Algeria halts refugee expulsions to Sahara after outrage

Suspension comes after Associated Press report alleged Algeria abandoned 13,000 migrants and refugees in the Sahara.

In its few public statements, Algeria has insisted that migrants are treated appropriately, but the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the expulsions in the desert [File: Jerome Delay/AP Photo]

Algeria’s deadly expulsions of migrants and refugees into the Sahara Desert have nearly come to a halt after widespread condemnation and the abrupt firing of two top security officials.

The Associated Press reported that, according to UN International Organization for Migration officials, more than 13,000 people – including women and children – had been dropped off in the desert borders that Algeria shares with Niger and Mali since May 2017. 

Under three weeks after the report, the expulsions to the harsh, dangerous region have all but ended.

Before the AP reached out to Algeria for comment and published the report on June 26, the North African nation had been expelling migrants and refugees by the hundreds almost every week into the unforgiving desert, sometimes to their deaths.

Algeria has refused repeated AP requests for comment on the expulsions.

The European Union also declined to comment. The expulsions came as Europe pressured North African governments to head off the migrants before they can cross the Mediterranean Sea.

An aid worker with contacts in Algeria told the AP that the mass detentions continue, but now migrants and refugees, including dozens of pregnant women, are warehoused in overcrowded jails. The worker requested anonymity to avoid retribution from the Algerian government.

Algeria also continues to deport migrants and refugees from neighbouring Niger, with which it has had an expulsion agreement since 2015. But while migrants and refugees from other sub-Saharan countries were secretly released in the desert and forced to walk for miles under the blistering sun, the Nigeriens have long been driven to the border by convoys.

After the AP report in June, Algerian officials invited local media to watch such a round of deportations to prove they were humanely done.

Since the report, Algeria’s security forces have fallen into disarray, with the head of the gendarmerie and the chief of national security both being forced from their jobs. It is unclear why the men were fired, but both were linked to the migrant and refugee expulsions in the desert, as well as to an unrelated corruption scandal involving the seizure of more than 700 kilograms of cocaine from a cargo ship in May.

‘Without a shred of due process’

In its few public statements, Algeria has insisted that migrants and refugees are treated appropriately, but the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the expulsions in the desert. Two days after the AP report, Human Rights Watch also released an investigation into the forced desert marches.

“Algeria has the power to control its borders, but that doesn’t mean it can round up people based on the colour of their skin and dump them in the desert, regardless of their legal status and without a shred of due process,” Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Migrants filmed videos of themselves fanning out across the open desert, stumbling through heat that reaches above 50 degrees Celsius in the summer as armed Algerian gendarmes ensured they did not turn back. Of the more than two dozen migrants who AP journalists interviewed in Niger, nearly all reported seeing deaths during the forced march, which sometimes lasted days.

Even before the AP report, the conditions migrants were enduring in the Sahara Desert had been an open secret among aid workers, as well as governments in Africa and Europe. The African Union had complained about Algeria’s policies towards migrants in a statement in May.

“We cannot accept African countries ill-treating Africans, even if they enter the country illegally,” the chairman of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

European Union officials say they discussed the desert expulsions with Algerian government officials privately in recent months, but the EU nonetheless settled upon Algeria as one of a handful of countries where it had hoped to set up centres to sort economic migrants from asylum seekers fleeing for their lives. Algeria has refused the dubious honour, as did multiple other countries.

Source: AP