Mo had nothing but a set of jail clothes and the name of a distant cousin when he boarded the deportation flight from the United States to Mauritania, the African country he had fled.
After more than 20 years he was returning to the scene of childhood trauma – an Islamic republic on the edge of the Sahara where members of black ethnic groups, like him, have suffered decades of slavery and persecution under a light-skinned elite.
The plane descended over desert, and his fears were realised. Upon arrival in the capital, Nouakchott, he was arrested and taken to jail, where he remained for two weeks until his family paid a bribe to free him.
“I never thought I would come back to this life,” said the 45-year-old, identified here by a nickname for his protection, from his cousin’s house, where he hid for five months before fleeing the country again.
Mo had a good job in Ohio and had recently bought a house with his American wife where their children played basketball in the backyard. Now he sat in a dark room every day on his cell phone, afraid to go outside for fear of arrest.
Thousands like Mo sought refuge in the United States after a 1989 conflict in which black Mauritanians were stripped of their citizenship and expelled. Longstanding U.S. policy held that even those denied refugee status could remain.
Now they are being deported as part of an immigration crackdown under President Donald Trump. Because Mauritania does not recognise their citizenship, interviews suggest dozens have been interrogated, detained and forced to hide.
Mauritanian authorities and U.S. immigration officials declined to respond to questions for this story.
“I have not heard of any person deported who was not at least initially detained,” said Lynn Tramonte, director of the Ohio Immigrant Alliance, who has been following the cases.
Ohio is home to the Unites States’ largest Mauritanian community, about 3,000-strong.
The United States deported 98 Mauritanians in the year to October, compared to just eight in the previous 12 months, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke with six of them, all of whom were arrested and detained immediately upon arrival and five of whom have since fled to neighbouring countries in fear.
Hundreds more are at risk, say lawyers and advocates, with about 25 men detained in the United States and awaiting deportation now.
Mauritania expelled up to 50,000 black citizens after clashes with Senegal over border land in 1989, forcing them to surrender ID cards and nationality documents, according to Human Rights Watch. Thousands more fled on their own.
Many have since returned, but race relations are far from smooth. The country’s white Moors dominate politics and business and although it is illegal, the Global Slavery Index estimates 90,000 black Mauritanians are still enslaved.
People like Mo relied on translators to file their asylum applications in the United States, and many were denied for lack of credibility or documents, lawyers said.
They were allowed to stay and simply monitored by ICE – until late last year.
“I knew it was coming. They were getting everybody,” said Mo in October, wearing the same clothes he had put on for work the morning ICE picked him up outside his house in May.
Under pressure from the Trump administration, the Mauritanian embassy started issuing travel permits, “laissez-passers”, so its citizens could be sent back, lawyers said.
But when Mo presented his in Mauritania, he was told it was not proof of citizenship and that he had no legal rights there, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“They (the authorities) said anyone can make this,” said Mo, waving the flimsy document typed up on printing paper.
Mauritania’s dusty streets are full of checkpoints and police, and not having papers puts one at constant risk of arrest, locals said. Stressed and afraid, in November Mo paid someone to smuggle him out.
Interrogated upon arrival, the deportees were all asked why they had gone to the United States.
“When they know you applied for asylum in USA, that’s a big problem, you don’t want to say that,” said one deportee, who made up a story about migrating for economic reasons instead.
Mauritania’s government says slavery and discrimination are in the past and has jailed and tortured people who challenge this narrative. The country denied entry to a group of U.S. civil rights leaders invited by anti-slavery groups last year.
Ahmed, a Mauritanian living in Nouakchott, was contacted by a family member to help a deportee get out of jail. For two weeks he negotiated with police every day.
“They said we can’t let him go, these people go to the U.S. to denigrate the country, humiliate the country, things like that,” Ahmed said. “There’s a police officer who told me that.”
He eventually found the man, who had lived in the United States for 18 years, locked up with 40 people in one room.
“He was in very difficult conditions,” said Ahmed, whose name has been changed for his safety. “From then on, every day it was I who brought him food.”
Three deportees who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they were released after one day because they called on an influential connection. Others were held for up to two weeks and released after payment of $200-300.
All said they were told that if they had not had friends or family to come get them, they would not have been let out.
PUTTING OUT FIRES
In October, 37 U.S. senators and representatives signed a letter urging an end to the deportations.
“It is unconscionable for the United States to deport these individuals back to Mauritania, where they will likely be denied basic human rights,” they wrote.
Lawyers have been trying to stop the deportations by filing emergency stays and motions to re-open their asylum cases, but they are struggling to keep up.
“Putting out these fires one by one is exhausting,” said Julie Nemecek, an Ohio immigration lawyer.
“We’ll get one stay approved, and ICE will do something sneaky and all of a sudden I’ll find out that somebody’s at the airport almost on a plane.”
What is needed is a national effort, or a lawsuit on behalf of the group to stop all the deportations, she said.
Mostly in neighbouring Senegal and Mali now, the deportees interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation are again without a home or legal status in any country.
Mo said he chats with his children after school if he has internet, and they ask him: “Daddy, why are you in Africa?”
He doesn’t say the worst of it because he doesn’t want them to be angry with their country, the United States, he said.
“I tell them, well, Donald Trump sent me home.”
NOUAKCHOTT (Thomson Reuters Foundation)