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Migrants of several nationalities, part of a group of 270 people, arrive from Algeria to Assamaka, Niger, on September 30, 2020. © 2020 IOM Niger

(Beirut) – Algerian authorities expelled thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to Niger during waves of roundups of mostly sub-Saharan Africans across at least nine cities in recent weeks, Human Rights Watch said today. Security personnel have separated children from their families during mass arrests, stripped migrants and asylum seekers of their belongings, and failed to allow them to challenge their removal or screen them for refugee status. Scores of asylum seekers registered with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, are among those arrested, with several already expelled.

Since early September, Algeria has expelled over 3,400 migrants of at least 20 nationalities to Niger, including 430 children and 240 women, according to humanitarian organizations in Niger. This brings the number of people summarily expelled to Niger this year to over 16,000 – a little over half of them Nigerien. Algerian authorities crammed most Nigeriens into trucks or buses and handed them over to Niger’s army, in what are termed “official” repatriation convoys; others, in convoys of mixed nationalities, were left in the desert near the border.

“Algeria is entitled to protect its borders, but not to arbitrarily detain and collectively expel migrants, including children and asylum seekers, without a trace of due process,” said Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Before moving to deport anyone, authorities should verify their immigration or asylum status individually and ensure individual court reviews.”

The recent roundups and expulsions mark the sharpest spike in these operations since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March. However, Algeria had never fully stopped expelling migrants to Niger, even after official closures of the borders in March, migrants and aid workers said.

Migrants of several nationalities, part of a group of 270 people, arrive from Algeria to Assamaka, Niger, on September 30, 2020. © 2020 IOM Niger

In late September and early October, Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone 6 Sierra Leonean, Guinean, Nigerian, and Ivorian migrants – 1 woman and 5 men – expelled to Niger during 2020, 2 migrants detained in Algeria, an aid worker working in Algeria, and 10 humanitarian aid workers in Niger assisting migrants expelled from Algeria.

Cities where recent roundups have occurred include Tlemcen, Oran, Algiers, Blida, Boumerdes, Tipaza, Zeralda, Setif, and Annaba. Police apprehended migrants from streets, in their homes, and at work sites.

Both unaccompanied children and children separated from their families during the roundups – some younger than 10 – have been detained and deported, according to aid workers assisting migrants in Algeria and Niger. “It’s unbelievable that they can be arresting small children without even knowing where their parents are,” one aid worker said.

Algeria’s interior minister announced a new operation to combat “illegal migration” on October 1, claiming that it respected human rights. On October 3, Algeria expelled 705 adults and children of 18 nationalities to the desert, followed by 957 Nigeriens forcibly returned in a convoy on October 5, and 660 people of 17 nationalities expelled to the desert on October 8, according to aid workers in Niger.

During the roundups, migrants and asylum seekers have been detained in police stations, holding centers, and camps. Many were bused south – often to Tamanrasset, 1,900 kilometers from Algiers – and held there for days or weeks, then expelled. While the all-Nigerien convoys are conducted per a 2014 bilateral oral agreement, mass expulsions of mixed-nationality groups to the border are not. In 2018, Niger’s interior minister said his government had asked Algerian authorities to stop expelling non-Nigerien nationals to their border.

Six migrants told Human Rights Watch that Algerian authorities had deported them to the border with no opportunity to collect their belongings, challenge their removal, or access a lawyer.

Rokia Tamara, a 23-year-old Ivorian woman, said she and her two children were apprehended in July in the southwestern city of Béchar and expelled to Niger three days later. “The police forced their way into our house, grabbed us, didn’t explain why, didn’t ask for documents,” she said. “I explained that I was recovering from a Caesarian operation, but they took me anyway. The children were sleeping, and they took them too.”

Three of the migrants interviewed said police or gendarmes beat them or their friends during the roundups or in detention. “[The police] banged on the door and started to club us,” said Abdul (a pseudonym), a 25-year-old Sierra Leonean man who lived in a migrant group house. “We don’t know why, I guess because we were foreigners…. They also beat us in prison, with their batons. They hit my back, my side, my legs.... They treated us so bad, all the African people.”

Two migrants said they saw authorities destroy other migrants’ documents during the roundups. “I saw the gendarmes tear up my friend’s legal work documents and throw them in the trash,” said a 30-year-old man from Guinea. “I saw them rip someone’s passport,” said a 24-year-old man from Sierra Leone. All six migrants said the authorities confiscated everything they had on them, including phones and money, and never returned any of it.

“There was no lawyer, they just spoke in Arabic and we couldn’t understand everything,” said a 44-year-old Nigerian man. “We couldn’t contact our embassy or even our family... They collected all our money, all our good shoes, our phones.... It was very traumatic.”

Human Rights Watch also spoke with members of a group of seven Yemeni men, all UNHCR-registered asylum seekers, detained in a government-run center in Dély Ibrahim, Algiers, since their arrest for “illegal entry” in December 2019. The men said they feared for their lives if returned to war-ravaged Yemen. Human Rights Watch received no response from Algerian authorities to a September 4 letter appealing for the Yemenis’ release and access to full and fair asylum procedures.

While sub-Saharans constitute the bulk of those Algerian authorities have collectively expelled near the Niger border, some non-African nationals have been expelled in the same way, including Yemeni, Syrian, and Palestinian asylum seekers.

Of the 3,400 migrants Algeria expelled between September 5 and October 8, about 1,800 were Nigeriens driven into Niger in “official” convoys, while over 1,600 people of at least 20 nationalities – mostly West and Central Africans, as well as 23 Sudanese, 2 Somalis, 2 Eritreans, 2 Mauritanians, 1 Pakistani, and 1 Libyan – were left in the desert at the border, according to humanitarian organizations. In the latter case, the Algerian military stripped migrants of nearly all their personal belongings, abandoned them at a location known as “Point Zero,” and ordered them to walk 15 kilometers to Assamaka, Niger’s closest village. In the harsh desert climate, temperatures can reach up to 45°C (113°F) during the day, dropping sharply at night.

Migrants expelled in July described similar experiences. “They pushed us into the desert and left us there, saying, ‘This is the way to Niger,’” said Abdul, from Sierra Leone. “I had no shoes; I walked barefoot. It took us five or six hours.” Tamara, from Côte d’Ivoire, said soldiers even took clothes from babies. “They told us, ‘You came to Algeria with nothing, and you will leave with nothing,’” said a 28-year-old Ivorian man.

Children, as well as pregnant, sick, and injured people, have been among those recently expelled, aid workers in Niger reported. One cited the example of two pregnant women trucked into the town of Agadez in an all-Nigerien convoy on October 3: one had a fractured leg, while the other went into labor shortly after arrival.

Two aid workers in Niger – from Alarm Phone Sahara, a Nigerien group assisting migrants, and an international group that wished to remain anonymous – said they saw injuries on arriving migrants’ bodies consistent with abuse, which they said the migrants confirmed. “With each wave [of expulsions] we see bruises and wounds ... in Algeria [migrants] are treated like animals,” one aid worker said. He said some women alleged they had been raped “by men in uniform in Algeria.”

Several migrants also said they lacked adequate food and medical care during their detention. “We sleep on empty stomachs most nights,” one detainee said. “Scabies has spread amongst us.... One of us is very sick and they didn’t give him medicine.”

Some deported migrants said Algerian authorities took measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 through temperature checks, wearing or distributing masks, and disinfecting vehicles. However, others said no precautions were taken. None reported any coronavirus testing. By cramming hundreds of migrants together, denying them access to adequate medical care, and continuing to deport large groups without testing for coronavirus, Algeria is putting many at risk.

Human Rights Watch previously documented abusive migrant deportations by Algeria between 2016 and 2018. Algeria expelled an estimated 25,000 migrants to Niger in 2018, and another 25,000 in 2019, according to non-profit and UN organizations.

While every country is entitled to regulate the entry of foreigners, Algeria’s treatment of migrants violates its obligations as a party to the Migrant Workers Convention, which prohibits collective expulsions and requires examination of each case individually.

As a party to the UN and African Refugee Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, Algeria is also bound by the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the forced return of anyone to countries where they could face torture or threats to their lives or freedom. Governments should ensure that asylum seekers’ claims are fully examined before initiating any removal proceedings. The Refugee Convention forbids expelling refugees lawfully in a contracting state’s territory except on grounds of national security or public order. Even in such cases, decisions should be reached in accordance with due process, unless “compelling reasons of national security otherwise require.”

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected last December, said during his tenure as prime minister in 2017 that he intended to regularize migrant workers and “identify refugees and sub-Saharan migrants, with the goal of assigning them official cards to give them the possibility of working.” To translate this rhetoric into action during his first term, Tebboune should halt arbitrary detention and collective expulsions, investigate the alleged abuses, and develop systems for individualized, fair, and legal processing of both asylum seekers and irregular migrants, Human Rights Watch said.

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