Mohamed Saïb Musette, international migrations specialist | Yassin Temlali
Mohamed Saïb Musette, international migrations specialist Print
Yassin Temlali   
Mohamed Saïb Musette, international migrations specialist | Yassin Temlali
Mohamed Saïb Musette
Today, Algeria hosts these migratory flows from Sub-Saharan Africa. This trend has been increasing is recent years. What regional political context could explain this development?
Sub-Saharan migration to the North, particularly from Mali and Nigeria, is a millenary phenomenon. It has always existed. After independence, it continued, thanks to a sort of derogation in Algerian law. Nigerians and Malians who migrated in Algeria were not only traders. They were also seasonal workers in southern oases. This kind of migration is called a “commuter migration”: you come to work and you go back in your country at the end of the season, then you come back and so on. The system worked quite normally.
Malians, Nigerians, southern Algerians and Tuaregs, have always moved freely in the great Sahara. Independent Algeria even institutionalised this free movement on its territory, by giving it a legal basis. Several bilateral treaties have implemented what we call a “barter economy” in this region of the Sahara common to Mali, Niger and Algeria. Algerian, Malian and populations from Niger could move freely between several countries, buy and sell goods, without any constraints, police or customs paperwork. The “border economy” still exists and Algeria contributes to its regulation. Several legal orders determined terms and conditions for imports and exports of good in the framework of the boarder swap economy with Niger and Mali.
In the nineties, at a time when Algeria was unstable, people and goods were not the only things moving freely anymore. Other suspect movements began and Algeria wanted to protect its borders from arms smugglers, contraband, etc. These suspect movements led to a break down of the border swap system on the southern Algerian border, which was naturally echoed on the migration flow from the South…

What role did political instability in Africa play on the development of unauthorised emigration towards Algeria?
Several regional elements contributed to the increase of migratory movements of Sub-Saharan population towards Algeria. The crises in the Ivory Coast and in Sudan for instance. In the early nineties close to a million immigrants from other African nationalities worked in the Ivory Coast. In 1998, 26 percent of the population was foreign. The “hunt of foreigners” that followed the country’s political instability changed the direction of migratory flows in the region: they turned north. Sudan also hosted many African migrants. The crisis the country is experiencing since several years has had the same effect as the crisis in the Ivory Coast.
In 1996-97, Libya toughened its immigration policy. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were sent back to their country; such massive expulsions did not spare the Tunisians, the Moroccans and the Egyptians! Yet, Libya was receiving a sizeable proportion of migratory flows from the Sub-Saharan region. Also, we must not forget the effect of the Schengen Agreement. The strengthening of European visa procedures encouraged illegal immigration by land. It made Algeria, due to its central position, become an important “transit country” on the road to Europe. Mauritania is also a natural passage point towards the EU, but the conflict in Western Sahara lessened its importance. The strengthening of European immigration laws actually gave birth to networks of smugglers, in Africa as well as in Europe.
Finally, one must note that the special Plan for the development of southern Algeria has attracted many Sub-Saharan migrants to the region in recent years. This plan means that there is money to be spent and jobs to be given; these jobs cannot be held by Algerians coming from the North. The North does not provide unskilled workers, but rather executives, administrative staff, etc. With the drop in possibilities of work in Libya and in the Ivory Coast, this plan attracts many Sub-Saharans to Algeria, notably people from Mali and Niger. Let us not forget that the very low revenues in the Sub-Saharan region are amongst the first reasons for deciding to migrate.

Apart from police reports, we have little information on illegal immigration in Algeria. Could you give us some general facts on the issue?
The illegal character of this immigration explains the lack of visibility in statistical terms. Unfortunately, we can only count the number of illegal immigrants from the number of arrests the authorities make. Between 2001 and 2006, we have noted an average of 5000 arrests per year. By multiplying that number by four, we get a suggestive figure of the total number of illegal immigrants present on Algerian territory. Thus, they are around 20000, according to our estimate. However, this number does not include Tuaregs from Mali or Niger, who have always moved freely in the Sahara, particularly in Tuareg areas.
The vast majority of these immigrants are Africans. They spread out over 22 wilayas (counties). They mostly live in the South, notably in Tamanrasset and Ghardaïa. In the far South, in Tamanrasset for example, there is a strong concentration of migrants from Mali and Niger, who come for the most part, from historically large emigration areas: the areas of Kayes, Bamako and Gao in Mali, those of Niamey, Agadez in Niger. African immigrants also live in the North, rather in the West (Oran, Tlemcen and Maghnia) than in the Centre or the East. Only a small minority has settled in eastern cities.

What are the different profiles of these immigrants?
The CISP (2) has conducted a study on this topic, in cooperation with the Société algérienne de recherches en psychologie (SARP). Unfortunately, the results of this study cannot yet be made public.
Overall, we can say that African immigration in Algeria is more masculine than feminine and that it concerns essentially young people: the average age of immigrants is 26 years old. The majority has a medium level of education (secondary school), even if, among those, some have been to university. That immigration includes several areas of professional skills: some were teachers in their countries, sports educators, etc. Others have received special training…

What is the share of these illegal immigrants for who Algeria is a final destination?
40 percent of these immigrants came to Algeria to work. From that point of view, this country is their final destination. Do they intend to ever go back home? We don’t really know.
We know that part of the 20000 immigrants would like to go home, but can’t. It is impossible for them to go further, to Europe and they can’t go back to their country because for them, it would be shameful to have failed their migration project. They are, in a way, stuck in Algeria. They are in distress. The CISP launched an initiative to help returnees from three countries: Mali, Niger, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2005-2006, it helped some 200 to return home, by raising funds through the UNDP, the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM), etc. Algeria must think about putting together a real mechanism for returnees for those immigrants to want to…

Would a “mechanism for returnees” simply be compliant to Europe’s African emigration control policy?
All migration, by definition, presumes a possible return. Going home is present in every migration project. The possibility of returning home must exist for all migrants. After all, there is a return mechanism for Algerian emigration in Europe. It’s been there for decades. Support for returning must of course be voluntary. It is a non-constraining action and asks for the migrant’s desire to go back to his homeland.

What is the share of these illegal immigrants for who Algeria is a “transit country” on the way to Europe?
About 40 percent of the 20000 African illegal immigrants are in some kind of transit in Algeria, on their way to the European continent. In general, the more education they have, the stronger the incentive to go to Europe is. Some entered Algeria quite legally, but when their legal period of stay expired, they became illegal because their objective is to continue on to a European country, Spain, France, or Italy. As you must know, people from Niger or Mali don’t need a visa to travel in Algeria, but their legal period of stay without a visa is limited.
Around 2000, transit time in Algeria, as in other countries actually, did not go beyond six months. It lengthened quite a bit since! Some immigrants can stay in transit for two years waiting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe! We find them mostly in Western cities, near the Moroccan border, but also in some cities to the East, near the Tunisian border.
Mohamed Saïb Musette, international migrations specialist | Yassin Temlali
Immigrants expelled from Morocco

What about the remaining 20 percent?

The situations of these 20 percent are very complex, very diverse. Some wish to return to their country but do not have the funds to do it. Others wish to get political refugee status… One of the key problems identified by the study on African immigration to Algeria is that it includes a portion of refugees which is not always easy to determine. Refugees, everywhere in the world, travel without identity papers. In 2006, the High Commissioner for Refugees recorded 600 requests for political asylum in Algeria, made by nationals of different African states.

The closing of the border between Algeria and Morocco does not seem to deter migrants from entering Morocco and then going into Spain…
The western border was closed. It wasn’t really closed for the networks of smugglers. According to Moroccan researchers, there are 1000 active networks of smugglers in Morocco. They are as active between Algeria and Morocco as they are between Morocco and Spain. If African migrants prefer passing through Morocco, it is because the distance to Spain is much shorter that between Tunisia and Italy, for instance, or between Algeria and France. It is also because the smugglers’ networks are more active, more experienced. In Spain, most illegal immigrants coming from Africa are Moroccan.

Is African emigration towards Algeria essentially an economic emigration?
There are Sub-Saharan villages where migration, for youngsters, is a form of initiation to adult life. In these villages, in order to get married and have a family, a man needs to have had a migratory experience, to work, to earn money, but also to become a “man”. From that point of view, migration can be compared to military service.
Of course, there are also economic reasons behind these migratory flows coming from Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries in the region are extremely poor. Niger and Mali are amongst the poorest countries on the planet. On the scale of human development, they are respectively the 176th and 174th (out of 177). In 2002, life expectancy did not go beyond 46 years in Niger and 48,5 in Mali. For the same year, the GDP per capita was 800 dollars per year in Niger and 930 dollars per year for Mali.
Algeria is ranked 108th on the human development scale. Life expectancy is 69,5 years. Its GDP per capita is 5760 dollars per year (in 2002). Its economy is rapidly developing. A working Sub-Saharan migrant can at least send his family enough money to put his children in school and to buy medicine if they fall ill. He himself can get medical care in an Algerian hospital. In Niger and Mali, health care services are very inadequate and not all children go to school: in 2001-2002, enrolment percentage did not go over 19 percent for Niger and 26 percent for Mali.

You focus on Niger and Mali? Is African immigration in Algeria mostly from these two states?
The vast majority of African immigrants in Algeria are from Niger and Mali, the former being much more numerous than the latter. This can be explained by the fact that people from these two countries know Algeria and Sub-Saharan routes that lead from South to North better than other Africans. They should be all the more regularised because, as I said in the beginning, this migratory flow is millenary. Algeria continues, notably in the South, to tolerate this migration but it has not yet regulated it.

Are there camps in Algeria gathering illegal African immigrants?
At the beginning of this decade, some 2000 African immigrants lived in the camp of Maghinia, in the north-west, near the Moroccan border. This camp hosted would-be emigrants to Europe, some of which were expelled from Morocco under the pretext that they had entered the Kingdom through the Algerian border.
The Maghinia camp was tolerated by the authorities. It is closed today. Are there others? Algerian authorities have camps where they house these illegal immigrants until they deal with their case, determine their nationality, discuss the conditions of their expulsion with their Consulates, etc. I couldn’t say exactly where those camps are. They are under the authority of the security services. Only the Red Cross or humanitarian organisations, like the High Commissioner for Refugees, can eventually gain access to them.

What is Algeria’s position with regards to European policy on the fight against illegal immigration?
Algerian authorities are in favour of a “global settlement” of the illegal emigration question. That is to say, for a solution at the source of the problem, by the development of Sub-Saharan economies and the fight against poverty in Africa.
Algeria did, of course, decide to watch its borders better. It accepted European aide for the training of its border police. But it maintains that it does not want to play the part of “Europe’s policeman”. Europe has moral responsibility towards Africa, which it colonised for a long time. It must help develop this continent.
Algeria refused Italian and German propositions of “sorting camp” on its territory, where illegal immigrants would be evaluated to distinguish between “real asylum seekers” and other immigrants. Algeria has not, for now, adopted laws which increase the penalties in terms of illegal immigration. It did not follow Morocco or Tunisia’s example, where such laws are practically unconstitutional. Tunisian law punishes anyone who hosts an illegal immigrant. This is not yet the case in Algeria.

What is the status of African immigrants working in Algeria? What is their status with regards to Algerian labour law?
Algerian labour laws do not mention the case of working illegal immigrants. The 1990 United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers is not yet in application. Morocco, which has ratified it earlier, still doesn’t apply it either. Tunisia refuses to ratify it.
Concerning social benefits, legal immigrant workers do not have access to them in the sense that they are not registered by their employers. And even if their employers wanted to register them, the law forbids hiring foreigners without a work permit. Illegal immigrants therefore do not benefit from any social benefits. Neither do legal foreign workers, must we underline! The only advantages which they are allowed are those provided by the social security system (reimbursement of medical expenses). But they are not allowed social housing, for instance.
Algeria ratified only very recently, in 2004, the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers. Until it is put in motion, we are working with existing laws. I was myself shocked to hear that even if an immigrant had a work permit, he could not have social housing. It would outrage everyone if an Algerian immigrant in France was not allowed an HLM (French social housing). It seems that in Algeria, it shocks no one that social housing is exclusively for Algerian nationals.

Can one talk of the existence of xenophobia against African immigrants in Algeria?
Algeria has changed. Today, there is more reluctance to accept the presence of foreigners. Of Black foreigners, I’d like to add, as White people have no problem! Xenophobia is a form of hostility towards all foreigners, regardless of their nationality. In Algeria, victims of Xenophobia are essentially Black. For me, this is more a form of anti-Black racism. The Algerian Black population itself can only be seen in the South of the country. Why does it stay confined to that region? This raises a question.
In Algeria, it has become commonplace to call a Black person “kahlouch” (3). “Kahlouch” became the “normal”, ordinary term to call a Black person, although its derogatory implication is evident. What is certain is that this behaviour has nothing to do with Islamic religion. Islam does not differentiate people according to the colour of their skin.
Algeria has changed. In the sixties and seventies, it welcomed many African students. Algerians hung out with Blacks, Chileans or Portuguese… This “melting pot” wasn’t a problem for anybody. The arabisation of the education system resulted in less Africans coming to study in Algeria today. Their presence in the street has become a curiosity for entire generations who have never seen any in their lives.

Do you fear that what you call a “form of anti-Black racism” will get worse or are you optimistic for the future?
Openness to the media and massive access to foreign media will help to break the cultural isolation in which Algeria has lived for too long, for too many years. Today, everyone has a satellite dish. We’re discovering that the world is vast and diverse. Thanks to television, we have access to other cultural spheres. Sooner or later, Algeria will have to open itself to multi culturality. We’ll end up by accepting the presence of the other among us and respect his culture. I am optimistic.

Yassin Temlali