The “Border Burners” in the Algerian Press

Crisis of migrants or crisis of the West? · Offenders? Victims? Resistants? Who are these clandestine immigrants trying to leave the country by “burning borders”, described in the Algerian dailies?

From Harragas, a documentary of Merzak Allouache, 2009.

“Powerless to act, the government finally admits the problem is serious. The harraga are exposing the system for what it is.” This was the heading of an article the Algerian daily El Watan on September 29, 2009. The harraga are the people trying to leave the country, without passports or visas, risking their lives on makeshift crafts. In the Maghreb, these would-be immigrants are called harraga, “burners,” because they don’t bother with borders or any official formalities. Besides which, if they make it to Europe they burn or otherwise destroy their ID papers in order to avoid being deported. The photo illustrating the article shows rescue workers fishing a dead body out of the sea, showing readers how many migratory efforts end in tragedy. The journalist calls the harraga an “ugly icon” that lays bare what is wrong with Algeria. He is harshly critical of Algerian officialdom and ultimately links the country’s democratic deficit with the harraga’s desire to emigrate.

It was articles like this that prompted us to study the media coverage of migration in the countries of origin. Studying the way the media talk about migration is all the more relevant now that it has been recognised to be a public and political issue. The media can play an important role in informing the public of the existence of social and political situations which pose serious problems.

In Europe the media emphasis is on the “migratory crisis” and the difficulty of handling the flood of migrants in emblematic places like the islands of Lesbos and Lampedusa, or around Calais. But how is migration discussed in their countries of origin? Departures from Algeria in rowboats and trawlers did not acquire massive proportions until around 2005. To counter the phenomenon, the government took several steps, most of them repressive. One of the most symbolic decisions was the addition of the crime of “illegal exit” to the criminal code in 2009, in clear contradiction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states in its article 13: “Every individual has the right to leave his/her country and return to his/her country.”

The following analysis is based on a corpus of articles dealing mainly with the harga (the word designating the action of the harraga and published in one of the four national dailies, El Watan (privately owned, in French), El Khabar (privately owned, in Arabic), El Moudjahid (State-owned, in French) and Ech-Chaab (State-owned, in Arabic). These papers have been chosen because they reflect, at least in part, the diversity of the Algerian media landscape. The amount of attention they pay to the migratory phenomenon varies greatly from one to the other. The State-owned papers devote only a few isolated articles to the harraga whereas the privately owned papers like El Watan, for example, devoted nearly two hundred articles to them in 2008-2009, when media coverage of the phenomenon was at its height.

Criminals or heroes

The rhetoric and especially the vocabulary of the press articles devoted to the “border burners” often portray them as lawbreakers. In the Arabic press, the terms “illegal migration” (ھﺠﺮة ﻏﯿﺮ ﺷﺮﻋﯿﺔ) and “clandestine migration” (ﺳﺮﯾﺔ ھﺠﺮة) are used. Besides the neologism harga the French language press uses the word “clandestine” to describe the phenomenon. The expressions used by the press in general are marked by abusive parallels and confusion. For example, the French language press uses interchangeably “émigré” (emigrant) and “immigré”(immigrant), and émigration and immigration. Thus the harraga can come to be called “illegal immigrants” in their own country. The choice of vocabulary is primordial, words contribute to the construction of reality and society. This confusion between immigrant and emigrant tends to be heightened by the description of the activity as illegal or clandestine. As Patrick Weil has pointed out, “the very term clandestine conjures up the idea of a danger for the political community.”1

The sources used for these articles also help to criminalise the figure of the harrag. Indeed most of them rely solely on law enforcement sources (coast guard, civil protection authority, national gendarmerie). Some of the articles do little more than relay data provided by the security forces at some annual or biannual media briefing. These associate the harga with different types of criminality which defy border controls, such as smuggling drugs or other commodities or even terrorism.

The most frequent articles on the harga are very short and merely report that a boat was intercepted, its passengers taken into custody and brought before a judge. The choice of words from the semantic field of “arrest” or of “rescue” depends on the depth of the passengers’ distress at the time the security forces intervene. Basic information is provided concerning the profile of the harraga (age, country of origin) and the ways and means of departure (embarkation beaches, fees paid to the smugglers) and the harraga’s appearance before a judge is announced. Never are they or their families given a voice.

One of the most striking features of these articles is that the legitimacy of these proceedings brought against Algerians attempting an “irregular departure” is never contested, even before the criminal code was amended and article 175a created the crime of “illegally exiting” the national territory. By relaying the vocabulary and the rhetoric of official sources and refusing to question the repressive orientation of the policies aimed at stopping the harga, most Algerian articles on the subject foreground the figure of the migrant criminal.

Yet in contrast with this vision, the migrants may also be presented as resourceful heroes, bravely confronting countless dangers to reach their destination and make something of themselves. Again, it’s the vocabulary which contributes to this figure. Journalists call the harraga “adventurers” or “pirate pacifists” (قراصنة البحر المسالمين ). The “adventurer” is a figure also suggested by certain expressions such as “perilous adventure” or “perilous crossing.” The description of the way-would-be migrants prepare for their journey also contributes to the construction of the harrag as a heroic figure. Journalists admire his/her resourcefulness.

Victims of many persecutors

Alongside these images of adventurers and criminals, the Algerian press also portrays them as the victims of a variety of persecutors. They are described as victims of themselves, of their obsession to emigrate and their naivety. But even more as victims of the smugglers, invariably portrayed as unscrupulous predators, getting rich on human misery. The French-speaking journalists enlist terms like “network,” “evildoers,” “gang of thugs” or “traffickers in human beings.” Arabic dailies, to describe these “smugglers,” use words like “gang” ( عصابة ); “gang of criminals” ( عصابة إجرامية).

The media treatment of the causes of the harga also contributes to the construction of a figure victimised by the prevailing social order. Indeed many articles in the privately owned press analyse the reasons behind the phenomenon. Starting in 2007, these private dailies allot increasing amounts of space to alternative sources, which makes it possible to shed a different light on the issue. Journalists seek out the viewpoint of social science searchers studying migration. Theirs is a more thematic approach which lays the blame for the harga squarely in the lap of society as a whole and more precisely with the government. Among the causes most frequently mentioned are economic hardship, unemployment, and young people’s boredom. And finally, the harraga are described as victims of public policies. Before 2008, critical rhetoric is focused on the absence of government policies. In this respect, the most politicised rhetoric comes from parents who give voice to their incomprehension and sufferings and blame the government for its inaction and indifference. The actions which the State does take, particularly in the realm of the judiciary, are increasingly the object of media attention, especially in El Watan since 2009. Controversies surrounding the application of repressive policies are becoming more frequent, in particular since it was announced in September 2008 that the criminal code was to be amended.

Symbols of failure

And lastly, the harraga are seen as symbols. The reasons given in El Watan to explain these migrations are increasingly political. The harga is considered as proof that there is something seriously wrong with the way Algeria is governed. The phenomenon is seen as an “indicator” of “the failure of the system”2. It reveals “the deep unease” affecting Algerian society and attests to “the failure of governmental actions”3. The phenomenon has “laid bare the incapacity of public authorities to deal with the concerns of youth.”

These criticisms draw in particular on a paradox: Algeria is a rich country whose children are nonetheless prepared to risk their lives to leave it. In some articles social-economic factors are overshadowed by the democratic deficit. According to Mustafa Bouchachi, president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (Laddh), “if hundreds of youths prefer death at sea to life in Algeria, it is not to flee hunger or unemployment, but to flee an absence of democracy and freedom. A young man who is told he could grow up to be president is not going to risk death at sea”4. According to Karim Khaled, a sociologist, it is impossible to study a phenomenon like the harga without analysing the nature of the political system and all the frustrations it can generate at the heart of society5. Some of the articles that foreground political factors behind the migration draw a parallel between harraga and street rioters, thereby identifying migration as a form of protest.

The Algerian national dailies paint many different portraits of the emigrant and their coverage is quantitatively very different. While the harraga are given special attention to the privately owned papers, they are almost completely ignored by the State-controlled press which hardly devotes as many as ten articles per year to the question. Overall, the harrag is seen as a figure with many faces, at once criminal, hero, victim and symbol.

Which of these is emphasised depends on events but also on the type of article and the sources used. Certain articles will treat the harga as a criminal offence, whereas editorials tend to see it as an act of public protest or a symbol of the ills afflicting Algeria.

1La France et ses étrangers : L’aventure d’une politique de l’immigration de 1938 à nos jours, Folio, 2005 ; p. 309.

2La France et ses étrangers : L’aventure d’une politique de l’immigration de 1938 à nos jours, Folio, 2005 ; p. 309.

3Madjid Makedhi, « Le phénomène des harragaprend de l’ampleur », El Watan, April 8, 2008.

4Nadja Bouaricha, “ Bouchachi : ‘Les {}harraga fuient l’absence de démocratie’ "El Watan, May 2, 2009.

5M. A. O, “Les spécialistes débattent des flux migratoires au Cread à Alger ,” El Watan, May 16, 2009.