Algerian authorities crack down on migrants, deporting many to Niger

Several people in Algeria reached out to our team at FRANCE 24 Observers to let us know that there had been a new wave of arrests in Oran and that some migrants had been deported to Niger. (These are screengrabs and images sent to the Observers.)
Several people in Algeria reached out to our team at FRANCE 24 Observers to let us know that there had been a new wave of arrests in Oran and that some migrants had been deported to Niger. (These are screengrabs and images sent to the Observers.)

Since early September, police in Oran, a town in northwestern Algeria, have arrested a number of people suspected of living and working illegally in the country. The migrants who were arrested are being held in detention centres, where they are enduring poor conditions while awaiting deportation. But when they finally are deported, they don’t get to return to their countries of origin. Instead, the Algerian authorities have been taking them and dropping them in the desert near the border with Niger.

"It’s true that we are migrants here, but we have rights and responsibilities (...). Look at the condition of the place where we are supposed to sleep! We can’t even sleep. Coronavirus… look at how we are living in Algeria!” says a man, narrating a video of the migrant detention centre where he is crammed into a room with about 50 other people. Their only comfort is foam mattresses on the ground, where they both sit and sleep. The facility is incredibly overcrowded. 

Our Observer sent us this video, which he filmed on October 5 in a deportation centre for undocumented migrants in Oran, Algeria. 


'We are given food only once a day'

Paul (not his real name) took this footage the week of October 5 in a detention centre in Oran. He is Cameroonian and has been living in Algeria for the past three years:


I went to run an errand and gendarmes stopped me, put handcuffs on me and pushed me into a truck. In the centre, we were only given food once a day. The toilets were dirty and smelled like urine. There were sick people there. They told us that they were being taken to Niger. Thankfully, one night, I managed to escape. 

I came to Algeria to work. But I don’t have a passport and I’m undocumented. I live in a site under construction and I have to steer clear of the police. 

Our team received photos showing people being arrested at the construction sites where they were sleeping in Misserghin, a town in Oran, in early October. 

'We don’t go out. We send each other messages and wait'

Several photos that have been circulating in various WhatsApp groups show arrests taking place at the construction sites in Oran where many migrants work and sometimes even sleep. In each instance, the people who were arrested were taken to a detention centre, then brought by a bus or truck to the border with Niger and left in the middle of the desert. Jacques (not his real name), who is also from Cameroon, has been living in Algeria for the past eight years: 


On October 7, police came to my home in Oran. I had my papers and so did the person I was with, so they left us. But then they went to the neighbour’s house. She had misplaced her papers. They didn’t give her time to look for them; they just took her away. Now, she’s in the desert [Editor’s note: at the border]. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you have papers or not; the police don’t differentiate. 

They don’t deport people from Cameroon or Mali or many places back to their country of origin. The authorities just bring them to the desert on the border with Niger. But why would these people ever stay in Niger? Or go back to their countries of origin? Here, in Algeria, they have their lives; they have work. So many people pay exorbitant fees to be smuggled back into towns in Algeria. 

When there was a wave of arrests, people panicked. The authorities know everything; where the “Blacks” live, where the “Blacks” work. So we don’t go out, we send each other messages on WhatsApp about what’s going on outside and we wait. We are used to it. It’s always the same story.


Another man, Soufiane (not his real name), who didn’t tell us what his nationality is, contacted the Observers on October 12 from the Oran detention centre. A few days later, he was brought to the border between Algeria and Niger and sent our team a video showing several men stranded in the desert. He said that he was in Tamanrasset, without food and with no way to return to Oran.

Screengrab of the video sent to us by one of our Observers, who was brought to the Nigerien border and left in the desert. 


Similar arrests documented since 2016 

Over the past few weeks, Algerian authorities have carried out sweeps arresting migrants in Oran as well as Tlemcen, Alger, Blida, Boumerdès, Tipaza, Zeralda, Sétif and Annaba, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report dated October 9. Some were arrested at home, others in the street, others at their workplace. 

HRW estimates that Algeria has deported more than 3,400 migrants of at least 20 different nationalities to Niger, including 430 children and 240 women since early September. According to the NGO, this brings the total number of deportations to Niger to over 16,000 in 2020. Only just over half of those deported there are actually from Niger.  

Between 2016 and 2018, the FRANCE 24 Observers team documented several waves of arrests targeting people from West and Central Africa.


Fouad Hassam, an activist with the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), says that these deportations were suspended in 2019 with the Hirak protest movements then again in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic.

"But now, they can justify their behaviour because they say that the number of Covid-19 cases are dropping in the country,” he says.

He’s worried that people don’t care about what is happening. 

"In 2018, NGOs were following what was happening and were able to react when these mass arrests took place. Today, no one is speaking out about what is happening.” 


'Official' and 'unofficial' convoys 

Moctar Dan Yaye, who is the head of communication and public relations for Alarm Phone Sahara, an organisation that helps migrants who are trapped in the desert, says these deportations can be extremely dangerous and that, sometimes, people get lost in the harsh, disorientating landscape:


There are official convoys that transport people from Niger back to their country and unofficial convoys that transport people of different nationalities back to Niger. These people are then dropped off in the middle of the desert. Often, they are brought there at night or early in the morning. Then, they can see a light in the distance. That’s the first village on the Niger side, Assamaka. That’s where they need to go. There, they’ll find people working with the International Organization for Migration [Editor’s note: IOM, the UN’s migration agency], who help organise voluntary repatriation.

Some refuse to walk to Assamaka and try, instead, to return to Algeria. It doesn’t matter what choice they make; some people get lost. That’s why we do patrols. When I was in Assamaka in January, I saw the grave of a migrant. I don’t know when he died. It’s impossible to have statistics on the number of people who died when getting lost in the desert.

This Facebook post by the NGO Alarm Phone Sahara (as translated from French) explains that Algeria is still carrying out mass deportations of migrants to Niger. This post mentions a group of people who had been deported from Algeria who arrived in the border town of Assamaka, Niger on October 8, 2020. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned human rights violations by Algeria in their treatment of these migrants. 

On October 1, the Algerian Minister of the Interior Kamel Beldjoud announced that a new national strategy had been adopted to fight undocumented migration “in strict respect for international conventions and treaties signed by Algeria, especially those concerning respect for Human Rights and dignity for migrants".

Algeria is working with the IOM and the minister claimed that that would ensure “all the proper conditions” would be met during repatriation operations. In one notable example, he cited that there would be "the creation of housing centres, restaurants, transportation and medical care”. 

Niger and Algeria have had an agreement about the deportation of people from Niger back to the country since 2014. But the agreement doesn’t address the deportation of people from other countries in West or Central Africa. In 2018, Niger asked, in vain, for Algeria to stop deporting people who aren’t Nigerien citizens to their country.

This article was written by Maëva Poulet.