Algeria youth migration prompts soul searching

An average of 500 illegal Algerian migrants were arrested each month and 5,000 were deported from Europe last year.
Monday 11/02/2019
Hobson’s choice. An Algerian migrant is seen inside an abandoned railway wagon used as a shelter by stranded migrants in Thessaloniki, Greece. (Reuters)
Hobson’s choice. An Algerian migrant is seen inside an abandoned railway wagon used as a shelter by stranded migrants in Thessaloniki, Greece. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Mass migration by young Algerians has the government on the defensive as its leaders prepare for a rally to showcase the 20-year record of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has announced Sunday that he will run for a 5th term in office.

The government blamed protest music, social media platforms and its critics’ “demoralising” discourse for pushing young Algerians to leave despite its development programmes, which include housing and interest-free loans to start businesses.

Algeria’s opposition said the youth exodus, often illegally on rickety boats heading for Europe, reflected Bouteflika’s failed leadership.

Former General Ali Ghediri, who has announced his candidacy for the presidency, said reversing the trend would be high on his agenda. “I come to prevent Algerian youth from leaving on rotten boats to die eaten by fish,” said Ghediri as he outlined his campaign platform.

Algeria’s main secularist opposition Socialist Forces Front party highlighted the issue in its call to boycott the vote in April.

“Are you happy in your country?” the party asked in a statement. “It is fair to answer ‘no’ only because of the social malaise that causes the migration of our elites: doctors, engineers, university teachers and other youth without job and future perspectives who are defying death by sailing in makeshift boats to Europe illegally.”

Official figures indicate that youth migration has been on the rise in Algeria. The Algerian Defence Ministry said the Coast Guard thwarted 3,983 illegal migration attempts in 2018. The Algerian League of the Defence of Human Rights, an independent rights group, said the number of the foiled migration attempts was the highest in a decade.

Algerian sociologist Mohamed Saib Musette, who specialises in migration, said risky sea voyages – known as “harga” — were symptomatic of larger societal ills.

“The harga for me is only a symptom,” said Musette. “It is a slight haemorrhage. We have other haemorrhages like the brain drain. Treating the small injury of the harga will not stop the bleeding. We must treat the whole sick social body.”

Musette said an average of 500 illegal Algerian migrants were arrested each month and 5,000 were deported from Europe last year.

Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who recently led a conference on illegal migration, said he deplored the human tragedy caused by the phenomenon.

“The authorities recovered the bodies of 119 drowned migrants this year,” said Bedoui. “This number and other figures about the harga mirror the scale of the tragedy and its danger, which pushes us to answer several questions to explain the situation and analyse the mechanisms and the factors of the progression of this phenomenon.”

“How are these young people able to undertake this voyage, organise it, plan it by putting together the equipment and the necessary money? How are they able to succeed in gathering at a precise place at a precise time while they come from various regions of the country?” he asked.

“This work is not done by happenstance. It is the result of careful planning done by people traffickers.”

Bedoui said smugglers used social media to recruit migrants for illegal sea voyages. He said authorities had shut down more than 50 websites advertising such voyages. Authorities have arrested 344 suspected smugglers, with 41 sentenced to prison terms in 2018, he said.

Bedoui said it was unwise for young Algerians to embark on risky sea voyages when “there are plenty of opportunities for jobs and investment” at home.

“In most cases, those who illegally migrate from Algeria seek rapid gains and a social uplift,” said Bedoui, who blamed pop music and “demoralising” speeches by the opposition for fuelling the trend.

“Song lyrics are filled with despair and sadness that push youth to leave. Their authors do not realise the level of danger and the scale of damage they cause nor the number of lives that could be lost,” he argued.

Musette said: “The phenomenon of illegal migration has evolved to become a societal phenomenon. Illegal migrants are not only youth. Families and people of all ages take the risks to leave.”

However, some analysts argued that it was the government’s failure to improve quality of life, not social media or outside influences, that drives young Algerians to leave.

“Social media gives space for the Algerians to breathe, see, dream and meet,” said writer Kamel Daoud. “Everything outside of social media is controlled and requires permits from the wali (province chief), the imam and the intelligence services.”

“Algerians leave because we do not sing here. We do not dance. We do not swim. And we are not happy,” he said.

Political writer Mustapha Benfodil said: “Independent Algeria is 57 (years old), with almost one-third of that period under Bouteflika. This fact calls for deep reflection.

“It would be unfair to blame Bouteflika for everything that is going awry but the ‘system of Bouteflika’ has had an effect on the country’s widespread despair that pushes youth, including young talents and skilled professionals, to leave en masse.”