Tough times for migrants as Europe closes doors

These are the migrants Europe never sees: Africans stranded in the wastes of southern Algeria, stuck midpoint on long and treacherous journeys in search of a better life.

Deep in the Sahara desert, Tamanrasset teems with thousands of migrants who live amid rocks and rubble on the edge of the town and agonise over difficult choices: Should they admit defeat and suffer the shame of returning home empty-handed? Or should they try to find work—here in the desert where often there is none—to finance another attempt to carry on?

That so many would-be immigrants are stuck here in limbo is no accident. European governments who face voters hostile to immigration have been urging North African countries to act as the front line against illegal immigration, encouraging them to stop migrants before they even come within sight of Europe’s shores.

In Tamanrasset, Algerian police set about the task with gusto. Migrants are put into cages aboard trucks and dumped at a tent city at Tin Zaouatin, just across the border in neighbouring Mali.
Local aid workers say such transfers are made once a month on average, and sometimes several hundred people are deported.

“The Maghreb countries are becoming a bit of a buffer for the EU [European Union] to stop these movements towards Europe,” said Peter van den Vaart, who retired last month as representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Algeria. With the EU scrambling to close its borders, he said, “the emphasis is on the repressive side”.

An Algerian police spokesperson did not return calls for this article.

In transit

In Tamanrasset, up to 3 000 migrants, mainly West African, are thought to be in transit towards the north. One route takes them north-west into Morocco, from where they can attempt the perilous boat crossing to the Canary Islands. Others head east to Libya, where they hope to find work in a booming construction industry fuelled by oil profits, or cross by sea to Malta or Sicily.

But some, buffeted by police and plagued by hunger and illness, say their best option is to turn back.

“I’ve been here a couple of years and there’s nothing good I’ve achieved,” said Eugene Combapuie, a 29-year-old from Liberia who fled a civil conflict in the West African country in 2002 and spent spells in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya before arriving in Algeria.

“In the time I have wasted here in Algeria I could have achieved something somewhere else,” he said, perched next to a makeshift shelter on Tamanrasset’s disused periphery.

Instead, Combapuie said, he had contracted tuberculosis in a prison in northern Algeria after police arrested him for not having papers.

Some fellow-migrants he met had hopes of getting to Europe; others were just trying to get by. But even those who had documents saying they were asylum seekers or refugees ran into trouble, he said. “Even if you have a paper, the police tell you they don’t read English or French—only Arabic, and at the end you find yourself locked up.”

Emaciated by illness but completing a treatment programme thanks to the help of a local doctor, he was hoping to head back to his country where the war had ended. “When I go back to Liberia things will be better, God willing,” he said.

Other migrants, who decided to leave home due to lack of economic opportunities, feel they have little or nothing to go back to. Some of those deported to Tin Zaouatin return to Algeria as soon as they can afford the jeep fare back across the long, sparsely patrolled border. Feissal Abdelaziz, who works in Tamanrasset for the International Committee for the Development of Peoples, an Italian NGO, spends part of his time trying to raise awareness about the risks of an onward journey.

“They say, ‘Yes, it’s true, but give me something to do back home,’” he said.

Community

As the population of Tamanrasset has grown to about 100 000, it has become home to a more settled community of migrants who look no further than oil-rich Algeria for work. At least 10 000 from neighbouring Niger or Mali are thought to commute for months at a time to work in the informal economy, mainly in construction or small commerce.

Newer arrivals from West African countries farther south stand around in groups along a dried-up river bed waiting for work, hoping to fund the next leg of their journey.

Police often turn a blind eye.

But some illegal immigrants bring trouble, Abdelaziz said, dealing heroin and importing counterfeit dollars, one reason for police crackdowns that end in mass round-ups and push fearful migrants to more distant shelters further from the town centre.

Group deportations or repatriations have also been common in Morocco and Libya, the other two countries in the region most affected by migration, triggering protests by international human rights groups.

At two summits held between African and European countries last year in Rabat, Morocco, and Tripoli, Libya, closing statements stressed the need to protect migrants’ rights and to tackle the poverty and violence that cause migration.

But Ali Bensaad, who teaches at the University of Provence in France, said the priority of European policy toward African migrants remains “to block them as far away from Europe as possible”.

Bensaad said North African governments are cooperating. He cited a recent Tunisian law setting out prison terms for those offering help for migrants, and the creation of a thousand-strong Algerian police squad to tackle illegal immigration.

He also said North African countries have been heavy-handed and secretive. “All the Maghreb countries, including Algeria, try to play it down so as not to appear affected by immigration because it’s a reality that they do not want to take on, and they don’t want to provide social and judicial responses.”

That leaves migrants in places like Tamanrasset living on the very edges of society.

Charles Macaulay, another Liberian squatting on the same patch of wasteland as Combapuie, had been aiming for Morocco until he heard stories about people drowning as they tried to cross from the Moroccan coast to the Canary Islands. “Where people normally go to get to Europe there are a lot of risks. I don’t want to take those risks,” he said.

But like Combapuie, Macaulay (25) saw little hope in sticking around in the desert. “Here it’s difficult to get food to eat, to get a job. There’s lots of stress. It’s difficult to go on living your life this way,” he said, signalling to the metre-high stone shelters covered with sheeted plastic behind him. “See where we sleep. It’s not conducive for a human being to live here.”—Sapa-AP

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