international analysis and commentary

From the Sahara to the Mediterranean: Algeria and the migrant crisis


Algeria geographically connects the Sahel and Europe through the Mediterranean basin and over the last few years it has become one of several pathways for migrants and refugees. Its border management and treatment of those fleeing from war, poverty or political persecution is thus directly relevant to political and security relations in the region and crucially also to humanitarian efforts to resolve the Mediterranean migration crisis. The continued migration to North Africa from sub-Saharan countries is a lesser known aspect of the crisis and yet it remains a determining factor in its history. For example, of the migrants who have arrived in Italy so far this year 35,938 are Eritrean, 17,887 Nigerian, 10,060 Somalian, 8,370 Sudanese and 7,072 Syrian.[1] Some of this migration, however, never reaches Europe and transit countries such as Algeria become countries of destination or of temporary residence.

Just this month the Algerian regional coastguard command intercepted 11 migrants aged between 18 and 32 who were attempting the Mediterranean crossing towards Europe aboard a makeshift boat from Ras el Hamra and a further 13 harragas, or illegal immigrants, a week prior to that. A total of 185 migrants have been arrested off the Annaba coasts since the beginning of 2015.[2] Like other Arab countries Algeria has chosen a more punishing policy with regard to Syrian refugees. At the beginning of this year the Algerian government introduced a visa system for Syrians and after a few months established that its embassies could not grant individuals a visa without the approval of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which in turn requires an authorization on behalf of the national security forces. This centralized form of screening is the same that the state adopts with regard to requests from countries that are considered a threat to national security.

While Algeria has signed the Geneva Convention on refugee status, there is no statute for refugees and Algerian law does not recognize asylum requests. The authorities tolerate the presence of refugees on national soil – Syrian or otherwise – and unlike some other Arab countries Syrian refugees are allowed to circulate freely.[3] Yet, the legal ambiguity facing them and others makes their existence more difficult and also shrouds the entire operation in mystery. Not only are refugee statistics inaccurate and incomplete but the actual functioning of detention centers such as that of In Salah are unscrutinized. Together with the strict visa regimes, the heavy sanctions and the thirty days of detention awaiting illegal immigrants, which can be renewed indefinitely and as such have prompted lawyers to argue that they lie foul of the Geneva Convention and of international law, it makes for a harrowing picture.

In a way, the Sahara desert can be considered the Mediterranean of the South. Its northern reaches are the site of extensive border controls that are both directly and indirectly related to the efforts of European states to stymie migration towards its shores. The desert is also the great pathway connecting countries of escape to the lands of opportunity, the safe and prosperous havens dreamt of by migrants and refugees, not to mention the graveyard of both those hopes and of the people harboring them. In a recent report the International Organization for Migration concluded that the Sahara crossing might be as deadly as the Mediterranean for the new wave of migrants. Although reported deaths are usually in the tens, this is thought to be partly due to the inherent difficulties of tracking and searching for migrants in the area. Meanwhile, according to testimonies hundreds more may have perished along the route.[4]

Some of the recent findings have taken place on Algeria’s border with Niger. In June the remains of 18 people were found near the oasis of Arlit, just south of the border. This was just one outcome in a lengthy history of trans-Saharan crossings to Algeria. Indeed, the Algerian state has been regularly repatriating migrants from Niger – on the request of the latter – since December 2014. In the month of October, 471 Niger nationals arrived in the reception center of Tamanrasset where they were detained ahead of repatriation and according to the Algerian Red Crescent organization they are part of 3,741 Niger nationals, including 900 children, who have been similarly expelled. Meanwhile, an unknown number is expected to have remained in the country.[5] Indeed, since this operation began in 2014 there have been reports that migrants and refugees regularly manage to elude the authorities and that the expulsion measures have sometimes bordered on brutality.[6]  

It is hard to ignore the connection between what is happening in the Mediterranean and what is happening further south, at the desert borders of North African countries like Algeria. Not least because the migration policy and the border activity that the latter have followed has been largely shaped by Europe. Creating a corridor of buffer or safe states around the Schengen area, or the externalization of border security as it is sometimes referred to, has been EU policy for the better part of the last two decades. Libya and Morocco are the better known cases. Italy outsourced detention services to the authoritarian regime of Colonel Gheddafi, repatriated illegal immigrants including non-Libyans who had transited through Libya and trained the country’s border staff. The EUROMED partnership resulted in the Moroccan government increasing the border forces substantially with 11,000 security officers deployed to the Moroccan coasts at a cost of 100 million euros per year and hardening laws on migration – contrary to the country’s historic openness.

Today the EU continues to shape Algeria’s migration policy as part of its main cooperation programs, MEDA I (since 1996) and MEDA II (since 2000), with a series of bilateral agreements that amount to 250 million euros, 10 million of which have been spent on training the Algerian frontier police (PAF).[7] One of the unintended consequences of the greater “securitization” of borders in the Maghreb has been to divert the migration flows to other countries such as Turkey, Greece or Mauritania. In any case, it would be advisable to urgently place Saharan border activities under greater scrutiny so as to ensure that human rights are being respected and to avoid humanitarian disasters, particularly in the desert crossing. In the longer term more should be done to transform borders by investing in social welfare projects, fostering cross-border governance and environmental protection.