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Algeria’s unprecedented mass deportations are creating a humanitarian emergency in Niger


African migrants set to be repatriated to their country by the Algerian government wait at a temporary refuge center near the Niger border in Tamanrasset, Algeria, 2 July 2018. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Press

The numbers are unparalleled, the conditions in northern Niger unprecedented: after Algerian authorities expelled more than 10,000 migrants and people on the move in only 12 weeks, abandoning them in the desert near the border to Niger, a humanitarian state of emergency prevails in the small town of Assamaka. By doing this, however, Algeria is not only tightening its deportation practices, but also turning its back on the entire continent.

Algeria’s government is once again intensifying its repressive and systematic crackdown on migrants and people on the move across the country. Between January and late March 2023, Algerian authorities abandoned more than 10,000 people in the desert near the border with neighbouring Niger in a series of rigorous collective deportations, reports the activist network Alarme Phone Sahara (APS).

Sofian Philip Naceur is a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s North Africa Office and works as a freelance journalist.

The humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is also sounding the alarm and issued a statement calling on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to immediately provide urgently needed protection for the people stranded in extremely precarious conditions in the small town of Assamaka in northern Niger. MSF says that the situation in the town, which only counts about 1,500 inhabitants, is unprecedented.

A transit shelter designed for roughly 1,100 people and run by the United Nations-affiliated border regime service provider International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Assamaka is reportedly reaching the limits of overcrowding. IOM has stopped providing accommodation for newly arrivals since Algeria expelled 1,078 people to Niger in two deportation convoys in December 2022, APS reported in a statement. A health facility run by MSF in Assamaka is also overwhelmed, according to the NGO.

Thousands of people have already sought shelter in and around the centre, erecting makeshift tents and even camp in the waste area seeking shade to protect themselves from temperatures of up to 48 degrees. MSF warns that there is not enough food and water for such a high number of deportees.

A Far-Reaching Repatriation Deal

For years, Algerian authorities have systematically arrested hundreds of people on a weekly basis in cities in northern Algeria such as Oran, Algiers, and Annaba — in blatant violation of international refugee and human rights conventions — and transferred them in bus convoys to the city of Tamanrasset some 2,000 kilometres south of Algiers.

After a generally short detention in a transit facility, they are then packed onto trucks and expelled at the so-called “Point Zero” in the middle of the Sahara desert on Algerian territory near the border with Niger. From here, deportees are forced to walk 15 kilometres to Assamaka, where MSF, APS, or IOM provide emergency assistance.

The basis for these collective deportations is a 2014 bilateral readmission agreement between the governments in Algiers and Niamey, which technically only provides for the expulsion of Nigerien citizens from Algeria. Nevertheless, Algeria consistently ignores its provisions and also expels people from Arab as well as West and Central African states to Niger ― en masse.

While Algeria usually expels Nigerien citizens in so-called “official convoys” at the Niger border , people from West and Central African countries ― but also from Yemen, Palestine, Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Egypt, or recently even Costa Rica ― are dropped off at Point Zero in “unofficial convoys”. In the past, even Algerian citizens have been deported to Niger, usually after being arbitrarily arrested without personal identification in Tamanrasset or other parts of southern Algeria.

The government in Niamey has repeatedly and publicly criticized Algeria for deporting people of other nationalities to Niger, but so far Algiers has chosen to ignore the criticism. After conducting only sporadic expulsions in the years following the signing of the readmission deal, the government of Algeria’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia ramped up the arrest and expulsion campaigns in 2017. With the exception of a brief interruption after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the collective deportations have never stopped since.

In 2021, MSF recorded a total of 27,208 deportees from Algeria. MSF’s Head of Mission in Niger, Jamal Mrrouch, told the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation that the figure even reached a whopping 36,083 in 2022.

Tightening Deportation Practices

In light of this unprecedented wave of deportations against people on the move and migrants in recent weeks, human rights groups and humanitarian organizations fear that Algeria, like Tunisia, may be trying to impose an even tougher approach to its already severely restrictive immigration policy.

After the statement of Tunisia’s president a month ago, many migrants left Tunisia out of fear and some crossed the border to Algeria, where they were arrested by Algerian authorities and immediately expelled to Niger.

It is unclear whether the recent measures are only a temporary surge of reprisals or part of a long-term plan, but so far, they appear to indicate that Algeria is getting even more aggressive with its migration policies once again. Authorities not only seem to be expanding the number of expulsions, as deportations and border controls along Algeria’s land and maritime borders have also been tightened.

Roughly 80 percent of all recent deportees report to MSF that they have had money, valuables, and passports or other documents taken from them by Algerian officials, Mrrouch says. “For years, Algerian authorities systematically take the phones of those expelled to Niger to prevent them from taking pictures and sharing them. Money and valuable items are also taken from them, but we can only confirm a few cases where expelled people were deprived of their IDs in the past”, Moctar Dan Yaye of APS explained in an interview. Yet, the recent and apparently systematic confiscation of personal identification documents by Algerian authorities delays administrative procedures and repatriations of people from Niger, as it complicates the process of verifying the origin of deportees.

Sharper Controls in the North

Algeria has substantially intensified its border control policy on the Mediterranean coast over the past two years. Previously, Algerian authorities were somewhat tolerant of the irregular migration of Algerian citizens across the Mediterranean to Spain or Italy, but took rigorous action against attempts to cross the sea by non-Algerians. If only Algerians were apprehended in boats intercepted by the Algerian coast guard, courts usually only imposed mild sentences. Yet, when foreign people were caught, authorities such as the police, the public prosecutor, and judiciary cracked down harshly, often imposing severe prison sentences on alleged smugglers and people on the move.

In the meantime, however, the winds have changed. Authorities have become visibly tougher around the two most important points of departure for the irregular crossing to Europe, near Oran in western Algeria nearby the Spanish coast and in the region of Annaba in the proximity of the Italian islands of Sardinia and Sicily. The sale of boats and marine engines is now systematically monitored in Annaba and those who purchase them often face confiscation, while authorities have literally erected concrete walls in Aïn el-Turk and Cap Falcon west of Oran to prevent access to beaches for those carrying boats to the coast.

Moreover, beach patrols have been expanded and police checks of people traveling on roads near known departure spots have intensified. People intercepted while crossing the sea are now often prosecuted much more strictly compared to previous years, regardless of their nationality.

North Africa Turns Its Back on the Continent

Meanwhile, living conditions for migrants are currently worsening significantly — not only in Algeria, but also in Tunisia.

In February, Tunisia’s increasingly authoritarian President Kaïs Saïed issued a statement dripping in racist and nationalist-identitarian conspiracy rhetoric against migrants, triggering a countrywide wave of violence against Black people. Virtually overnight, thousands were kicked out of their homes, lost their jobs, and were verbally and physically attacked in the streets. While some West African states organized evacuation flights for their citizens, rescuing thousands, thousands more fled across the Mediterranean to Italy within a few weeks. Others sought to seek safety in Algeria ― but in vain.

“After the statement of Tunisia’s president a month ago, many migrants left Tunisia out of fear and some crossed the border to Algeria, where they were arrested by Algerian authorities and immediately expelled to Niger”, Mrrouch from MSF says. Migrants in North African countries have long been subjected to racism, state violence, and exploitation, but recent developments in Tunisia and Algeria take on a new dimension.

Algeria in particular explicitly pursued a policy of cooperation and solidarity with other African states and post-colonial countries in the Global South after gaining independence in the 1960s, and supported other independence movements with logistics, money, and arms. Algeria’s capital Algiers was widely regarded as a “Mecca of revolutionaries” until the late 1970s, and authorities offered independence movements shelter and diplomatic backing.

Today, practically none of this remains. Instead, the country competes with other Arab regimes such as Morocco and Egypt for regional hegemony, while its ruthless deportation policy undermines its relations with countless African states. The regime in Algiers exploits deeply rooted racist attitudes in Algerian society and pursues rigorous anti-immigration measures or, as in 2017, turns to blatantly racist rhetoric, partly in its own short-term interest. With its increasingly draconian immigration and border control policies, the government is also undermining the African Union’s (AU) efforts to facilitate visa-free travel on the continent for citizens of AU member states by establishing an Africa-wide freedom of movement protocol that also contains the right to work.

Meanwhile, the restrictive and militarized immigration and border control policies of the EU and North African states are also taking a severe toll on Nigerien society. “Resentments against migrants have been increasing in North African countries for years, but now it’s also happening in Niger”, a source familiar with developments in Nigerien society who wishes to remain anonymous told us.

The EU’s externalization of its external borders to the Global South and the increasingly militarized border control policies of North African states are taking the pan-African rhetoric used by North African governments ad absurdum and undermining some promising AU initiatives aimed at strengthening South–South cooperation on the continent ― conceivably the only chance for effective resistance to post-colonial exploitative relations between the Global North and the Global South.