Algeria is a key destination and transit country for many African migrants, mostly from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso or Chad. However, the country has a history of anti-migrant discrimination and xenophobia and is one of the North African countries that refused to sign the protocol on the freedom of movement of people and right of residence attached to the African Union’s African Continental Free Trade Area agreement.

In an ongoing suppression of illegal migration, Algeria has been deporting hundreds of African migrants, claiming this is because it is unable to handle the numbers and not because of its demonstrated stance of immigration. Algerian Minister of the Interior, Nouredine Bedoui, said in a statement that so far the country has repatriated 27 000 sub-Saharan African migrants since 2015.

The process of repatriation is the crux of the matter as deportees claim that they were captured, then detained in makeshift camps for days before being transported across the border at gunpoint. Once there, they had to walk through the desert for hours, without food or water, to reach the closest places. Along the way, some were robbed or assaulted while others died from exposure.

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Algeria’s stance

Algeria, which has a 2 500km-long (1,550 mile) border with Mali and Niger, claims to have spent US$20 million in the past three years to handle the onslaught of illegal migrants from the Sahel region who are fleeing war, insecurity or poverty. A senior official at Algeria’s Interior Ministry, Hassen Kacimi, told Reuters that Algeria had called for help from the international community, while the United Nations had done little to save the migrants.

“A surge of migration is invading the south of Algeria,” Kacimi said. “Before reaching Algeria, the migrants are abandoned in the desert, and it is Algeria that rescues them by offering humanitarian aid. Algeria is not responsible for the population of other states, so whoever wants to cry over the outgoing migrants just [has] to put their hand in their pocket.”

Finally, he asked, “Where is the UN Refugee Agency, where is the International Organisation for Migration, and where are the African states?”

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The United Nations’ stance

The United Nations, in turn, has urged Algeria to stop rounding up and expelling sub-Saharan migrants. Ravina Shamdasani, a UN spokeswoman, told a regular UN briefing in Geneva that deportations and expulsions in Algeria have increased markedly since the second half of 2017, and a UN human rights team had been deployed to Niger to investigate.

“What they heard was that Algerian authorities frequently carry out mass round-ups of sub-Saharan African migrants in various parts of the country,” Shamdasani said. “[Some] are crammed into big trucks to be transferred to the Niger border, where they are abandoned and left to walk for hours in the desert heat to cross the border into Niger.”

On the other hand, Joel Millman, a spokesman for the UN migration agency IOM, said in a statement that IOM has rescued about 3 000 migrants in the past few months, some who were trying to get into Algeria and some who were being expelled.

He said many of the migrants said it was common to be dropped as much as 30 kilometers from the border, in 45 degree Celsius heat, often without water. Many were carrying children.

“Many of them report seeing migrants who have lost their lives, often unrecorded or unrecognised, in the sand dunes,” Millman said.