Mauritania’s endless sea of sand dunes hides an open secret: An estimated 10% to 20% of the population lives in slavery.

Mauritania’s endless sea of sand dunes hides an open secret: An estimated 10% to 20% of the population lives in slavery.


France, Spain, and the United Kingdom have recently led efforts to increase E.U. funding for the G5 Sahel group, of which Mauritania is a member, by £85 million ($108 million) a year, a subsidy intended to stem migration to Europe. In 2017, a budget of €423 million (nearly $480 million) was set aside, to which the increase will be added. The U.S. State Department should urge the E.U. to deny Mauritania this subsidy until it can demonstrate that it will enforce its 2007 criminalization of slavery.


History and Background

Mauritania is one of the oldest and purest remaining instances of chattel slavery in the world. Muslim Arabs first conquered western North Africa in the eighth century, colonizing a sparsely populated area inhabited by black Africans and Berber nomads. As Arab power grew, it pushed Berber tribes southwards from the oases, thus forcing the black population further south into the more arid regions. After several failed uprisings against Arab rule, the Berbers relented and finally decided to Arabize and adopt Islam in the seventeenth century. Most black tribes, however, having been forced down to the Senegal River, only accepted Islam nearly a thousand years after the Arab conquest. Blacks who remained in the northern territories were forced into slavery. Over the generations, Arabo-Berber slavery expanded south and engulfed more of the black population.

This history has created a cruel caste system in which the lighter-skinned Arabs (beydanes) and Arabized Berbers rule over the black former slaves who have been forcibly Arabized over time (haratin), those free blacks in the south who refuse Arabization calling themselves “Negro-Africans,” and the black chattel slave class (abid) at the bottom. Though the country is entirely Muslim, and Islam theoretically forbids the enslavement of one Muslim by another, the severity of Arab racism even supersedes adherence to the Shari‘ah.

French colonial officials attempted to abolish slavery within the territory in both 1901 and 1905. All such legislation proved worthless in Mauritania’s 400,000-square-mile, arid, indifferent vastness. Five similar proclamations in 1961, 1980, 1981, 2007, and 2015 have as of now proved equally fruitless.

No slave markets exist in Mauritania. All slaves are born in masters’ households from the master raping black slave women, or ordering necessary episodes of sexual activity (“breeding”) between couples of slaves. In the absence of open markets, slaves change hands quietly in individual sales, are traded as substitutes for money in the settling of gambling debts, or can even be rented.