Officially, slavery has been illegal in Mauritania since 1981. While slavery has been illegal in Mauritania for more than 35 years, it did not introduce criminal laws enforcing the ruling until 2007. Even with the laws it is rare for slave owners to free slaves. Today slaves are traded between families like livestock and it is estimated 600,000 or 18 percent of the nation’s population have been enslaved from birth.
The country’s political and economic class is dominated by Beydan Berbers, who make up 30 percent of the population. For centuries the Haratin ethnic group have been kidnapped and enslaved by the Beydan. To this day Mauritania has a rigid caste system and the great majority of the nation’s wealth remains concentrated among the Beydan and their descendants.
Mauritania’s authoritarian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is Beydan Berber, as are all of his close political allies. Even the Haratin that are now free face severe legal difficulties in obtaining property, land or employment.
International advocacy groups have been denied access to the country and Mauritania has avoided criticism from the British government, EU and wider international community. The United Kingdom, France and Spain spearheaded plans this year to increase EU funding for Mauritania, funding intended to stem migration from the rest of Africa into Europe.