Why Algeria Is Emptying Itself of African Migrant Workers

The campaign to detain, harass and deport thousands of African migrants is about politics, not past agreements with Niger. Debora Del Pistoia looks past the excuses at the reality of a xenophobic crackdown.

Written by Debora Del Pistoia Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
An African migrant from Niger hides with her newborn child under a structure as she tries to avoid deportation on July 2, 2018, at a transit centre for migrants in Tamanrasset in southern Algeria. Photo credit: RYAD KRAMDI/AFP/Getty Images

The port city of Oran in the northwest of Algeria is a historically cosmopolitan city that has been both a workplace and way station for generations of migrants. But over the last year it has emptied of African migrant workers, as a campaign featuring mass arrests and even house-to-house searches has seen hundreds deported and many more volunteer to leave.

On June 24, local activists sounded the alarm again as 200 foreign nationals were detained in a single roundup. On this occasion they were released several hours later, but the harassment and arrests have created a hostile environment that has seen many sub-Saharan Africans turn to the U.N. Migration Agency (IOM) to voluntarily return home.

The emptying of once diverse Oran is part of a nationwide crackdown begun in August 2017. It has seen Algerian authorities deport, detain and harass migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, often with no regard for their status in the country. More than 15,000 citizens of neighboring Niger and 500 other sub-Saharan African nationals have been expelled.

Algerian authorities have abandoned an additional 10,690 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from Central and West Africa at the border with Niger since May 2017. Many of them have been left to walk distances of up to 30km (18 miles). Another 2,000 people have been abandoned in the same period on a dangerous stretch of desert near the border with Mali, between Bordj Badji Mokhtar and In Khalil.

Though Algeria has in recent years become a country of transit or final destination for many African refugees and migrants, it still lacks a clear legal framework to govern asylum. In 2008, Algeria adopted Law No. 08-1, which governs foreign nationals’ conditions of entry, stay and circulation, and treats irregular migration as a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison and expulsion from the country. The law made it more difficult for migrants to normalize their status in Algeria, forcing many to leave or to work informally at risk of detention or deportation.

Algeria has taken steps to increase security on its long desert borders, but the government has yet to sign any cooperation agreement with the E.U. aimed at a joint border control, citing its sovereign right to deal with migration flows, suggesting its recent crackdown on migrants is motivated more by domestic political considerations than European pressure.

Algeria’s minister of interior, Noureddine Bedoui, appeared to signal a softer approach in June 2017 when he recognized the need for foreign workers, notably in construction, and announced a project that he said would record the identities of migrant workers with a view toward normalizing their status.

However, within weeks the authorities launched a xenophobic public campaign connecting migration with criminal networks threatening Algeria’s national security, echoing a social media hashtag “No to Africans in Algeria” that appeared on World Refugee Day. The racist rhetoric intensified when Ahmed Ouyahia took office as prime minister in August 2017 and started using discriminatory language.

Within weeks the authorities launched a xenophobic public campaign connecting migration with criminal networks threatening Algeria’s national security, echoing a social media hashtag “No to Africans in Algeria” that appeared on World Refugee Day.

In the face of criticism from local and international rights groups, the government attempted to justify its expulsions, saying they were part of a bilateral deal with Niger dating back to 2014. Both countries claim that criminal networks have been trafficking Nigeriens to become beggars in Algeria.

Since 2014, Algeria has repatriated Nigerien nationals en masse in convoys but not other nationals until recently. Since last summer authorities have broadened the migrant crackdown, including nationals of Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Liberia and Senegal. Roundups have become frequent in several Algerian cities. Local security forces have arrested migrants from the street, from their homes and from construction sites, often without regard to their documents or their status.

Those detained have included unaccompanied children, pregnant women and dozens of U.N.-registered asylum seekers, refugees, documented migrants and migrant workers. All of them were detained in awful conditions and deported across the southern border.

By the time Algeria was in front of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of Migrant Workers in March 2018 it began to insist that those expelled had voluntarily chosen repatriation and that pregnant women, unaccompanied minors and people registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees were exempt. The practice of dumping people wholesale at the borders with Niger and Mali was denied.

Hacene Kacimi, an interior ministry official, said Algeria faced threats to its social cohesion. Algeria, he said, had the same right as E.U. states to protect its borders and must not become an “African Lampedusa.”

Government officials, meanwhile, portray Algeria as the victim. During a recent radio interview, Hacene Kacimi, an interior ministry official, said Algeria faced threats to its social cohesion. Algeria, he said, had the same right as E.U. states to protect its borders and must not become an “African Lampedusa.”

While Algeria has a legitimate right to control its own borders, this right sits within a framework of international obligations and human rights law. After years of failing to meet these standards, migrants and asylum seekers are now being used as scapegoats for domestic political purposes and blamed for the woeful socioeconomic situation.

Algerian authorities should counter racial discrimination against sub-Saharan Africans, and reform laws on the rights of migrant workers to stay in the country and work legally, including in sectors like construction and agriculture, where the country suffers from manpower shortages.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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