Algerian official sparks outrage with derogatory remarks about migrants

Sunday 16/07/2017
In struggle for acceptance. A migrant from Guinea working at a construction site in Algiers. (Reuters)

Tunis- A top Algerian govern­ment official came un­der fire after he made derogatory comments about sub-Saharan mi­grants, statements that added to a growing wave of anti-migrant sentiment.

Ahmed Ouyahia, chief of staff to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said “foreigners who are illegally in Algeria are the source of crime, drugs and many more social ills.”

Ouyahia’s remarks came after a cyber-campaign to “cleanse” Al­geria of African migrants, whom many accuse of committing crimes and bringing disease to the country.

While Bouteflika has pushed back on the “racist” rhetoric, say­ing that Algeria has a “moral and human duty” to help those flee­ing war and poverty, members of his staff have supported a populist narrative.

In December, Bouteflika’s top human rights adviser, Farouk Ksentini, accused African mi­grants of exposing Algerians “to the spread of AIDS and other dis­eases.” On July 10, Algerian For­eign Minister Abdelkader Mes­sahel said: “Organised criminal networks (operating) behind the exodus of migrants (have) become a menace to national security.”

“It is our duty as a government and Algerians to defend the sover­eignty of our nation and the secu­rity of Algeria,” Messahel said.

Some Algerians defended the politicians, saying the country’s growing migrant population cre­ates serious concerns.

“One can criticise Ouyahia for many domestic issues but in his statement about migrants he ex­pressed the worries and fears of millions of Algerians,” said Me­hdaoui Zouiwesh, an Algerian writer. “Indeed, police, without making it public, have handled thousands of cases related to drugs, crimes and prostitution in which these ‘migrants’ were in­volved.”

Despite the surge in anti-mi­grant sentiment in Algeria, sub- Saharan migrants seemingly fare no better in neighbouring Libya.

Returning from Tripoli, Mo­hammed Abdiker, director of Operations and Emergencies for the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), said reports of abuse among migrants “are tru­ly horrifying” and that “reports of ‘slave markets’ for migrants can be added to a long list of outrages.”

“The more the IOM engages in­side Libya, the more we learn that it is a vale of tears for many mi­grants,” he said.

Libyan writer Abderazzak al- Dahesh said African migrants were kidnapped and sold in broad daylight. He added that migrants are sold at prices based on their nationality, with Bangladeshis sold at the highest price — 10,000 Libyan dinars ($7,350).

Algerian Prime Minister Abdel­madjid Tebboune has sided with migrant’s rights activists in call­ing for better protection and as­sistance.

“We are not racists. We are Afri­cans, Maghrebis and Medi­terra­neans,” Teb­boune said to parliament in reaction to the anti-migrant comments. “We won’t allow any NGO or individual to tarnish the image of our country.”

Rights activists took particular issue with Ouyahia’s anti-migrant remarks.

“We must react and show the people who make such comments that they do not reflect the whole of Algerian society,” said Hasina Oussedik, head of Amnesty Inter­national’s Algiers office. “We are an African country and we have fellow Algerians with dark skin.”

Noureddine Benissad, presi­dent of the Algerian Human Rights League said: “Some par­ties in Algeria are borrowing from the discourse of political parties in Europe, which argue that mi­grants are a danger for their coun­tries.

“These parties in Algeria said that the country is being invaded by migrants carrying diseases. This is totally untrue.”

Ouyahia, who also heads the parliament’s second largest politi­cal party, the National Democratic Rally, stressed the importance of protecting the country’s sover­eignty.

“There are great powers who are planning to build a wall to separate them from their neigh­bours and Europe is seeking to transform Algeria and the north into camps to stop migrants from Africa,” Ouyahia said.

Activist Sidali Kouidri Filali said it was important to recognise the connection between all Africans. “I’m Algerian and African,” Filali said. “I share with this continent the land, the future, the torments of history and abjection of coloni­alism.”

Intellectuals accused Islamists, who exert significant influence in society, and their political ad­versaries, such as Ouyahia, of at­tempting to “destroy secular val­ues of solidarity.”

“The willingness to destroy the fundamental values of the Alge­rian people reflects a strategy by those in government like Ouyahia. That value is the readiness to help others and show fraternity and camaraderie,” said Algerian writer Youcef Benzatat.

El Watan, Algeria’s main daily newspaper, reported that citizens and refugee advocates have taken food, clothes and money to the Oued Karma refugee camp out­side Algiers, which hosts about 1,600 refugees.