Algerian political elites join illegal migration boats to Europe

Those fleeing the North African nation include opposition political activists and civil service cadres trying to escape the harsh sentences that often come with financial corruption cases.
Wednesday 14/07/2021
Members of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) rescue migrants from a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, June 12, 2021. (AFP)
Members of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) rescue migrants from a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, June 12, 2021. (AFP)

ALGIERS – Members of Algeria’s political elite are joining the waves of illegal migrants from Algeria to the Spanish coast.

Those fleeing the North African nation include opposition political activists and civil service cadres trying to escape the harsh sentences that often come with financial corruption cases.

The district of Bordj Bou Arreridj, east of the capital, has just handed down a two-year prison sentence against opposition political activist Ibrahim Laalami on charges of threatening national security and harming stability. It was Laalami’s second such conviction.  He had  been pardoned by President Abdelmadjid Tebboune for an earlier conviction.

The arrest of Laalami came after he tried to flee to Spain on a boat carrying would-be illegal migrants, mainly Algerian youngsters. But the trip was unsuccessful and there are still conflicting accounts about the circumstances of his arrest. Some say he was caught by the Algerian coast guard while others say that the Spanish authorities handed him over to their Algerian counterparts at Algiers’ request.

The pace of the illegal migration outflow has intensified in recent months due to the mounting social and economic crisis in the country. Spanish media recently indicated that about 2,000 Algerian youths have landed on the southern Spanish coast, raising questions about the reality of the situation in Algeria.

What is unprecedented, however, is the number of prominent activists and official cadres who have joined the ranks of illegal migrants.

Opposition activist Ibrahim Douaji reached the Spanish coast recently to escape what he called “repression and restrictions” in Algeria. He said  that he was forced to emigrate illegally in order to escape the tight security grip of the authorities against those who oppose it.

During the course of this week, there were reports of the arrest by a coast guard brigade of Judge Salma Badri, a member of the Chelef court of justice, west of the capital,  when she was trying to emigrate on a small boat, with a sum of money estimated at about three million euros. Leaked reports linked her to a corruption case, but there was no official statement from the judge in question or the authorities about the issue.

In 2019 an official in the governorate of Oran and a number of businessmen had  emigrated to Spain or Italy aboard boats. They left behind questions over the motives that led them to leave the country, in the same manner that desperate young men venture onto the sea aboard rickety boats.

The Hirak popular protest movement in its first months contributed to a decline in the number of clandestine migrants by reviving the hope of change in the minds of Algerian youth. But the worsening of the economic and social crisis and the resilience of ruling system caused popular disenchantment, social experts say.

Thereafter, the number of illegal migrants to Europe, known as “harraga”, rose again as young people  looked for an opportunity to reach the northern shore of the Mediterranean.

Douaji said that his social and professional qualifications could have allowed him to stay in the country and take care of his family. He is a secondary school teacher and the head of his household. But the stifling political conditions facing members of the opposition and the repressive measures he suffered pushed him to illegally emigrate.

Douaji told the story of his dramatic journey in an audio recording. He explained that he sold his French-made Peugeot 207 automobile and bought himself a place on a “decent” boat trip for about $5,000 , because trip fares vary according to the boat used in the sea journey. But as soon as the boat reached the middle of the sea, the weather turned foul and the trip became fraught with risk.

He continued, “On the trip, there was a drug consumer and there was someone who read the Qur’an and prayed to Allah for safety and there was someone who was ill. The passengers disagreed about the decision to take when they received a warning from the Spanish Coast Guard. Some wanted to complete the trip by swimming to the beach and others wanted to return home. The teenage boat captain changed his itinerary to evade the Spanish Coast Guard in pursuit.”

He added in a sad tone, “There were two brothers from the country’s western region. One of them was sick aboard the boat and the other was in good health. And because the boat captain was hysterical, the healthy brother stepped down from the boat with us and before we could do something for his sick brother who was lying in the boat, the captain turned around in the blink of an eye, fleeing or returning home. Neither the brother nor anyone of us came to know the ultimate fate of the sick passenger and whether he took him back home or threw him overboard.”