practices like hereditary slavery have no place in the 21st century," said Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney in a statement accompanying the news. "This action underscores this Administration's commitment to ending modern slavery and enforcing labor provisions in our trade laws and trade agreements. We hope Mauritania will work with us to eradicate forced labor and hereditary slavery so that its [eligibility for trade benefits] may be restored in the future."

Slavery is the marquee human rights abuse that rouses international opposition, but Mauritanian activists in Ohio say that slavery is "just the tip of the iceberg."

Indeed, the U.S. State Department tallied the grisly list of other human rights abuses currently facing the country:

"Torture by law-enforcement officials; arbitrary and politically motivated arrests; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; restrictions on freedom of assembly, association and religion; widespread corruption; rape and domestic violence against women with few victims seeking legal recourse; ethnic discrimination by government actors; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; continued existence of slavery and slavery-related practices with antislavery organizations subjected to restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly; trafficking in persons; and minimal efforts to combat child labor."

The ongoing practice of slavery coupled with authoritarian government and ecological degradation have been "mutually reinforcing," according to West African scholar Garba Diallo. These have made Mauritania "one of the least politically stable, most underdeveloped and heavily indebted countries among the least developed nations of the Third World."

So why, Ohio's Mauritanian activists plead, is the U.S. government knowingly sending black Mauritanians back to these conditions?


Of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, only about 120,000 (less than 2 percent) are from countries that ICE has designated "uncooperative" or "at risk of non-compliance." Until recently, Mauritania was among them.

While previous administrations prioritized other immigration issues — deporting violent criminals, for example — the Trump administration (with hard-line voices like Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller in his ear) has mandated that diplomats make the acceptance of deportees a priority in negotiations with foreign countries.

In Fiscal Year 2017, the number of people deported to so-called "recalcitrant" nations more than doubled, from 970 to 2040.

Mauritania's big jump didn't occur until 2018. Only four Mauritanians were deported in 2015; 10 in 2016; eight in 2017. But in 2018, 98 were deported, an increase of more than 1,100 percent. (By percentage increase, it trailed only South Sudan, which skyrocketed from two deportations in 2017 to 61 in 2018). Again, virtually all of these Mauritanians are from Ohio.

ICE deportations, fiscal years 2017 and ’18
ICE deportations, fiscal years 2017 and ’18

While Mauritania doesn't recognize its black population as citizens, it still would rather take them back than receive sanctions from the United States. Houleye Thiam suggested to Scene that U.S. diplomats may have threatened to put Mauritania on the list of "Muslim ban" countries in addition to the conventional sanction: suspending the issuance of visas to nationals.

"We are seeing real success with [this hardline approach]," said former State Department official Michel Thoren Bond in an NBC News story on the subject, "probably because countries believe they'll be sorry if they don't comply."

To facilitate their compliance, the Mauritanian embassy in the U.S. began issuing temporary travel documents (called laissez-passer) in lieu of actual passports to those being deported. Black Mauritanais had already been deported from their own country, so they have no papers certifying their citizenship. The laissez-passer create the illusion of citizenship for the purposes of travel but are meaningless to the Mauritanian government. When the deportees arrive in Nouakchott, the laissez-passer are ignored, laughed off or torn up.

The man known as "Mo" in the Thomson Reuters story said Mauritanian officials told him that "anyone could make [a laissez-passer] and reminded him that he had no rights there.

"In effect," said Houleye Thiam at the Cincinnati forum, "these people are stateless."

But these people do have, and should be embraced by, at least one state: Ohio.

Lynn Tramonte, of the Ohio Immigrant Alliance, told Scene that deportations have gone down significantly thus far in fiscal year 2019, but that, right now, at least 13 Mauritanian men are still detained in Ohio facilities. Many have been in "civil immigration detention" for over a year and all of them have been detained for longer than six months.

"The U.S. government still says they are going to be deported, but for now they are languishing in jail," Tramonte said. "Their families are suffering greatly without their husbands and fathers, and the men are living a listless existence. It's a sad and outrageous misuse of tax dollars."

Thiam told Scene that among the hardest barriers to her advocacy work is that people simply don't know about the issue. Many Ohioans have never heard of Mauritania. If they can't point it out on a map, how can they know about the horrific conditions there? They surely don't know that the Mauritanian community is so large and vibrant in Ohio.

"That's why the first step is raising awareness," she said. "The Mauritanian story needs to be told. The government has been enslaving, deporting, raping and killing its citizens for 50-plus years, and it has lasted this long because they have been able to keep this secret."

This is "absolutely apartheid," said Thiam, responding to a question about similarities with the South African government.

While the international community protested vocally against South African apartheid in the 1970s and '80s, they ignored Mauritania, despite a nearly identical political climate. The same division between blacks and a lighter-skinned powerful minority and the same ruthless methods for territorial control persist to this day.

"It's actually worse than [South African] apartheid," said Abdoulaye Sow. "Apartheid in South Africa was a law. It is easier to fight a law than something that is unwritten."

It is also easier to raise awareness about an international issue when powerful institutions and state actors participate in the opposition. In this case, Thiam's not hopeful.

"Nations don't have morals," she said. "They have interests. It's people on the ground who need to get this done, by raising awareness, by talking about what's happening. Raising money, of course, is important. You can't do anything without money. But getting the word out is what builds the movement."

She said if Ohioans want to help, they should connect to their state representatives, their senators, "anyone who has some kind of say."

"Call them and tell them this must stop," Thiam said. "This is a question of human dignity. So we must continue to raise awareness. We must continue to fight this fight. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as MLK said."

This injustice — this humanitarian crisis — is not just anywhere, though, as Thiam said. "It's right in our backyard."