Twenty migrants drown after boat catches fire off Algeria's coast

The incident is the latest in a gruesome spate of human tragedies taking place on the Mediterranean routes to Europe.
Friday 21/12/2018
 A boat carrying migrants is stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar before being rescued by the Spanish Guardia Civil, last September.  (AFP)
A boat carrying migrants is stranded in the Strait of Gibraltar before being rescued by the Spanish Guardia Civil, last September. (AFP)

TUNIS – Twenty Algerian migrants drowned off the country’s coast while trying to escape from a fire consuming a boat en route to Spain, an Algerian government statement said.

Seven adults and two children survived after a merchant ship rescued them 80km off Oran, Algeria’s main western city. Five of the survivors suffered burns of “varying degrees,” said Saieb Mohamed, managing director of the main hospital in Tenes, the nearest town to the wreck.

There has been a steady stream from North Africa towards Europe of migrants, most of them travelling in makeshift boats bound for Italy, Spain or via the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which are the only European land borders with Africa.

The death of the 20 Algerian migrants is the latest gruesome incident of human tragedy on Mediterranean routes to Europe.

Countries across North Africa are springboards for illegal migration.

One of the deadliest migrant wrecks occurred near Tunisia last June when at least 100 people drowned after a boat carrying migrants to Italy sank off the coast of Sfax.

In September, more than 100 migrants, including at least 20 children, died when their crowded rubber boats wrecked off the coast of Libya, Doctors without Borders said.

In October, at least 34 migrants drowned off the Moroccan coast, the Moroccan Navy and Spanish NGO Caminando Fronteras said.

Illegal migrants from Morocco and Tunisia had begun sailing to Europe in rickety boats, so Europe imposed visas on citizens from the Maghreb in the 1990s. Algerians, mostly young people, joined the waves of illegal migration later.

Illegal migration from Algeria and elsewhere on southern Mediterranean shores, including Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, intensified in the last two years, concerning parents about the future of their children.

“It’s about a broad and deep social malaise. Young people have no interest in building a future for themselves at home. Everyone wants to leave the country. It is a grave situation,” said Algerian sociologist Nacer Djabi, who researches the issue of youth migration.

“There is no distinction between younger or older Algerians or between men and women. They all want to leave the country because they do not see a future here on this land. They’ve lost all hope to live here,” he added.

There is no official number of illegal migrants leaving Algeria but researchers and local media pointed to last October when the Algerian Navy stopped 300 illegal migrants, whose ages ranged from 15-34, from Oran. There were reports some migrants carried cash, the largest amount was said to be more than $30,000.

While the government insists it is not sure about the reasons behind the massive departures, Algerian analysts blame the education system that fails to provide required skills for youth to find decent jobs and the “dominant ruling gerontocracy” that excludes many young people from power and wealth.

“A government committee has been examining the illegal migration phenomenon for several months but it has yet to reach conclusions about the real causes behind it,” media quoted the Justice Ministry as saying following a protest by parents of those who drowned while attempting to migrate.

However, some young people are voicing why they are seeking to leave North Africa.

“We are leaving Algeria. This country is left for you to eat it whole, to swallow it all,” said one of the migrants in a message recorded from the boat carrying him and others to Spain in 2018. Similar messages addressed to Algerian leaders by migrants went viral on social media.

“Like baby tortoises jumping in the water,” said political writer Mustapha Hammouche, “our children are throwing their bodies into the perilous winter waves of the Mediterranean to seek a warm welcome abroad.”