At the start of this year, 100 Arab migrants from Palestine, Syria and Yemen were reportedly “unaccounted” for after their refusal to be repatriated following Algeria’s decision to deny them entry into the country due to security concerns.
This is one of many cases since 2017 where the Algerian authorities response to migration from Sub-Saharan Africa has been heavily criticised for its human rights abuse.
In recent weeks, the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights denounced the deportation of 50 mostly Syrian migrants to Niger, smuggled into the country in September last year. This also evokes memories of the 40 plus Syrian refugees who were stranded between Algeria and Morocco in 2017 as the countries exchanged diplomatic jibes on who was at fault.
Where the refusal to accept entry of the Palestinians may contradict the fraternal relationship Algeria holds with Palestine, the Syrians were singled out as a potential security threat for their suspected affiliation with the Free Syrian Army which Algeria considers a “jihadist” group.
Algiers has backed Syrian President Bashar al Assad from the start, a position they justify as ‘anti-interventionist’ informed by their experience fighting militant groups during the decade-long civil war in the 1990’s. Last month Algiers, and a few other Gulf states, called upon the Arab League to reinstate Assad after Syria’s expulsion eight years ago.
Threats and Continuity
At the 10th Summit of the African Union, which took place last year, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and a number of others refused to sign the protocol on the freedom of movement of people and right of residence, based on the African Union’s African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, due to fears of mass migration from sub-Saharan Africa.
Algeria is also one of 16 “priority” countries which the European Commission incentivises with a country package under the Partnership Framework with ‘third countries’ adopted in June 2016 in order to prevent the flow of migrants to Europe.
Intra-regional migration from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad has been common since the 1970s but due to regional crises since the 2000s, migration from western African has been consistent. As a result, the mixed migration flows and lack of differentiation between refugees and economic migrants coming to Algeria have allowed for blanket measures to be adopted in order to deal with the issue.
More than 13,000 refugees in the last year and half have been abandoned in the desert and according to Algeria’s interior minister the country has ‘repatriated’ over 27,000 people since 2015. At least 3,000 people were reportedly expelled in 2018 alone and between 25,000 and 100,000 undocumented migrants currently reside in Algeria, working mainly in the agriculture and construction industries.
Algeria has proven to be an asset in the region for the European Union in regulating the migration flow between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe but the increasing numbers of undocumented migrants have raised security concerns for the country. Those concerns have taken on particular urgency this year as the country prepares for presidential elections, expected in April.
Since Algeria’s brutal civil war, buying social peace has been the government’s deterrence against the type of unrest that has defined the region since the Arab Spring in 2011. It also serves as a guarantee of power for the elite of former independence war veterans who have governed the country since 1962.
The Algerian political elite will attempt to maintain the reign of ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is due to assume his fifth term in office, and any threats to the status quo will be dealt with. This has been seen with the continued purge of military and police figures, like Abdelghani Hamel, the head of the Algerian national police force, under the guise of anti-corruption, but is in fact to ensure utmost loyalty from the military before elections.
Lack of solutions to an ongoing problem
The interior ministry has maintained the right to unilaterally evict foreigners who might ‘violate the security of the state, public order, morality and organised crime legislation and indeed, has reinforced the need to preserve its security through mass deportations describing it as a sovereign right.
However, the absence of asylum legislation means bleak prospects for migrants who make it into Algeria. Many end up with poor housing conditions, unregulated employment and an ever-present threat of deportation.
Since 2015, the launch of the Algerian Immigration Platform to facilitate discussions around the rights and protection of migrants by several NGOs has failed to bring meaningful change. Established in 1963, the Algerian Office for Refugees and Stateless Persons (BAPRA), has failed to disclose its procedures and the laws in place that stipulate the conditions of entry, departure, and movement of foreigners within the country.
Looming elections have coincided with greater difficulties for Algerians domestically. Falling oil, prices, high unemployment and inflation, as well as the presence of more migrants in major cities has created a space for xenophobic politics to thrive.
But like the narrative of counter-terrorism adopted by the national army, imposing restrictions on the freedom of movement and on the borders goes hand in hand with its staunch counterterrorism apparatus which views an open door policy as one where potential terrorists can reap havoc, akin to the Armed Islamic Group in the 90s.
Algeria’s predicament is certainly not unique; its neighbours also lack rights-based migrant policies. Tunisia has failed to adopt a proper legal framework on migration and asylum. Migrants in Libya, since the ousting of former president Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the ensuing war, have had to endure the worst conditions imaginable, such as torture and rape in detention centres, slave markets, and abuse at the hands of human traffickers. The number of migrants from Libya has declined in recent years following international pressure and EU assistance to Libyan law enforcement agencies.
Libya’s porous border has also raised significant terrorism concerns in the region, because of the presence of Daesh. This has defined and framed conversations about migration in a more hostile and securitised manner.
The political elite creating the socio-economic problems in Algeria have benefited politically from blaming migrants for social decay by exacerbating the xenophobic and racist hysteria around their presence in recent years. Algeria’s progress lies in recognising that continuity of the current ruling apparatus is simply not sustainable anymore and blaming anyone but themselves for the country’s issues will only lead to disaster.
Properly regulating migration by adopting an adequate rights-leading asylum system and approach to migration, by honouring its ratification of the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, can at least be the start in initiating so many desperately needed reforms.