Sub-Saharan migrant surge strains Maghreb countries

The Maghreb is becoming a destination for migrants lured by its relative stability and the possibility of a passage to Europe.
Sunday 22/04/2018
An African migrant prays near tents at a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Algiers. (Reuters)
Cross-currents. An African migrant prays near tents at a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Algiers. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Many African countries that border the Maghreb region face dire socio-economic pressures even when not consumed by armed conflicts and jihadist violence. The turmoil south of the Sahara is ruining economies and pushing unprecedented waves of migrants to the Maghreb.

This flow of people gives a new role to the Maghreb in terms of migration dynamics and tests its ties with the rest of Africa when it is seeking broader trade and business ties with the continent.

The Maghreb has been a source of migrants to Europe since the 1940s. However, it is itself becoming a destination for migrants lured by its relative stability and the possibility of a passage to Europe, even if that involves long stays that stretch the hospitality of Maghrebi societies.

Analysts and officials said curtailing the flow of migrants would mean addressing the needs of migrants in their homelands at a time when European countries are giving priority to military force to fight jihadists in sub-Saharan Africa.

“You must know that we are in one of the most worrying situations. Algeria does not face a simple migration flow. It faces a massive movement of sub-Saharan population displacements,” said Hacene Kacimi, a migration

official at the Algerian Interior Ministry. “Available statistics show that 500 clandestine migrants arrive daily in Algeria.”

Hundreds of other migrants are stopped each day before they cross the border.

Algeria has shut its borders with Libya, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Morocco in what the government calls “positive isolation” to shield the country from illegal migration and jihadists, drug traffickers and weapons smugglers.

Algeria has repatriated 27,000 illegal migrants over the last three years, provoking criticism from human rights activists over alleged violations of migrants’ rights.

“The repatriation operation is continuing despite what is said and written to besmirch the image of Algeria,” Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui said in a speech to parliament.

“We are not in a situation of a migration flow but in the face of massive population displacements,” Kacimi said. “Which country would accept such flow of illegal migrants on its soil? What happens at our borders is very worrying.”

Algeria is a transit point for migrants to Morocco, where authorities give permits to some migrants while cracking down on illegal migration in its northern regions under a deal with Spain.

The number of illegal migrants has been on the rise in Tunisia. In Tunis, migrant workers sometimes seem to outnumber local employees at construction sites and other businesses, such as restaurants, car washes and hammams for women.

Mehdi Ben Gharbia, Tunisian minister of relations with constitutional bodies, said Tunisia is “tolerant” of migrants and “flexible about their presence.” “They are mostly students or tourists who over-stayed their visas,” he said.

Algerian officials said the surge of migrants is caused by mounting instability in sub-Saharan countries. Some of the instability is a by-product of the stepped-up efforts by Western powers against jihadists as well as by the sophistication and the aggressive tactics of human traffickers.

“Future prospects are disastrous and the UN non-governmental organisations say that,” Kacimi said. “The incipient famine in eight African countries will cause the displacement of some 800,000 people. There are about 700,000 migrants stranded in Libya who are preparing to turn back south.”

The situation in strife-stricken Libya is encouraging this reverse migrant trend.

Last December, a CNN video showing African men apparently being sold at an auction in Libya prompted an international outcry over exploitation and abuse of migrants. It prompted European and African leaders to repatriate some migrants.

Libya had been the main transit point for refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. In each of the last three years, an average of 150,000 people made the treacherous sea journey from Libya.

The Libyan Coast Guard, backed by funds and resources from the European Union and specifically from Italy, has cracked down on boats smuggling migrants to Europe. The result is that as many as 1 million people are estimated to be bottled up in Libya, including many in overcrowded detention centres.

Since the 2011 NATO-backed campaign led to the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Libya has descended into violence and chaos. The conflict in Libya has had a wider effect on the stability of neighbouring sub-Saharan countries and has fuelled the movement of migrants towards other Maghreb states.

“We know that the migrant smugglers have some 14,000 all-terrain vehicles. They earn [$170 million] per month,” said Kacimi, adding that he expected a “dramatic migrant situation for Algeria and for migrants themselves.”

Kacimi gave the example of the town of Agadez in Niger near the Algerian border, where “most migrants are escorted by armed groups.”

Meanwhile, the EU border agency Frontex said in its risk analysis for 2018 that it expects the Maghreb to remain one of the most active routes for migrants crossing the Mediterranean illegally despite the sharp decline in the number of migrants from Libya.