If the Trump administration allows the deportation of Mauritanian asylum seekers living in the U.S., they "face the threat of slavery, torture and death" in their home country, Amnesty International has warned.
The human rights organization issued a press release on Monday calling on the Trump administration to "refrain" from deporting Mauritanians, who have sought refuge and safety in the U.S., back to northwest African Mauritania, where they "face the threat of slavery, torture, and death...without renewed and fair consideration of their claims for protection."
Amnesty International researcher for refugee and migrant rights Denise Bell told Newsweek the organization issued the release after learning that the Trump administration had ordered the removal of least two Mauritanians, with tens more being detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
ICE spokesperson Brendan Raedy told Newsweek that as of July 30, 79 Mauritanian nationals have been deported back to their home country "in accordance with their final orders of removal" so far in Fiscal Year 2018.
Raedy said 33 of those who were deported were "convicted criminals" and said that there were 41 Mauritanian nationals currently in ICE detention.
Bell said there are potentially thousands of other Mauritanians who could be at risk of deportation from the U.S.
"These are people who have been part of their communities, who have families, have homes, have created businesses...People who go to regular check-ins with ICE, just like thousands of other immigrants here with some irregular status, but who still check in with ICE," Bell said.
"Yet, ICE has targeted them and they target them, it would seem, because they know where they are and because it's easy to do," she added.
Bell said the Trump administration's decision to allow the deportations of Mauritanians who face grave threats to their safety in their home countries is part of an aggressive pattern by the government.
"The Trump administration's aggressive anti-immigration policies enforced by ICE would place hundreds and possibly thousands of Mauritanians at risk upon their return to the West African nation," Amnesty International warned in its press release.
In March 2018, an investigation by the rights organization found that slavery and racial discrimination remained "rife" in Mauritania, despite the formal abolition of slavery in 1981, as well as its criminalization in 2007 and elevation to a crime against humanity in 2012.
While the human rights organization says there is no official data, international anti-slavery groups have estimated the number of people living in slavery in the country to be up to 43,000, or 1 percent of the population.
Local rights groups have estimated, however, that as much as 20 percent of the population is enslaved, with tens of thousands of people, mostly from the minority Haratine or Afro-Mauritanian groups, living as domestic servants, child brides and forced laborers.
According to Human Rights Watch, Mauritanian authorities have also been known to "restrict freedom of speech and assembly, especially to muzzle criticism of Mauritania's record on slavery, discrimination based on caste or ethnicity, impunity for past state-sponsored atrocities and the president's intolerance of dissent."
As Amnesty International notes, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz "has been at the center of Mauritania's political life since 2005," after he was declared the winner of two presidential elections and was "the architect of two military coups."
Amnesty International has warned that the "dangerous environment" in Mauritania has only been "worsening" as the country prepares for its parliamentary elections in September, with journalists, opposition figures and anti-slavery activists allegedly being arrested in "an apparent pre-election crackdown on dissent."
Earlier this month, a prominent Mauritanian anti-slavery activist was detained ahead of September's legislative elections.
The arrest of Biram Dah Abeid, who leads Mauritania's Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, was widely condemned as part of a politically motivated bid to silence opposition.
Bell said that while the U.S. has "the authority to regulate its borders, it has to do so in line with its human rights obligations."
"The U.S. has an obligation not to return people to countries where they face human rights abuses without giving them the opportunity to present their claim," she said.
Raedy said the U.S. government "provides all those in removal proceedings with an opportunity to apply and be considered for relief of removal," however.
"After considering the merits of each case, if an immigration judge finds an individual ineligible for any form of relief, the judge will issue a final order of removal, which ICE carries out in accordance with applicable U.S. law," he said.
Bell called on the Trump administration to "reconsider" the cases of Mauritanian asylum seekers facing deportation "because they are going back to a place where they very well could be enslaved or could face racial discrimination."
"This goes against who we are as a country," she said, adding: "We treat people with fairness, kindness and dignity."
This article has been updated with statements from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.