Algeria's anti-immigrant hysteria is hiding government failings

Algeria's anti-immigrant hysteria is hiding government failings
Comment: Control of the situation lies in legalising the presence of sub-Saharan migrants in Algeria, writes Yasmina Allouche.
8 min read
13 Jul, 2017
Makeshift camps have sprung up around the capital of Algiers [AFP]

"They must be exterminated like rats", "go home", "it's an interior occupation", "they are violating and spreading AIDS in our cities" was how some Algerians reacted to images of sub-Saharan migrants living in "settlements" in the capital last month, using the hashtag #NoToAfricansInAlgeria.

Algeria has long prided itself on its African identity, and its leading influence in the Sahel region, but the influx of migrants from sub-Saharan countries has sparked a racist backlash that has shocked many. 

The sentiments shared in recent weeks are certainly not confined to online platforms: President Bouteflika's Chief of Staff, Ahmed Ouyahia, commented this week that migrants were the "source of crimes and drugs". This was echoed by Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel, indicating the extent to which the stigmatisation of migrants and refugees is commonplace in Algeria.

The phenomenon of anti-African stigmatisation has been propped up by the xenophobic sensationalism and political propaganda that the media has broadcast in recent weeks, filling front pages with images of poor Sub-Saharans living in squalid camps around the capital.

The news of 46 Nigerians dying of thirst in the Sahara earlier this year has done little to curb the media frenzy.

Newspapers such as the daily Al-Fadjr wrote of "thousands of Africans invading the streets of the capital," while others such as Echourouk have sowed a climate of fear through their discriminatory reporting on the many "diseases invading our streets", despite official figures contesting the claims.

Condemned as "scandalous" by rights groups, the country has witnessed a continuous regurgitation loop of the same anti-immigrant hysteria witnessed in the last five years, with a reluctance to "move beyond clichés and racial stereotypes".

The influx of migrants from sub-Saharan countries has sparked a racist backlash

This has provoked a number of clashes between sub-Saharans and Algerians, such as in Ouargla in March last year following the news a Nigerian migrant had killed an Algerian, and in Bechar when a girl was allegedly assaulted.

The hunt for illegal immigrants to "protect" the country's security has also resulted in mass deportations. Last December, more than 1,400 sub-Saharan migrants in Algiers were rounded up in a highly publicised "clear-up" operation by Algerian authorities, and moved 1,900 km south to the desert city of Tamanrasset (a transport hub on the trans-Saharan trade route for centuries) where some were later deported.

Estimates provided by the Algerian government have been largely inaccurate compared to the reality on the ground, but unofficial figures suggest that over 100,000 African migrants have come to Algeria to escape acute poverty and conflict from Cameroon, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria and Niger. Just 7,000 have managed to attain refugee status in the country.

Fear and racism

While intra-regional migration has been common since the 1970s in Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, migration from West Africa has only been a recent phenomenon since the 2000s. Regional crises - the main driver behind these migration flows - have disrupted these routes, and directed people towards North Africa and Europe.

The fact that Algeria attracts mixed migration flows, differentiating between those transiting and those settled; those refugees fleeing conflict and those coming to Algeria in search of new economic opportunities, has proven difficult. 

But when looking at the causes of the recent anti-immigrant hysteria, the notion of race appears to have little to do with the fear gripping the country.

Sub-Saharans present a convenient scapegoat for the socio-economic woes of Algerians

Sub-Saharans present a convenient scapegoat for the socio-economic woes of Algerians. This new and emerging social reality, along with evolving demographics in cities is a struggle for many to adapt to amid inflation, the fall in oil prices, growing unemployment and a shortfall of workers.

Indeed, the tensions that have descended into anti-migrant riots over the last five years in the cities of Ouragla, Ghardaia and Bechar must also be viewed in the wider context of ongoing crises in the Sahara rather than a case of racism against blacks in the country.

The country's attempts at steering its economy away from dependency on oil and gas production, and its adoption of reforms to counter that, have provoked riots and bolstered sectarian tensions in places such as Ghardaia which have played host to many newcomers.

The fear of migrants and refugees "taking over" and threatening the security of nearly 40 million people is no longer confined to the south, but evident now in Algeria's coastal cities, too.

The schism between north the south is also pivotal in understanding why recent protests in the capital have adopted more racist tendencies than those common in the south. Indeed, migrants in the south find themselves defined less by their "otherness" in the Saharan oases populated by black Algerians, than in the north, where skin colour is an indication of "outsiders". Easily identifiable, their skin colour pinpoints them as targets getting the blame for social decay.

The workings of a failed system

The country's asylum structure is in dire straits, and ill-equipped to deal with the growing crisis. The European Union's request in 2004 to open a detention camp for sub-Saharans was refused by authorities, simply in denial of the reality of sub-Saharan migration beyond it being just transitory.

The failures have been most evident in the living conditions of migrants forced to reside in old houses or dormitories which lack gas and heating, or in construction sites or uncompleted buildings with no access to sanitation systems.

Despite legislation adopted in 2005 on the UN's International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and their Families, article 67 has done little to protect or prevent abuses by employers who often fail to fulfil the requirements.

Algeria's legislation continues to reflect an inefficient and incomprehensive asylum system

Despite the threat of violence, for many migrants Algeria is a necessary transit point to recover their strength and to save enough money before attempting to continue their journey towards Europe. 

Under the Partnership Framework on migration with third countries adopted in June last year, Algeria was identified as one of 16 "priority" countries the European Commission will offer "incentives" to, in the hope that cooperation in preventing migrants reaching Europe is reciprocated.

Due to the increased securitisation and externalisation of European migration policies, refugees and migrants have found their journey north obstructed further by Algerian authorities.

While traditionally having an open-door approach to migration from neighbouring countries, Algeria has increasingly changed its policy by adopting legislation which criminalises "irregular" migration and fails to provide adequate safeguards to the most vulnerable groups at its doorstep.

In 2015, several NGOs launched the Algerian Immigration Platform to facilitate discussions around the rights and protections of migrants, but little has come of it. Despite it being party to the 1951 Geneva Convention, and a signatory in 1963 and 1967, Algeria's legislation continues to reflect an inefficient and incomprehensive asylum system.

  Read more: EU warns rescuers over 'encouraging refugees' to cross Mediterranean

The Algerian Office for Refugees and Stateless Persons (BAPRA), established in 1963 to implement the Geneva Convention, has also failed to show any transparency with regards to its procedures.

Laws that regulate migration in Algeria, like those introduced in 2008 and 2009 relating to the conditions of entry, departure, and movement of foreigners within the country, have only served to impose further restrictions.

Calls by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UNHCR to guarantee protection to migrants and halt its discriminatory policies towards them have fallen on deaf ears, like those of Messahel who see these requests as "lessons" that Algeria does not need "to receive from anybody".

The slow road to change

Charities and volunteers have attempted to double their work in order to accommodate sub-Saharans in arriving recent years. In cities such as Tizi Ouzou, schools have been opened to better provide for them using funds from the 2017 budget set aside to help homeless sub-Saharans.

But for there to be real impact, the perception of migrants must be at the forefront of change

Since condemnations by groups such as Amnesty International, more efforts by Algerian authorities have been announced. Residency and job permits for undocumented migrants will be issued to counter the shortage of workers in the farming and construction sectors, where beneficiaries will be put on a census by the interior ministry and security services.

The realisation that maintaining the country's sovereignty does not come at the expense of one group, is something that is dawning on officials who are beginning to understand that control of the situation lies in legalising their presence.

But for there to be real impact, the perception of migrants must be at the forefront of change. Media organisations need to work more closely with NGOs, academics and the Algerian authorities to create more spaces for discussion making it easier to keep journalists informed in their reporting.

Current legislation regulating entry, movement and departure of foreigners in the country needs to be restructured to fully comply with international legislation.

Ultimately, blame for the ongoing socio-economic climate must be directed at those responsible in government, instead of using anti-immigrant hysteria as a cry for help.

Yasmina holds a Masters in International Conflict Studies and has a particular interest in Algeria and the Maghreb region. She also regularly organises seminars and events on the MENA region.

Follow her on Twitter: @animsche

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.