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Migrants climb into a truck to head north into Algeria at the Assamaka border post in northern Niger, June 3, 2018 (AP photo by Jerome Delay).

‘We Can’t Stay Here’: Inside Algeria’s Mass Expulsions of Sub-Saharan Migrants

Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018

ORAN, Algeria—Early one morning last April, Etienne, a 36-year-old migrant from Cameroon, was asleep in the hotel room he rented by the month in this port city on the northwestern coast of Algeria. His plan, like most days, was to wake up at 6 a.m. and head to the private residence where he worked as a gardener.

On this particular morning, however, he was roused ahead of schedule. At 4 a.m., a contingent of Algerian police officers raided the hotel, arresting Etienne and the dozens of other migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who had also been living there.

The migrants—a group that included men, women and some children—were taken to a police station for processing, though they didn’t stay long. That evening, they were placed on multiple buses heading to Tamanrasset, some 1,200 miles to the south; the trip took nearly 24 hours. From Tamanrasset, where there is a processing center for migrants, they boarded trucks and were driven 250 miles to the border with Niger.

Staff from the Algerian Red Crescent Society, the humanitarian organization, accompanied them for the first leg of the journey, providing them with food and water. After Tamanrasset, however, Etienne and the others were left alone with the security forces, meaning they had nothing to eat or drink.

Listen to Leila Beratto discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. Her audio starts at 24:53.

It was night when they reached the border. “Once we got there, the military police told us to start walking in the direction of the lights in the distance,” Etienne recalls. The lights in question came from the desert town of Assamaka, in Niger. The migrants did as they were told, walking 12 kilometers in the darkness, feeling their way along a trail lined with pebbles.

It was a scene that has played out many times in recent years. Beginning in 2014, Algerian authorities have been expelling migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to Niger, citing concerns for Algeria’s security and a desire to crack down on drugs and weapons smuggling and human trafficking. Though these operations initially focused on citizens of Niger, last year they expanded to encompass migrants from across West Africa, and it appears the total number of affected migrants has risen considerably.

In June, The Associated Press reported that, during the previous 14 months, more than 13,000 migrants had been forced to undertake a journey similar to Etienne’s, marching through the desert in temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The report generated an international outcry, but it didn’t stop the expulsions. In mid-July, according to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, nearly 400 more migrants were expelled from Algeria and abandoned in the desert.

There are some 100,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in Algeria at any given time, according to local NGOs. They began arriving more than a decade ago, following the restoration of security that occurred in the aftermath of Algeria’s civil war, which ended in 2002. There has been a major uptick since 2011, when the war in neighboring Libya forced smugglers to alter their traditional routes to the Libyan coast.

Some of the migrants came to Algeria simply to work—especially Malians and Nigeriens, who are allowed to stay in Algeria for three months without a visa. Others had dreams of continuing on to Morocco or Libya, then traveling by sea to Europe.

When he first arrived in Algeria six years ago, Etienne counted himself among those who were Europe-bound, imagining that the continent would be full of the opportunities Cameroon lacked. “I didn’t flee war or violence, but in my country I was condemned to stay poor,” he says. “I wanted to succeed in life, so I hit the road for Europe.”

But after spending some time in Oran, Etienne found that life there agreed with him. The chance to earn decent money more than compensated for the racism and other abuses he endured. “Sometimes there are difficult things in Algeria,” he says. “People insult you, children can throw stones at you. But you can also find work easily, and because the cost of living isn’t high, you can save money. That’s why I stayed all this time.”

Three men head north toward Algeria after crossing the Assamaka border post in
northern Niger, June 3, 2018 (AP photo by Jerome Delay).

In response to intensifying criticism from aid groups and advocacy organizations like Human Rights Watch, Algerian authorities have maintained that the expulsions are being undertaken with Algeria’s security interests in mind. During a press conference in April, Hacene Kacimi, the official responsible for regulating migration at the Interior Ministry, said the issue was “a national priority” for Algeria and that officials were intent on ensuring that “the integrity and security of our country are not threatened.”

But regardless of whether this argument has merit, the expulsions could have grave ramifications for Algeria’s image globally and, especially, on the African continent. First, they risk jeopardizing the country’s relations with many of its neighbors to the south, whose diplomats quietly grumble that their citizens are being forced out en masse without any kind of high-level consultations.

More fundamentally, and perhaps more significantly, they could also seriously undermine Algeria’s reputation as a place of refuge for other Africans—a reputation it has spent decades trying to cultivate.

‘Thrown in the Desert Like a Criminal’

Once they reach Agadez, migrants who have been expelled from Algeria can access services from a host of NGOs that have established operations there, including basics like food, water and any emergency medical care they might require. The IOM has also set up a camp in the city to shelter them.

Before long, the majority of the migrants begin working with the NGOs to return to their home countries. A significant number, though, have no interest in abandoning Algeria, and some are able to find smugglers who can immediately sneak them back to Tamanrasset.

This is exactly what Etienne did, and he doesn’t regret it. “I hadn’t finished this mission of improving my life,” he says, explaining his decision to return to Oran, where he has resumed his work as a gardener. “I want to leave this time in Algeria in a state of beauty, with enough money to do something good with myself.”

The mass expulsions risk undermining Algeria’s reputation as a place of refuge for other Africans—a reputation it has spent decades trying to cultivate.

Throughout Algeria, migrants like Etienne who are committed to staying have taken steps to avoid being rounded up. Vincent, who is from Guinea, remembers watching, powerless, as the authorities arrested his cousin last March at the construction site in western Algiers where they both worked. “The military police came at night, in the trailer where the migrants sleep,” he says. “I was able to flee, but not him.”

As raids in Algiers continued, Vincent had trouble sleeping. “I didn’t want to be arrested before collecting my salary,” he says. He recently asked his boss to be transferred to a different work site 30 miles outside the city.

Employers, too, are doing what they can to dodge the authorities. “I said to my workers to be careful, to not go out in a group,” recalls Amine, an Algerian who employs two laborers from Benin. “I also told them that, if needed, I can drive them in my car.”

Other African migrants have stopped working altogether, lying low in hopes that the expulsions will soon end. In a neighborhood south of Algiers where new residential towers seem to be going up all the time, multiple Ivorian families live in a group of apartments in a small white building. On the ground floor, Marie spends her days watching television, her only activity for the past few months. Previously, she worked at a hamam, a traditional public bath, six days a week from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. But now, fearing the security forces, she stays inside nearly all day. “I’m not going to work anymore,” she says. “The only time I go out is to go to the grocery store.”

Marie laments how little she’s been able to save since she first came to Algeria in 2016. “I have 300 euros set aside,” she says. “I can’t go home to Cote d’Ivoire with so little! I can’t even buy a cute outfit for my little girl. If I had more money, I would’ve packed my bags and taken a flight out of here. I don’t want to be thrown in the desert like a criminal.”

While Marie hides out, some of her fellow migrants have given up and decided to leave on their own before they’re kicked out. An increasing number are turning to the IOM for help. The agency’s office in Algiers received 100 repatriation requests in April alone, even though it was only able to process 50 in all of 2017.

A smuggler counts his money as migrants climb into trucks to head north into Algeria at the
Assamaka border post in northern Niger, June 3, 2018 (AP photo by Jerome Delay).

One morning in early June, around 10 people were sitting in brown leather chairs in a reception area at the Ivorian Embassy in Algiers waiting to be issued a laisser-passer—a special exit paper that allows Ivorians who lack passports and visas to board flights home. “It never ends,” a disgruntled embassy employee said.

A young, pregnant Ivorian woman in a white sweater fretted over her situation. Though she already had her plane ticket, it was unclear whether the laisser-passer would be issued in time. “They’re going to cancel my ticket and I’ll need to do this process all over again,” she said. Nevertheless, she was firm in her decision to leave Algeria. “We can’t stay here and take the risk of being arrested each time we go outside.”

The Growing Regional Backlash

Algeria has never had a system for granting asylum. And while the U.N. refugee agency has a presence in the country, it has concerned itself primarily with Sahrawi refugees from Western Sahara—there are 90,000 of them in refugee camps in southwestern Algeria—and, more recently, the 5,300 Syrians who have resettled in Algeria’s northern cities after fleeing their country’s civil war.

For this reason, illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have had no choice but to live under the threat of arrest. If arrested, they face a potential punishment of two months’ imprisonment and a fine.

Prior to 2014, though, rules against illegal migration were hardly ever enforced. Etienne remembers that when he first arrived in Algeria, the authorities let the migrants go about their business unmolested—a far cry from what happens in neighboring Libya and Morocco, where they are often rounded up by the security forces and physically abused. “In Oran, you could see migrants in the streets in the middle of town, and there was no problem,” Etienne says.

Algerian authorities say they carry out all expulsions in concert with migrants’ countries of origin. But regional diplomats contest this.

NGOs, meanwhile, devoted energy to facilitating migrants’ integration into Algerian society by helping them access state services. Under Algerian law, all children on national soil are entitled to an education. Health care is also free and available to everyone, regardless of nationality.

In 2014, Algiers carried out its first mass deportations to Niger. The decision was spurred by the arrival of thousands of Nigerien men, women and children during Ramadan that year. With no one to receive them and no arrangements made for their accommodation, they set up makeshift camps in multiple cities that quickly attracted the attention of local authorities.

Upon investigation, Algerian and Nigerien officials determined that the migrants came from Zinder, Niger’s second-largest city, and that they had been exploited by a trafficking network that had promised them jobs in Algeria. By December 2014, Algeria and Niger had reached an agreement to send the migrants back to Niger.

The two countries continued cooperating on subsequent deportation operations, making Nigeriens especially vulnerable to expulsion from Algeria. As of the summer of 2017, some 18,000 Nigeriens had been sent back, according to official figures from Algeria.

In December 2016, Algerian authorities started trying to expel migrants from other sub-Saharan African countries. They were inspired by clashes that occurred between migrants and residents of Dely Ibrahim, a neighborhood in Algiers. The clashes, which reportedly began after Algerians complained of migrants drinking alcohol and dealing drugs, led to the arrest of hundreds of migrants who had been living in the city. Though many of the arrested migrants were not from Niger, they were all sent to Agadez.

The Nigerien authorities protested, saying they had never agreed to accept migrants from other countries. But despite these complaints, by August 2017 aid organizations in Agadez were sounding the alarm that migrants from other countries had begun arriving in ever larger numbers.

Algerian authorities claim that they carry out all expulsions “in concert with the countries of origin” of the migrants in question. But regional diplomats contest this. The expulsions that occurred in December 2016, they say, took them completely by surprise. “We weren’t aware and we’re still not made aware of the arrests of our citizens,” one diplomat says. Another admits that they are informed sometimes, but only when the expelled migrants are already in Tamanrasset, well on their way to Niger.

A young migrant who has been expelled from Algeria paces in a transit center in
Arlit, Niger, June 1, 2018 (AP photo by Jerome Delay).

Several diplomats have been pointed in their criticism of how the Algerian authorities are handling the situation. “It’s a difficult period,” says one diplomat from a country in Central Africa. They don’t comment publicly, however.

The only public criticism of Algiers’ policy has come from Mohamed Bazoum, the Nigerien interior minister who signed the agreement paving the way for the first repatriations of Nigeriens in 2014. “We’ve had long discussions with the Algerian authorities on multiple occasions, during which we asked them to stop sending young people from Mali, Guinea and other countries back to us,” Bazoum said during a visit to Agadez in February. “We are ready to welcome all Nigeriens whom the Algerians no longer wish to see on their territory. On the other hand, we told the Algerian authorities to stop sending us all the young Africans.”

Some of the migrants are speaking out for themselves. Those who have been expelled have sometimes expressed their anger in videos of expulsions that have been shared widely on social media. Back in March, migrants organized a demonstration in front of the Algerian Embassy in Bamako, Mali’s capital. The migrants threw stones at the embassy building and lit fires on the road in front of it while denouncing the conditions under which they were kicked out of Algeria. “They arrested us at our jobs,” one demonstrator told Malian media outlets. “They took all of us. We were forced to spend 15 days in the Sahara.”

Hard-Liners in the Ascendant

Politically, this kind of uproar is highly sensitive for Algerian authorities, who value their country’s image as an ally of all African nations. After obtaining independence in 1962, following eight years of war against France and 132 years of French colonial rule, Algeria refashioned itself as a place of refuge for freedom fighters. Nicknamed “the Mecca for revolutionaries,” the country welcomed the likes of Nelson Mandela, who was organizing his resistance movement against the apartheid government in South Africa; Che Guevara; Amilcar Cabral, the independence fighter from Guinea-Bissau; and members of the Black Panthers, which set up an international office there.

The Algerian government appears united in its policy toward migrants, but there are signs of dissension within its ranks.

Some 5,000 students from sub-Saharan Africa enroll in Algerian universities each year, and a number of high-ranking officials from across the continent were educated there. Moreover, Algeria has been implicated in diplomatic responses to crises like the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and Mali’s recent conflict.

Thus, even if its economy is primarily oriented toward Europe, Algeria is seen as a valuable partner for the rest of Africa. Yet the political fallout from mass expulsions could jeopardize this position. Nevertheless, Algerian authorities seem committed to it and appear willing to withstand whatever criticism they might receive.

They have also tried to deflect some of the blame. In June, Algeria’s foreign minister, Abdelkader Messahel, told Radio France Internationale that the critiques were part of “a campaign that certain parties are trying to lead against Algeria.” This was a clear reference to neighboring Morocco, Algeria’s longtime rival; the two countries frequently clash over a host of issues, most prominently the fate of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony whose residents seek independence and that Morocco claims control over.

Algeria’s role in the global debate over migration is likely shaping its approach. The country has resisted pressure from Europe to open retention camps on its territory. And unlike Niger, it doesn’t accept money from the European Union for migration-related programs intended to stop Africans from attempting sea voyages to Europe. “There is European funding available, but Algiers doesn’t want anything to do with it,” says a Western diplomat posted in Algeria.

Diplomats who have tried to ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the recent expulsions say there are few opportunities for substantive engagement. “When we want to talk about migration,” a European diplomat says, “the Algerians have a quick response: ‘Sovereignty.’”

But while the Algerian government might appear resolute, there are signs of dissension within its ranks. In the summer of 2017, a social media campaign of unknown origin began criticizing sub-Saharan African migrants in Algeria and blaming them for social problems like crime. In response, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the prime minister at the time, said, “We aren’t racists, we are Africans, Maghrebs and Mediterraneans,” he said. Abdelghani Hamel, Algeria’s chief of police, also appealed for calm, saying, “There have been some aggressions committed by migrants, but they are not grave cases. There isn’t that kind of phenomenon here.”

Yet Abdelkader Messahel, the foreign minister, responded in a more extreme fashion, saying that the migrants represented “a threat to national security.” Ahmed Ouyahia, the head of the president’s Cabinet who would become the prime minister in August 2017, added that the migrants were “a source of drugs and criminality.”

If the events of recent months are any indication, those who would prefer to take a harder line against migrants are in the ascendant in Algiers. Expulsions seem to have become more indiscriminate. Black asylum-seekers and students alike have been rounded up and sent to Tamanrasset, even if they have their papers in order. Multiple groups of migrants have also been expelled over the border with Mali, even though that part of Mali is especially insecure.

Algerian civil society groups are trying to fight back. In May, dozens of human rights activists launched a petition demanding that the arrests and expulsions stop. The petition implored the authorities to stop using the fight against human trafficking and terrorism as a pretext to violate migrants’ human rights.

Yet even if this mobilization continues to gather momentum, the groups acknowledge that their ability to change the situation is limited. “The political context of today creates a lot of barriers for us,” one activist says. “Our opposition to the authorities on this question is problematic because we are so fragile. All we can really do is denounce this practice on social media.”

Leila Beratto is a journalist who has reported for Radio France Internationale from Algiers since 2012. She is the co-director of “Derwisha,” a documentary released in 2018 that traces the lives of migrants living in Algiers.