Algeria Faces the Challenges of Immigration

Repression and Citizens’ Initiatives · Some 100,000 sub-Saharan migrants live in Algeria. Last Fall, the authorities decided to deport them by the hundreds. These arrests, however, have prompted the civil society to become more involved in this issue.

Migrants in a street in Algiers.

On the television screen, a succession of cartoons for children. Kevin*1 keeps changing channels while Kara, his sister, wrapped in a blanket, is asleep on a mattress. It is 2:00 PM when their mother comes into the room shouting: “Why is everybody asleep in here? Didn’t you see what time it is?” Kara rubs her eyes and says she’s sleepy but her mother shoos her into the kitchen to feed her little brother, an infant just a few months old. Kara and her brothers were born in Algeria of Cameroonian parents. The family shares this apartment in an outlying district of Algiers with some ten other adults.

All are immigrants from Central Africa, settled in Algeria for several years now. “Mamie (Kara’s mother’s pet name) took us in because our place was attacked by people who wanted us out of the neighborhood,” says a young woman with dyed blond hair lying on a mattress. “During the day, the kids go to school, people with jobs go to work and I pass the time.” Some of the residents of this building have known each other since they came to Algeria, others are relatives, still others are from the same neighborhood in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon. “When they attacked our place, I lost everything, I’ve hardly anything to wear, so being able to bed down here with people I know is a big relief,” Fabrice explains. He has been in Algiers for fifteen years.

A few miles away, Aboubaker* is seated at a table in a small café. “I come here to recharge my cell phone, there’s no more electricity on the building site,” he says with a smile. He’s 29 and he’s from Mali. He came to Algeria early in 2016, having left his country several years before that. “I lived in Angola, then I was in Central Africa until the war broke out. I went back to Kayes, my home town. One day, a cousin told me to come to Algeria where I could find work. My mother insisted I go: your cousin says he has money every day,” he sighs shaking his head. Today he lives on the building site where he works, in a cabin the boss cobbled together with four sheets of corrugated iron. To earn a living, he has transported bags of sand in the Algiers Kasbah, worked as a day laborer building a private villa and on now a construction project. “I earn 1500 dinars (12 US dollars) a day. In my country, that’s a good wage, but I can’t manage to send any money home to my family. If I wanted to send home 100,000 dinars (885 US dollars), the go-between would take a commission of 60,000 dinars (531 US dollars).”

His relatives accuse him of selfishness, of wanting to keep all his money for himself. Aboubaker tried to explain, but very few can understand that the Algerian dinar is not convertible and can’t be sent by Western Union. The young man hasn’t been able to put aside enough money to leave for Europe via Libya as hundreds of migrants based in Algeria have done since the end of 2015. “I’m stuck here. I can’t go home empty-handed. So I stay on here, even if it’s a hard life and I never go out after work,” he says.

Deported to Niger

Aboubaker has a head full of visions and stories of hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants arrested in September and October 2017. During those weeks, police officers and gendarmes conducted a vast campaign of arrests. “I was in a taxi when a plain clothesman made me get out,” Tony*, a young Ivorian, recalls.”I had to get into a gray SUV and I was taken to the gendarmerie, and then I found myself in a camp.” The authorities gathered the migrants on a site normally used as a holiday camp on the seashore at Zeralda. In different Algiers neighborhoods as well as in Blida, 45 kilometers to the south of the capital, men and women were arrested on public transportation, on work sites but also in their homes. Dannie*, a Cameroonian, was arrested coming home from the market. “After a few days in a camp, they put us on a bus which took us to Tamanrasset. There we spent several days locked in barracks, and then they took us to In Guezzam. At the border, soldiers confiscated our money and any cell phones that could take pictures, then they took us in trucks to Niger.” Most of the migrants arrested that Fall were deported to Niger. In Agadez they were taken in hand by The International Organization for Migration who offers to send those who wish back to their country of origin. But in any case these migrants, most of whom are from countries belonging to the Economic Community of West-African States, were now free to go where they chose.

These deportations prompted reactions from international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but also organizations on the African continent, such as the Algerian Syndicat national autonome des personnels de l’administration publique (Snadap). In a press release these organizations called for an end to these “massive” expulsions, demanded that Algeria stop sending people “to countries which were not their own” and called on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to consider possibilities for regularizing undocumented migrant workers.

Entry Prohibited, Exit Forbidden

In June 2017, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Nourredine Bedoui mentioned a plan to register migrants in order to examine “possibilities for their employment, particularly on building sites, considering the scarcity of labor in certain areas”. This declaration was meant to calm tempers following a racist campaign against Sub-Saharan migrants on the social networks. Yet early in July, Foreign minister Abdelkader Messahel was to declare them “a threat to national security.” And a few days before that, Ahmed Ouyahia, now Prime Minister, had called migrants “a source of crime, drug-trafficking and other evils.”

In 2008, Algeria changed its laws to criminalize irregular entry or exit from the national territory. The right of asylum does not figure in the Constitution and is only provided, in dribs and drabs, by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which mainly handles Sahrawis in the province of Tindouf and Syrian refugees. Undocumented migrants on Algerian soil, some 100,000 strong according to the various associations, are subject to the 2008 law and liable to sentences of from two to six months and a fine, just like the harraga.2 Until 2012, when a migrant was arrested and brought to court, he was deported to Mali. “I was arrested several times. The gendarmes took you to Tin Zaouatine and left you there, on the Mali side,” Thierry, a Cameroonian, told me. When the war broke out in Northern Mali, these deportations were stopped. “At the beginning of 2016, I was arrested and sentenced to two months,” says Patrice*, a Congolese. “When I got out, they gave me a paper which said I had to leave the country, but they let me go.”

The month of Ramadan 2014 changed things completely for all concerned. That summer, hundreds of migrants, men, women and children, arrived in the country’s northern cities. They settled in the downtown areas to beg. Up until then they had been careful to keep a low profile to avoid being arrested, living mainly in the outskirts of Algiers and Oran, near the Moroccan border. Most of these migrant beggars come from the Zinder region in Niger and were brought to Algeria by an organized network specialized in begging. According to Nigerien authorities, Algiers is worried about the “proximity” of this network with “organized crime.” The two countries negotiated an agreement at the end of 2014 and Algeria arranged to arrest and deport the Nigeriens. In less than three years, Algiers sent 18,000 people home to Niger, according to same authorities.

However, one morning in 2016, a wave of arrests targeted non-Nigerien sub-Saharan migrants, for the first time since 2012. All in all, nearly 2000 individuals were arrested and over a thousand were deported to Niger. These expulsions occurred after there had been fighting between residents and migrants in the Dely Ibrahim suburb of Algiers. Earlier that year, similar episodes of violence had broken out in Ouargla, Bechar and Tamanrasset. Each time, the migrants had been moved to Tamanrasset. The authorities had also instructed the transport companies in the Tamanrasset region not to carry migrants who wanted to travel north.

NGOs in Action

The 2016-2017 arrests had a significant impact on the small number of Algerian organizations working with migrants. They had previously managed to facilitate their access to the public health system. “It’s been two years since I’ve been told of a pregnant woman shackled during childbirth, whereas it used to happen all the time” Thierry Becker, a priest based in Oran, told me in 2016. “Algerian law gives everyone free access to hospitals, regardless of their administrative situation. But the medical and administrative personnel required some persuading,” an association activist in Oran explained. A few migrant children were enrolled in a public school in the capital beginning in 2015 thanks to the mediation of association activists. The law allows for the schooling of all children over six, but there again the personnel are ill-informed or reluctant. And finally, some migrants were able to initiate legal proceedings, with the help of lawyers working with the associations. This was the case with Marie-Simone, a Cameroonian who was gang-raped under the threat of a dog in 2016. The violence of the aggression and the difficulties the woman encountered to file her complaint stirred much public concern. Over a year later, all her abusers received fifteen-year prison terms.

The chief consequence of the wave of arrests and the publicity it has received, has been to increase the number of requests for emergency aid. “There were families who didn’t dare go out, others who refused to go to the hospital for fear of being arrested,” an association member explains. But the civil society hasn’t been able to do much more, because of administrative obstacles and lack of funds. “The context is one of official prohibition. All we can do is denounce the situation on Facebook,” is the analysis of one man who has been campaigning for over ten years. And yet the mass arrests of December 2016 did make people aware of the presence of all these migrants in their country.

Thus a number of initiatives, often led by young people and popularized via the social networks, were launched in different parts of the country. Near Tizi-Ouzou, people got together to provide clothes for a group of Nigerien migrants. In Oran, several medical and pharmacy students formed a support group for migrants, giving them private lessons, for example. Sadek Bouzinou, a composer singer based in Oran, wrote an anti-racist song called “Give me your hand” and organized a vast banquet for the breaking of the Ramadan fast in 2017, with Algerian youths, foreign students and sub-Saharan migrants. On International Migrants Day, 18 December 2017, activists belonging to the Rassemblement Actions Jeunesse (RAJ) put together a whole week of debates, lectures and radio talks devoted to migration.

And yet, deprived of the right to work, Fabrice the Cameroonian and Aboubaker the Malian both think they may leave the country, “to have a go at the next step in their adventure,” northwards to Europe. Via Morocco or Libya. “I’ve been here too long, I’m nobody. I have to try to go farther, Fabrice says with a sigh. His cell-phone rings. A fellow countryman informs him that Dannie, the young Cameroonian woman deported to Niger last September, is on the road again. “She’ll be back with us soon,” says Fabrice with a smile.

1First names have been changed in order to ensure the anonymity of the interviewees.

2EDITOR’S NOTE: Algerians who try to leave their country, without a passport or visa, risking their lives on makeshift crafts. They are termed harraga, “burners”, because they “burn” borders.