(Beirut) – Algeria has deported thousands of men, women, and children since January 2018 to Niger and Mali in inhumane conditions, and in many cases without considering their legal status in Algeria or their individual vulnerabilities, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch in April and May interviewed 30 sub-Saharan migrants of various nationalities who said that the Algerian authorities had raided areas where migrants are known to live, arresting them on the streets or on construction sites, and expelled them en masse at the border with Niger or Mali, in most instances with no food and little water. They described being forced to march dozens of kilometers in the desert, in high temperatures, before reaching towns where they found assistance or private transportation.
“Algeria has the power to control its borders, but that doesn’t mean it can round up people based on the color of their skin and dump them in the desert, regardless of their legal status and without a shred of due process,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
All the migrants interviewed said that they were rounded up with dozens and sometimes hundreds of other sub-Saharan migrants, on the streets, during nighttime raids in neighborhoods where migrants are concentrated, or at their work places. They said that in most cases the police or gendarmerie agents did not ask to verify their documents.
Some who said they had a valid visa or a certificate from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stating that the agency is reviewing their claim for refugee status tried in vain to convince the security forces that they were in Algeria legally. One migrant said, “They told us: ‘You are all illegal here; you have no right to be in Algeria.’”
Those interviewed said that Algerian police beat migrants, denied their requests to take their money and possessions with them, and on several occasions stole their phones and other possessions. The summary expulsions also separated families.
Emanuele, 30 years old, from Côte d’Ivoire, told Human Rights Watch she is eight months pregnant and living with her 2-year-old boy in Oran, where she cleans homes. On April 24, the police came to her neighborhood, called Coca, in Oran, at 4 a.m. and she said they rounded up everyone with darker skin without allowing them to collect their money or their other belongings. She said police later bussed her and her son, together with 100 other people, among them another pregnant woman and a woman who had a newborn, from Oran to a warehouse in Reggane, in the province of Adrar. They spent a day there. Then at 5 a.m. on April 26, authorities pushed them on trucks, bussed them to the border, and ordered them to march into Mali. She said she had only two small bottles of water for her and her son.
We marched for hours before we reached In Khalil. Can you believe it? Me eight months pregnant, with a 2-year-old boy, marching in the desert? It was so hot we could barely breathe.
Another migrant from Guinea, who was arrested in Tlemcen on April 12 and taken to the Mali border four days later, said, “I have nothing left. I lost everything. I arrived in Gao without a penny in my pocket, without a phone, and with only trousers and a shirt on. We have been treated like animals.”
Ahmed Ouyahia, at the time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s cabinet chief, said on July 7, 2017, that migrants are a “source of criminality and drugs,” and that the authorities need to protect the Algerian population from this “chaos.”
Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui, told news agencies on March 22, 2018, that “repatriations” of migrants are carried out “at the request of their country of origin.” However, the migrants interviewed all said that they were not offered an assisted voluntary repatriation, either through the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or through contacts with their consulates or embassies.
The overall number of sub-Saharan migrants expelled from Algeria since the beginning of the operations of mass expulsions, in December 2016, is not known. Bedoui told parliament on March 22 that Algerian authorities have repatriated about 27,000 sub-Saharan migrants in the last three years.
The IOM told Human Rights Watch on June 27 that, from January 1 to May 18, it had rescued more than 7,000 migrants of various non-Nigerien nationalities expelled at the Niger border. The agency also said that, in 2018, it had registered 22 convoys carrying 9,037 citizens of Niger – 3,008 women and 6,029 men – expelled by Algeria.
In Gao, Mali, a nongovernmental organization said it has assisted more than 600 sub-Saharan migrants expelled from Algeria since the beginning of the year. On June 9, it said it had rescued 125 migrants expelled from Algeria that week.
On May 22, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the Algerian government to “cease the collective expulsions of migrants.”
Algeria is 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.
Law N° 08-11 of June 25, 2008, on the Conditions of Entry, Stay and Movement of Foreigners in Algeria, gives authorities the power to expel foreigners who illegally entered Algerian territory or whose visas have expired, but requires them to notify the person, who is given between 48 hours and 15 days to leave the territory. The person has up to five days to challenge the decision before an interim relief judge at the administrative tribunal, who has 20 days to decide on the legality of the decision. The expulsion is suspended pending the decision. Human Rights Watch found that the Algerian authorities did not follow this procedure in the cases documented.
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 or asylum seeker to a place where they would face a threat of being persecuted, or anyone else to a place where they would probably be 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. Despite being a party to the Refugee Convention, Algeria has not adopted any legal framework recognizing the asylum-seeking process or the status of refugees.
The Algerian government should end the arbitrary and summary expulsions of migrants and develop a system for the fair and legal processing of irregular migrants. It should include the right to challenge their expulsions and facilitate the timely voluntary repatriation of migrants who wish to return to their country of origin.
The following are accounts by people interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Their names have been changed for their protection.
Expulsions at the Niger Border
Between April 6 and 25, 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 sub-Saharan migrants from countries other than Niger who were either forcibly expelled across the border into Niger or who managed to extricate themselves at the last minute. Those who had been arrested either in Algiers or in Oran said that the authorities had captured them in groups, especially in late night or early morning raids, and took them to a detention center for one or two nights. Those arrested in Algiers were held in a camp in Zeralda, about 30 kilometers from the capital. Those arrested in Oran were held in a detention center in Bir el Djir, in Oran.
In most cases, the authorities then bused them to a camp in Tamanrasset, 2,000 kilometers south of Algiers, loaded them into trucks and took them past In Guezzam, the last Algerian town before the border. There the authorities dropped them off, with little water and no food, and told them to walk toward Assamaka, the first town in Niger, about 20 kilometers from In Guezzam. In one case, the person said he was transported with Nigeriens to Arlit, in Niger.
The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a May 22 statement that, “From Tamanrasset, Nigeriens are transferred by bus to Agadez in Niger, while the others are crammed into big trucks to be transferred to the Nigerien border where they are abandoned and left to walk hours in the desert heat to cross the border into Niger.”
Expulsions at the Mali Border
Human Rights Watch interviewed five people who were expelled across the Malian border. They were arrested in various towns, such as Oran, Ghardaia, Tlemcen, and Laghouat. Authorities had gathered them in a detention center in Reggane, a city in central southern Algeria where they stayed for one to several days. Then, the authorities bused them to Bordj Badji Mokhtar, the last town before the Mali border. Armed Algerian gendarmes then trucked them to the border and ordered them, at gunpoint, to march in the direction of Mali.
Each said they walked in the desert for about six hours to reach In Khalil, the first town in Mali, where they then boarded privately owned trucks heading toward the town of Gao.
The House of Migrants (La Maison des Migrants), a nongovernmental organization based in Gao, said that as of May 3, it had assisted more than 650 migrants in 2018. The association reported four waves of migrants expelled from Algeria, arriving on March 6, 7, 19, and 21. On June 15, it said it had received another 120 migrants expelled from Algeria the previous week.
Armed militant groups linked to al-Qaeda operate in northern Mali, along with criminal gangs and armed smugglers. The UN secretary-general, in his September 2017 report on the situation in Mali, stated that “the prevailing insecurity undermines the rule of law and the provision of basic services, particularly in the north and in some parts of the center.”
Summary Arrests, Expulsions Apparently Based on Racial Profiling
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine men who were among a group of about 70 migrants arrested together on March 26, at a place where migrants socialize in Ain Beniane, an Algiers suburb. Four said they were irregular migrants working on construction sites or as daily workers; one said he was an asylum seeker; one said he was married to an Algerian woman and had four children and a residency permit; three others said that they were legally in the country with Malian passports. Following their arrest, the migrants were jailed for two days.
The 70 were all tried together for “illegal entry into Algerian territory” and “prostitution,” convicted the same day and given six-month suspended sentences. They consistently described a trial conducted in Arabic, with no interpreters or defense lawyers, and no real opportunity to defend themselves. After the court pronounced their sentences, the police took them to Zeralda, and from there to Tamanrasset. Those who held a valid visa or papers allowing them to stay in Algeria said that they attempted repeatedly to show their papers and gain their release, to no avail.
The collective expulsion of migrants and the disregard for their distinct statuses suggests that the Algerian authorities are arresting men and women based on their skin color instead of an individual assessment of their cases, as required by international law.
One of the nine, Kevin, a Cameroonian, said he has lived in Algeria for 19 years. He married an Algerian woman and has four children, all Algerian nationals. When the police took him to the commissariat of Ain Beniane, he showed his marriage certificate and his children’s birth certificates, which he carries with him. The police refused to release him.
After spending two days in the police cell, he and the others appeared before the prosecutor, who ignored his pleas and asked only for his name and told him to sign a paper. The prosecutor then sent the group to court, where they were convicted the same day. The police took him to Zeralda, where his wife came and begged the police to release him, but they refused. He was bused with the others to Tamanrasset, where he managed to persuade the head of the camp to let him go before the expulsion to Niger.
Bernard, who holds a Malian passport, was expelled with the others across the Niger border, but was able to make his way back, on April 11, to Algiers, where his wife and 4-year-old child live. On May 1, Bernard went to the Houari Boumediene airport in Algiers, at 8 a.m., to take a flight to Abidjan, where he intended to stay for a few days. He told Human Rights Watch, speaking over the phone from Zeralda, that the police did not let him take his flight and instead confined him and six other Sub-Saharan migrants of various nationalities, inside the airport police post. Human Rights Watch saw a photo of Bernard’s boarding pass for the flight to Abidjan.
Bernard also said the police never explained why they detained him, and gave him nothing to eat or drink, during the more than 24 hours they detained him at the airport. At noon on May 2, he said, the police took him and the six other Sub-Saharans from the airport to the camp at Zeralda, where they slept the night on sheets of cardboard. On May 3, he sent Human Rights Watch a text message saying that they were being transported to Tamanrasset. He counted 14 busloads of migrants when they left Zeralda.
On May 9, he said, the authorities deported him with hundreds of other migrants, most from Niger, to the Niger border. The IOM mission in Niger received them and transported them all to Arlit, Niger where he was staying when last in touch with Human Rights Watch.
None of the migrants interviewed said that authorities offered them the option of an assisted voluntary repatriation, either through their countries’ diplomatic services or through the IOM. Several said that, given the hardship of deportation through the desert, they would have liked to contact the IOM to facilitate their return to their countries.
Article 23 of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families states that “migrant workers and members of their families shall have recourse to the protection and assistance of the consular or diplomatic authorities of their State of origin or of a State representing the interests of that State whenever the rights recognized in the present convention are impaired. In particular, in case of expulsion, the person concerned shall be informed of this right without delay and the authorities of the expelling State shall facilitate the exercise of such right.”
Lack of Due Process to Challenge Deportations
None of the migrants interviewed said they had been told when arrested of their rights as foreigners in Algeria or under international law, including the right to legal representation under the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
For example, Omar, 30, from Guinea, said that he had worked on a construction site in Tlemcen since entering Algeria in February 2017. He said that, on April 12, 2018, he was sleeping in a shared room on the construction site when gendarmes swarmed in, roughed him up, and did not allow him to take his phone or other belongings. He said that he asked the gendarmes to let him collect two months of salary before leaving, but they pushed him outside the room. He saw that they were clearing men from the other rooms too and beating those who resisted.
The gendarmes took the men to a gendarmerie detention center, where they held Omar for three days along with dozens of other migrants of various nationalities. He said the gendarmes left them for an entire day without food and hit those who protested. On the third day, the gendarmes gave each of them a document to sign in Arabic, which the migrants could not read, and did not mention a right to call a lawyer or their consulates.
They were later bused to a detention center in Reggane, where men and women were separated. The gendarmes beat the men who tried to insist on staying with their wives and, for some, with their children. Omar said they remained at the Reggane detention center for a day. At 4 a.m., on April 16, the gendarmes forced the men into a truck and took them to Bordj Badji Mokhtar. From there, other gendarmes drove them to an area near the border and ordered them, at gunpoint, to march toward Mali. He said they walked for hours under the hot desert sun. When they arrived in In Khalil, Mali, Omar and others arranged with a private transporter to take them to Gao:
I have nothing left. I lost everything. I arrived in Gao without a penny in my pocket, without a phone and with only trousers and shirt on. We have been treated like animals.
Abuse, Harsh Treatment During Arrest, Expulsion
Of the 30 migrants interviewed, five reported that Algerian authorities used violence against them during raids; seven others said that they witnessed such violence.
Police arrested Elizabeth, 45, from Ghana, on April 9, in Oran. She had been living in Algeria for six years and earned a living cooking for the African community in a migrant neighborhood in Oran. She was in her pajamas when the police knocked on her door at night, saying they were conducting a routine document check. They did not let her take anything with her, not even her purse.
They took her and her four children, aged 3 to 13, to a camp in Oran, where she saw hundreds of men, women, and children, including babies. The following day the police loaded them on buses. They arrived at Tamanrasset two days later, where police took them to a camp outside the city, holding them in converted shipping containers.
On April 11, at around 10 p.m., the police started herding everybody onto trucks. She said that she and other women refused to obey. A policeman beat her on her head with a baton until she lost consciousness. When she woke up, she was in a small clinic inside the camp. After that they took her back with her children to the container in Tamanrasset. She said that throughout their arrest and trip to Tamanrasset, they were only given some biscuits and water.
Speaking by phone from Tamanrasset on April 10, Elizabeth said she had lost everything. All her savings remained in the house where she lived. She had friends who were not arrested to check on the house, and they said that thieves came after the round-up and stole everything, including her refrigerator, clothes, and furniture.
Henri, from Cameroon, has lived in Oran since 2015, working at a construction site. He lived with his pregnant wife:
On March 14, Algerian police officers, accompanied by the [Algerian] Red Crescent, came to my house and told me that I have 30 minutes to collect a few things and leave the house because I was being deported. Then, they put my wife and me in a bus and took us to a detention center. When we got there, I asked if I can have our luggage back and one of the police officers hit me on the face. Suddenly, I was surrounded by police officers who fired their taser guns at me. They pushed my wife a little but did not beat her. A young woman with the Red Crescent who witnessed the abuse sympathized with my wife’s condition and told them to let us ago. We were released, but they kept all of our things.
Many of the migrants reported losing their belongings, ranging from not being allowed to collect wages owed them to confiscation of phones and sometimes meager savings during arrest. For many of them, these possessions were never returned, despite promises from the security forces to return them when they reached the Tamanrasset detention center.
Article 15 of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which Algeria has ratified, says that “no migrant worker or a member of his or her family, shall be deprived of property, whether owned individually or in association with others.”
Lack of Respect for Asylum Seekers’ Rights
Human Rights Watch interviewed two asylum seekers who have pending refugee requests and who were forcibly taken to the border. One was expelled; the other said he managed to jump off the truck and evaded expulsion.
Lucas, 27, from the Ivory Coast, had lived in Algeria for more than a year and had worked on a construction site in Regaia, 40 minutes from the capital. He said he fled Ivory Coast because he had been a victim of acts of revenge after the civil war.
Lucas said that he decided to apply for asylum with the UNHCR in Algeria. He could not reach their office at first, fearing arrest, but sent the UNHCR a request by fax, in November 2017. After a first visit to the office, Lucas received a UNHCR certificate, which Human Rights Watch reviewed. It said it was valid until July 28, 2018 and that “as an asylum seeker, this person is under the mandate of the UNHCR and should be most notably protected against any forcible return to a country where he could be exposed to threats against his life and freedom, until the final determination of his refugee claim.” UNHCR also gave him a number to call in case of emergency or arrest.
Lucas was arrested on March 5, when police came to the construction site and started to confiscate everyone’s phones and money. He said he managed to reach someone at the UNHCR emergency number who told him not to worry and that the police would release him. Later that day, he was taken to Bab Ezzouar police station, where he asked the police officers to verify the UNHCR document that he had with him, but they refused.
I told the police that I have legal papers, so you should either call my consulate or release me, but one of the officers at the police station said, “I can detain all of you here and no one will be able to help you.”
Lucas said he was then taken to Zeralda detention camp, with other migrants, among whom he identified 12 asylum seekers. He said they left Zeralda at 7 p.m. and arrived the next day in Tamanrasset. There, they were put on a truck and driven to the Niger border. That’s when, Lucas said, he seized the opportunity, along with another migrant, to jump off the truck:
We walked and walked in the desert until we reached the first village and there we found somewhere to sleep. The guy who was with me had another phone that he kept hidden from the police, so we made one more attempt and called UNHCR, who said that they will find a way to bring us back to Algiers.
Lucas said they stayed in Tamanrasset for a few days, then they rode with the help of smuggler to Ain Salah. At Ain Salah, they tried to buy a bus ticket, but no one would sell then one. He and his friend paid a private driver to take them to Algiers.
Jack, a Cameroonian who came to Algeria in December 2017, works on construction sites. He said that he comes from the Anglophone part of Cameroon and had fled due to ongoing political turmoil.
He said police arrested him on the street, in the Ain Beniane neighborhood, on March 26:
I had a certificate issued by the UNHCR, when the police caught me, but I was told in the commissariat that it doesn’t mean anything and that they would still deport me. When I reached out to UNHCR through the emergency number they gave me, they said that I should not panic and assured me that they will come down to the commissariat where I was held and ask the police to release me. But the police took me to Zeralda, and from there to Tamanrasset.
Authorities then transported him to a point between the town of In Guezzam and the Niger border. He walked in the desert with dozens of others until they reached the Nigerien border village of Assamaka. He stayed a few days there before crossing back to Tamanrasset, where he worked and collected enough money to pay for private transportation to Algiers.
The UNHCR office in Algiers told Human Rights Watch that the agency “is following the situation very closely. Cooperation with relevant authorities at all levels is maintained and we have been able to successfully advocate for the release of a number of asylum-seekers and refugees registered with our Office who have been affected by these operations.”
International law admits the possibility that a receiving state could transfer an asylum seeker to a third state where their refugee claim could be processed. However, the UNHCR guidelines on “bilateral and/or multilateral transfer arrangements of asylum-seekers” puts several conditions for such a transfer. It requires an individual assessment “in each case as to the appropriateness of the transfer, subject to procedural safeguards.” The transfer should not take place if there are no guarantees the person “will be protected against refoulement,” i.e., return to a place where they would face danger.
Algeria does not appear to have followed these UNHCR guidelines before expelling asylum seekers in the cases documented.