Sunday, January 13, 2008

Migrants target booming Algeria

By Rachid Sekkai
BBC Focus on Africa magazine

While many young Algerians are risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean on fishing boats to find opportunities abroad, Africans from south of the Sahara are risking their lives through dry and hot deserts to live and work in Algeria.

Marcel, 31, is one of the lucky African migrants to have made it into the country - more than 30,000 try each year.

The Ivorian says he entered Algeria legally through the borders with Mali and Niger, after obtaining a three-month visa on arrival.

But six months on he is still here - he wanted to carry on his education but dropped out at secondary level to support his family.

He pays around $2 a night to sleep with seven other immigrants in a single room in a dilapidated building, which he describes as an "African ghetto."

Lost in the desert

Clandestine immigrants in Algeria constitute 50 African nationalities, with Mali, Niger and the Gambia topping the list.

Sudanese and Libyan immigrants also find their way to the country.

It is easy to see why. Algeria is booming economically.

The country's foreign debt has fallen from $28 billion in 1999 to only $5 billion today, thanks largely to high oil prices and the government's tight fiscal policies.

But these young men risk the ire of the Algerian border police, not only to take advantage of this booming economy, but also with the hope of entering Europe over the Mediterranean.

Marcel himself spent the equivalent of $200 on his journey from Ivory Cost.

The truck that carried him and 44 others from the city of Kidal in Mali to their destination in Algeria became lost in the desert.

"I spent four days with little drink before the driver could find his way again," he recalled.

He says that he saw fellow passengers die in front of him on the journey.

"These immigrants prefer to risk their lives to come to Algeria rather than go to other neighbouring countries because - job opportunities aside - they know that if they perish on Algerian soil the authorities will work to identify their origins and send them back to their countries," says Sami Riyad, a journalist with the main Algerian independent El-Khabar daily.

"If unsuccessful, they will be buried properly here."

In comparison to its North African neighbours Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, Algeria is bearing the brunt of an immigration influx.

In response, the border authorities have set up a detention centre near the city of Maghnia where hundreds of illegal immigrants are being held awaiting deportation.

"It costs the Algerian government about $200 per person to deport them," Mr Riyad says.


But this does not necessarily mean Algerians welcome the immigrants.

"We feel a bit of racism here," says Marcel.

"Kids throw stones at us. We can't make friends with Algerians."

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that, despite an oil-and-gas-rich economy that is rapidly heating up, there are not enough jobs for Algerians themselves.

The country currently has an official unemployment rate of 15%, although it is believed by some analysts to be double that.

Liberian migrants sit next to their shelters on the edge of Tamanrasset, southern Algeria
Many migrants remain stuck in the wastes of southern Algeria
The Algerian press is equally unsympathetic.

Much ink has been spent in deploring the state of illegal Africans on the streets of the country's cities, but even more has been devoted to stories alleging that they are the cause of the increase in illegal activities such as trading in counterfeit currencies, goods and passports as well as the smuggling of drugs.

However, despite the challenges some Algerians feel black Africans pose to authorities in the country, the foreigners that many young Algerians are eyeing with caution are the Chinese migrants.

"The Africans don't pose a threat to us," says Mourad, a 30-year old medical consultant who lives in the middle-class area of Al-Biar, south of Algiers.

"They are just passing by. However, the Chinese workers seem to come here to stay. They have set up businesses and shops, and even started marrying Algerians."

And the fact that the Chinese are seen as muscling in on an already crowded job market has resulted in many young professionals looking to leave Algeria.