As increasing numbers of Algerians seek to flee their country and make the hazardous passage across the Mediterranean to Spain, concerns are growing about the plight of migrants and refugees located in Algeria’s land borders, particularly those shared with Morocco and Niger, which have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and political tensions across the region.
A key area of concern is the disputed Western Sahara, where the Algerian-supported Polisario Front seeks to create an independent state in the territory, annexed by Morocco in 1975. In early November, tensions flared after Algeria accused Morocco of bombing Algerian trucks transiting the region. “The conflict has received renewed attention due to growing frustration among the Saharawi people in refugee camps in Algeria, who are largely backing the resumption of conflict since November last year,” reported Africa News. Algeria has hosted Saharawi refugees since Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara.
Algeria’s border with Niger has also become a key humanitarian concern because of Algeria’s expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers in the region throughout the pandemic (see also the 13 October 2020 update on this platform). The expulsions have often taken the form of ad hoc mass removals, during which larges groups of people are stranded in the desert. In April 2021, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that since the start of the year, some 4,370 people had been abandoned by Algerian security forces in the middle of the desert in a place nicknamed “point zero,” near Agadez in Niger. Migrants abandoned in the desert are left without GPS or maps, forcing them to find their way to Niger. Falikou, a 28-year-old Ivorian, told Infomigrants in January 2021: “They dropped us off about 15 km from the border. The rest we had to do on foot. That night, between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., we walked towards Niger, there were about 400 of us.”
According to MSF, the deportation procedures follow a similar pattern: migrants are arrested, sent to detention centres for days or weeks, and then put in buses that take them to the desert. According to one deportee named Safi: “The gendarmes broke down the door. … They took everything: money and phones. Then they took me to the police station.” Safi was then sent to a detention centre for four days before being transported to the border between Algeria and Niger in the desert.
According to MSF, 23,175 migrants crossed the desert in 2020 and arrived in the small town of Assamaka near Niger’s border with Algeria. Although this figure is slightly lower than the 29,888 recorded expulsions in 2019, most of the arrivals occurred after Niger’s borders had been officially closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. MSF reported that most of their patients had experienced violence, including torture.
UNHCR has been a key source of pandemic-related support for refugees and asylum seekers in Algeria, in particular for those at the five refugee camps near Tindouf. By the end of July 2021, the refugee camps had experienced large waves of COVID-19 infections, including more than 1,460 cases and 63 deaths. To combat the pandemic in Tindouf, UNHCR provided 10,000 rapid antigen tests, as well as masks, soap, and hand sanitiser, as well as bleach for disinfection of public places.
While the country began a national vaccination campaign in January 2021, according to the local humanitarian organisation, Aprosch Chougrani, few migrants are being vaccinated against COVID-19 in the town of Oran in northwest Algeria. The organisation believes this is partly due to the fear of being deported by Algerian security forces as well as for fear of stigmatisation. On the other hand, Sahrawi refugees began being vaccinated in May 2021. The Algerian Government donated vaccinations to the refugees and UNHCR is supporting the vaccination campaign. In Algiers, UNHCR is also conducting registration, Refugee Status Determinations, and documenting asylum seekers, while advocating for the adoption of legislation to protect persons in need of international protection. United Nations mechanisms have already commented on Algeria’s lack of asylum legislation.
During its review for the third cycle of the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2017, Algeria received several asylum-related recommendations, including: “adopt national legislation implementing the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, in order to institute a functioning system for the processing of refugees in accordance with international law and to grant protection to refugees determined and recognised as such by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Sweden) (para. 129.222)” and “grant and recognise refugee status for all persons coming under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in particular by giving them the national documents necessary to that effect (Portugal) (para. 129.226).”
- Médecins Sans Frontières, “Algérie-Niger: Des Migrants Violentés et Expulsés en Plein Milieu du Désert,” 21 April 2021, https://www.msf.fr/actualites/algerie-niger-des-migrants-violentes-et-expulses-en-plein-milieu-du-desert
- Médecins Sans Frontières, “Deportations Put Migrants’ Lives at Risk in Niger,” 20 April 2021, https://www.msf.org/deportations-put-migrants%E2%80%99-lives-risk-niger
- Infomigrants, “Au Niger, les Migrants et Réfugiés Sont Prioritaires pour la Vaccination Anti-COVID,” 30 March 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/fr/post/31180/au-niger-les-migrants-et-refugies-sont-prioritaires-pour-la-vaccination-anticovid
- Le Monde, “Plus de 1200 Migrants Expulsés par l’Algérie Vers le Niger,” 28 July 2021, https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/07/28/plus-de-1-200-migrants-expulses-par-l-algerie-vers-le-niger_6089768_3212.html
- M. Panara, “La Parenthèse du Hirak ‘Refermée’, les Algériens Traversent la Mer Pour Atteindre l’Europe au Péril de Leur Vie,” Infomigrants, 15 November 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/fr/post/36444/la-parenthese-du-hirak-refermee-les-algeriens-traversent-la-mer-pour-atteindre-leurope-au-peril-de-leur-vie
- Infomigrants, “Algerian Desert: The Point Zero Where Migrants are Abandoned,” 23 April 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/fr/post/31728/algerian-desert-the-point-zero-where-migrants-are-abandoned
- S. Oussad, “Les Oubliés de la Campagne de Vaccination,” Liberté-Algérie, 13 September 2021, https://www.liberte-algerie.com/actualite/les-oublies-de-la-campagne-de-vaccination-364876
- Human Rights Council, “Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Algeria,” A/HRC/C/36/13, 19 July 2017, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/217/01/PDF/G1721701.pdf?OpenElement
- UNHCR, “Fact Sheet: Algeria July 2021,” August 2021, https://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/Algeria%20factsheet%20July%202021.pdf
- Migrants Walking in the Sahara Desert (Sylla Ibrahim Sory, “Algerian Desert: The Point Zero Where Migrants are Abandoned,” Infomigrants, 23 April 2021, https://www.infomigrants.net/fr/post/31728/algerian-desert-the-point-zero-where-migrants-are-abandoned)
- Agence France-Presse, “Desperate Algerians ready to die at sea to reach Spain,” 26 October 2021, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1506755/desperate-algerians-ready-to-die-at-sea-to-reach-spain
- Africa News, “Algeria blames Morocco for bombing of three truck drivers,” 4 November 2021, https://www.africanews.com/2021/11/04/algeria-blames-morocco-for-bombing-of-three-truck-drivers/
- Africa News, “Western Sahara: Polisario Front leader vows attacks on Morocco will continue,” 17 October 2021, https://www.africanews.com/2021/10/17/western-sahara-polisario-front-leader-vows-attacks-on-morocco-will-continue/