(Beirut) – Algerian authorities have been rounding up sub-Saharan Africans in and around Algiers and have deported more than 3,000 to Niger since August 25, 2017, without giving them an opportunity to challenge their expulsion, Human Rights Watch said today. Those expelled include migrants who have lived and worked for years in Algeria, pregnant women, families with newborn babies, and about 25 unaccompanied children.
“Nothing justifies rounding up people based on their skin color, and then deporting them en masse,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “A country’s power to control its borders is not a license to treat people like criminals or to assume they have no right to be there because of their race or ethnicity.”
Trusted sources in Algiers told Human Rights Watch that those detained initially included 15 refugees and asylum seekers. All were later released after the authorities ascertained their status.
Ahmed Ouyahia, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s cabinet chief, said on July 7 that migrants are a “source of criminality and drugs,” and that the authorities need to protect the Algerian population from this “chaos.” On July 11, Foreign Affairs Minister Abdelkader Messahel said that migrants “represent a threat to national security.”
During successive waves of arrests, security forces rounded up sub-Saharan migrants on the streets, on construction sites where many work, and in their homes. The migrants were taken to a facility in Zeralda, a suburb of the capital, where they spent one to three days in crowded halls with no mattresses and little to eat during the day, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The migrants were then bused 1,900 kilometers south to a camp in Tamanrasset, then expelled to Niger, witnesses and local sources said.
Three sub-Saharan migrants interviewed separately by phone told Human Rights Watch that they believe gendarmes targeted them based on their skin color. “When black workers there saw the gendarmes, they tried to flee but the gendarmes chased them and forced them into the van,” said one migrant who was arrested earlier and forced into the gendarme’s van. “They arrested seven men.”
A nongovernmental organization based in Gao, Mali, said that several Malians were also expelled at the Algeria-Mali border, an insecure region with minimal government presence where armed groups, including some linked to Al-Qaeda, are active.
Those expelled have included both Nigeriens and hundreds of citizens of other countries such as Mali, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea – all nationals of sub-Saharan countries, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which runs an assistance program for migrants in Agadez, Niger. The IRC told Human Rights Watch that migrants were expelled in successive waves. The first convoy arrived in Agadez on August 25, and the most recent one on October 25. The IRC registered 3,232 migrants arriving from Algeria, among which 396 were women and 850 children, including the 25 unaccompanied children.
Under international law, Algeria has the authority to control its borders and to remove people not in the country legally, but should give each person an opportunity to challenge their removal. It should not discriminate based on race or ethnicity or subject migrants to arbitrary detention, inhuman and degrading treatment.
As a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1987 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Algeria is barred from forcibly removing any refugee, asylum seeker, or anyone else to a place where they would face a threat of being persecuted, tortured, or subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. The claims of anyone expressing such fears should be examined in full and fair procedures while the person remains in the country.
Algeria is also a party to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which prohibits collective expulsions of migrant workers and their families and requires examining and ruling on each potential expulsion individually. The convention applies to all migrant workers and their families, irrespective of their legal or work status.
Human Rights Watch documented a previous roundup of more than 1,400 sub-Saharan migrants in December 2016. At least several hundred were deported to Niger.
The Niger Expulsions
The migrants Human Rights Watch interviewed all said the authorities did not screen them to ascertain their situation or status, provide information about their rights, or allow them to contact the consular representatives of their country of origin.
Dadi, who said she was 32 and from Cameroon, had lived in Algiers with her husband for five years and had held a succession of temporary jobs. She said gendarmes had arrested her and put her in their van on October 11, at about 10 a.m., after she got off a bus in her neighborhood, Derouicha, in Ain Berriane. She said she had nothing with her but her passport. The gendarmes proceeded to detain other sub-Saharans:
They drove over to a construction site. When black workers there saw the gendarmes, they tried to flee but the gendarmes chased them and forced them into the van. They arrested seven men and took us all to the Bellevue gendarmerie station.
She said they later bused the migrants to the Zeralda camp, where authorities took their fingerprints and doctors examined them. The authorities managing the camp put her in a large hall where she was the only woman among hundreds of men.
At 7 p.m., Algerian Red Crescent workers visited the hall and arranged for the gendarmes to move her to another room, which held many women, including some who were pregnant or accompanied by children, as well as some unaccompanied children. The women came from Mali, Cameroon, Liberia, Niger, and other countries, she said. She said spent two nights in the Zeralda camp, sleeping on cardboard, with no bedding.
On October 13, she said, authorities boarded them on buses. She counted 13 buses, each transporting dozens of men, women, and children. They arrived at Tamanrasset on October 15, at 3 p.m. Authorities took them to a camp outside of the city, in containers she described as “decent,” with beds and toilets. On October 16, the authorities put her and 14 other women and children on a bus to the Niger border, where a truck transported them to Agadez. When Human Rights Watch reached Dadi by phone on October 24, she was staying with a Cameroonian relative in Agadez, hoping to reunite with her husband, who was still in Algeria.
Human Rights Watch reached Yves, an Ivorian who works as a gardener, by phone in Algiers. He said he was arrested on October 11, at 10 a.m., with his wife and their month-old baby. They were trying to get a taxi in front of a hospital in the suburban Douera neighborhood, where they had gone have their infant vaccinated. Yves said the gendarmes did not ask for their papers or tell them the reason for their arrest. He showed them his wife’s hospital documents, proving that she had given birth one month earlier, but the gendarmes refused to let them go.
He said the gendarmes pushed them into a van, and drove around the city, arresting other black people. The gendarmes took them to a police station, and from there to the Zeralda camp, where they stayed until 10 p.m. They were freed after the Red Crescent intervened. He said he has been hiding in his house, fearing arrest. The gendarmes confiscated his passport and have not returned it to him, he said.
Dramane, a 23-year-old Ivorian who has been living in Algiers for one year and worked as a house painter, told Human Rights Watch by phone that he was arrested on October 20 on a construction site, with four other men. He said gendarmes did not ask to check their papers but put them in a van without giving them the time to collect their belongings or their money from their homes. The gendarmes drove them to the Zeralda camp. He said he did not have anything to eat from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. He said the gendarmes in Zeralda informed them that they will be transferred to Tamanrasset the following day. Human Rights Watch was not able to reach him again for an update.
The Mali Expulsions
Human Rights Watch was not able to ascertain the exact number of migrants expelled to Mali. Eric-Alain Kamdem, coordinator of the Maison du Migrant (Migrant House, an association working to assist migrants in Gao) told Human Rights Watch that his nongovernmental organization helped eight Malians who arrived at Gao on October 23, after being deported from Algeria. He said they told him they were taken by Algerian security forces by bus from Tamanrasset to the Mali border, where they were left on the road in the desert. Local truck drivers picked them up and transported them to Assamaka, and then to Gao, Kamdem said.