Mass arrests of migrants in Algeria: “They’re hunting black people”

At least 1,400 people from sub-Saharan Africa were arrested in Algiers. (Photo by an Observer)
At least 1,400 people from sub-Saharan Africa were arrested in Algiers. (Photo by an Observer)

Authorities in the Algerian capital have been carrying out mass arrests of West African nationals since December 1. Once in custody, many of the foreigners are placed in detention camps in Algiers before being brought by bus to Tamanrasset, a southern town near the border with Niger, where they could be deported. According to our Observers, many legal residents of Algeria were rounded up in this wave of violent arrests.

These raids were carried out with no explanation provided by the authorities until December 7, when an official response was published in the newspaper El Moudjahid. Saida Benhabylès, the president of the Algerian humanitarian organisation the Croissant Rouge, explained that the raids took place "because of the overcrowding that there is in the capital." She added that the overcrowding "is creating security problems" and as a result, the authorities decided to "transfer the migrants to the south of the country, where the living conditions are better."

Algerian law enforcement launched this operation at the beginning of the month and seemed to be rounding up foreigners. People were arrested at their workplaces, in their homes and on the streets. The Algerian Human Rights League estimates that around 1,400 foreign nationals were arrested.

Those arrested, most of whom do not have valid Algerian visas, were brought to Zéralda, an area in western Algiers, and kept at a holiday resort closed for the winter months. Photos and videos published on social media show about a hundred people stuffed in a room in the makeshift camp. The images show them lying on the floor, packed in like sardines.

People lie on the floor in the makeshift camp in Zéralda. Photo taken by an Observer.

“Some had refugee cards that allow them to stay legally in Algeria”

One of our Observers, Armando, an Ivorian living in Algiers, managed to escape the camp in Zéralda on the night of December 4.

Gendarmes came to my home on Thursday night. They told me there were tensions right now between Algerians and black Africans in Algiers and that, for my security, I needed to move. I put all of my possessions in the gendarme’s truck, including a fridge, a couch and an armchair. I loaded up everything that I’ve been able to buy for myself after several years of working on construction sites in Algeria.

Gendarmes told our Observer to put all of his belongings in their truck. They told him nothing except that he had to “move house”.

But, instead of moving me to a new home, they locked me up in a camp in Zeralda. There were more than a hundred of us imprisoned there. All of us were black and all of us were arbitrarily arrested in the capital. I saw pregnant women there and children as well. Some of those who were arrested even had refugee cards provided by the HCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), which allow them to stay legally in Algeria. The authorities were basically just hunting down black people.

This refugee card belongs to a man who is currently in hiding with our Observer in order to escape the wave of arrests.

On Friday night [December 2], gendarmes ordered us to get on to buses bound for Tamanrasset [a city in southern Algeria located in the middle of the desert]. No one wanted to go and the situation quickly spiralled out of control. The police started using tear gas on the crowd.

Since fleeing the camp, Armando has been hiding in an abandoned building. He doesn’t dare go out for fear of being arrested again.

Armando was one of only a few to escape that day. Others, who weren’t so lucky, were taken by bus to the southern city of Tamanrasset.

It is difficult to know exactly what is happening in Tamanrasset. France 24 spoke to several witnesses who shared conflicting accounts of the situation. For the time being, Algerian authorities have remained silent on the issue.

“It’s diplomatic nonsense”

Our Observer Fouad Hassan is responsible for issues involving immigrants as part of his job at Snapap, an Algerian workers union. He said he is disconcerted by the silence surrounding this mass operation.

I have received several eyewitness statements that confirm that a collective deportation is going on, even though such an action is forbidden under Article 12 of the African Charter on Human Rights, which is signed by Algeria [Editor’s note: Collective deportation is defined as a deportation that targets a certain group, be it national, ethnic or religious]. By doing that, Algeria is turning its back on its regional neighbours, even though this past weekend, it hosted the African Investment Forum. It’s diplomatic nonsense.

In 2015, Algerian authorities also carried out mass arrests, specifically targeting Nigerien nationals, many of whom were begging in the streets of Algiers. At that time, an accord was signed between the governments in Niamey, Niger and Algiers to organize the return of these people. However, I would say that what is going on right now is the largest hunting down of black men since Algeria's Independence.

France 24 tried, without success, to contact the relevant authorities to understand the reasoning behind the deportations and to get a clearer picture of what is happening to detainees brought to Tamanrasset. We will publish their response when we receive it.