TANGIER, Morocco — Throughout neighboring Algeria, police are indiscriminately rounding up West African migrants, loading them onto buses, and transporting them thousands of miles to the country’s southern border, where they are deported to Niger. These roundups have increased in frequency and force since late August, taking place in the dead of night and during morning commutes in broad daylight. At least 500 migrants have been captured in October alone, according to a joint press release issued Tuesday by the International Federation for Human Rights and the Collectif Loujna-Tounkaranké.
“We’re hungry, we’re thirsty, but we’re afraid whenever we go out to get something because they’re arresting people.”
The sudden surge in migrant roundups has alarmed human rights monitors throughout the region, which warn Algeria that it may be violating United Nations and African Union conventions on migrant protections. In a letter to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a cohort of African organizations condemned the summary deportations and the atmosphere of fear they’ve sowed in Algeria, writing, “Up until now, nobody understands the reasons behind this outbreak of psychological — and sometimes even physical — violence toward sub-Saharan Africans.”
Jeumuel, a 31-year-old Ivorian migrant living in Algiers, said he rarely goes outside anymore, afraid he’ll be captured by police and thrown onto a bus for Niger.
“We’re hungry, we’re thirsty, but we’re afraid whenever we go out to get something, because they’re arresting people,“ Jeumuel said. “It’s hard to leave the house.”
Like many neighboring countries in North Africa, Algeria has long been a pit stop for migrants traveling to Europe. But unlike Libya and Morocco, the country receives significantly less international coverage when it comes to migration because far fewer people cross into Europe directly from the country, due to the distance. Recently, however, as new security measures are implemented to prevent migrants from crossing into Europe from Morocco and Libya, more and more migrants are taking up residence in Algerian cities, and staying for months, and sometimes even years.
Their increased presence throughout the country — experts estimate Algeria’s migrant population is close to 150,000 — have brought new levels of public outrage. The hash tag #لا_للافارقة_في_الجزا (in English, #NoToAfricansinAlgeria) has flourished online, stigmatizing the growing number of West Africans in Algeria and prompting a heavy-handed government response. Several cities recently implemented a prohibition on taxis and buses transporting undocumented migrants. And on July 8, appearing on Ennahar TV, Ahmed Ouyahia, Algeria’s prime minister, called undocumented migrants “a source of crime, drugs, and many other plagues,” vowing “not to let the Algerian people suffer from anarchy.”
Despite its public attacks, the government is also considering implementing a “regularization” program that would provide migrants with the necessary documents and enable them to legally obtain work, sign leases where they live, and send their children to school, among other benefits.
“It is impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the weeks and months to come.”
But until such programs are implemented, a majority of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, like Jeumuel, remain sans papiers, and are paralyzed by the fear of these sudden and unexplained police roundups.
To stay informed on where and when roundups take place, migrants are turning to grassroots groups like Bouchbouk Mon Village, a migrant-led online community that crowdsources updates via social media. Jeumeul is a member, and said that Algerians and migrants alike send pictures and videos, which he then shares on the group’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
“The work that I’m doing today puts me at risk and peril,” he said, adding his mission is critical: “For migrants in Algeria, we are the eyes, ears, and mouths.”
The latest series of roundups and summary deportations harken back to December 2016, when government forces notoriously deported 1,500 people to Niger in the aftermath of violent clashes between Algerians and migrants in the capital. But observers say the recent surge in roundups lacks the same political impetus, leaving many migrants and observers scratching their heads. Before December 2016, deportations of non-Nigeriens to Niger had been suspended.
Matt Herbert, a research fellow for Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime, thinks the migrant population’s increasing visibility in Algerian society could be a driving proponent behind the sudden surge in mass arrests and deportations. “If you look at the public comments that came out over the summer, it hints at the increased public discussion around the issue of sub-Saharan presence in Algeria.”
Herbert believes “a good chunk is linked to the economic situation” and to concerns that exist between Algerian workers and newcomers they feel they’re now competing against.
“It becomes more and more important for the government to show that it’s doing something,” he said.
Even still, Leïla Beratto, a journalist following the migrant crisis from the capital, called the current situation of unexplained arrests “unprecedented.”
“It is impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the weeks and months to come,” Beratto said.
For now, migrants and observers can only guess whether they’ll be safe from the government’s reach.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen next,” Jeumuel said.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a paraphrase was misattributed as a quote to Leïla Beratto. The error has been fixed.
Sam Metz is a freelance reporter based in Tangier, where he focuses on migrant communities. His work has appeared in Quartz, Jadaliyya, and Roads & Kingdoms.