Is Algeria Tightening Its Migration Policy?

27 mai 2024
Le point de vue de Brahim Oumansour

Algeria’s strategic position places it at the heart of migratory flows from the Sahel to Europe. While Algiers expelled nearly 2,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to Niger at the beginning of 2024, the unhealthy political context in the Sahel is making the migration issue even more complex for the Maghreb states, and particularly for Algeria, which is not party to an agreement with the European Union (EU) to stem the flow of migrants to the Mediterranean. What is the state of Algeria’s migration policy and what are the issues at stake? How is Algeria coordinating its migration policy with its neighbours? Brahim Oumansour, Associate Research Fellow at IRIS and director of the Maghreb Observatory, provides some answers.

At the junction between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, Algeria is at the heart of international migration flows, particularly since the succession of coups d’état in the Sahel region. How is the government tackling the issue of migration, and how is the country articulating its migration policy in the context of the crisis in the Sahel?

Like all North African countries, Algeria has become a transit country for sub-Saharan migrants trying to reach Europe. Several thousand sub-Saharan migrants have arrived in the country over the last ten years. Algeria is a vast country – the largest in Africa – which shares borders with six countries: Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Morocco, as well as the autonomous territory of Western Sahara. These borders are marked by inter-state tensions and instability, requiring the active mobilisation of the Algerian army. The army has redoubled its vigilance in the face of multiple threats, including terrorism and trafficking of all kinds.

Algeria’s migration policy is currently facing major challenges, amplified by the crisis in the Sahel, which has exacerbated regional tensions and security threats, notably the latest coups d’état in Mali and Niger. Faced with an increase in migratory flows, Algiers has adopted an approach based on a mix of repressive measures and diplomatic cooperation, particularly with the Sahel states of Mali and Niger. But this cooperation has been undermined by the rise in migratory flows and the arrival of new leaders in its southern neighbours.

For its part, Algiers has tightened its migration policy and stepped up operations to repatriate and turn back sub-Saharan migrants towards the Sahara, on the borders with Niger. The Alame phone Sahara organisation has counted some 26,000 expulsions in 2023. These measures have caused diplomatic tensions, particularly with Niger, which summoned the Algerian ambassador on 3 April to express its discontent. The cancellation by Niger’s leaders of cooperation with the EU on migration policy is likely to increase the pressure on Algeria and its relations with Niger. What’s more, these mass expulsions have created a dramatic humanitarian situation. Refouled migrants regularly find themselves stranded at borders and in a desert region where there are few means of subsistence, and reception centres, such as the one in the village of Assamaka on the Algerian-Nigerian border, are overwhelmed. So the mass refoulement of migrants is coming in for criticism from NGOs and international law, especially as Algeria is a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

At regional level, to what extent is Algiers coordinating its migration policy with its neighbours Tunisia and Libya and the NGOs present there?

First of all, work within the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) is completely frozen, mainly because of the tensions between Algeria and Morocco – fuelled by the Western Sahara conflict – which have resulted in a diplomatic breakdown since the summer of 2021. In the absence of a common regional policy, each Maghreb state is managing the migration issue independently, using its own resources. Despite their good understanding, cooperation between the three neighbours, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, remains limited in terms of migration policy. The refoulement of migrants to one of the neighbouring countries has often been a source of diplomatic friction. A tripartite meeting was held on 22 April between the Presidents of Algeria, Abdelmajid Tebboune, and Tunisia, Kaïs Saied, and the President of the Libyan Presidential Council, Mohamed Younes El-Menfi, with the aim of strengthening cooperation and setting up joint committees. Cooperation on migration policy is one of the main issues to be addressed. As far as NGOs are concerned, Algeria tolerates the presence of few international humanitarian organisations on its territory, such as Oxfam and Triangle génération humanitaire, which work mainly to support Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf, in south-west Algeria, in collaboration with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is due to the Algerian authorities’ mistrust of international NGOs, which are often accused of interfering in the country’s internal affairs. It also reflects the difficulty of striking a balance between the security imperative and national sovereignty put forward by the Algerian authorities, and the obligation to uphold humanitarian law as required by international law.

Does Algeria receive funds from the European Union as part of its migration policy? If so, in what proportions and for what purposes?

The European Union has signed bilateral partnerships with Tunisia, Mauritania and Egypt since July 2023. Migration agreements involve helping the countries of origin or transit to strengthen their border controls, thereby preventing the arrival of migrants on European soil, in exchange for direct financial aid or in the form of investment and support for economic development. Brussels aims to extend this procedure to other African countries. No such agreement has been signed with Algeria. Algiers does not receive funds from the European Union for managing migratory flows, unlike its two neighbours Morocco and Tunisia. It is doubtful that the Algerian leaders will accept this type of agreement, for at least two reasons. Firstly, thanks to its oil and gas revenues, Algiers has little need of financial support, particularly since the rise in energy prices over the last two years. Secondly, the pronounced sovereignty of Algeria’s leaders makes them reluctant to accept such agreements, which risk being interpreted as an admission of weakness by a state that has often boasted of its sovereignty and its role as a regional player.

It should also be noted that illegal emigration from Algeria has been drastically reduced. It is therefore the arrival of sub-Saharan migrants in transit to Europe that is becoming the main issue for discussion with the European Union. This would be less of an incentive for Algiers to play the game, as it feels less concerned. In short, the European strategy of entrusting the management of migratory flows to African countries seems to have reached its limits. The about-turn by Niger’s leaders and the tragic situation of migrants wandering around the borders of several Maghreb and Sahel countries show that European policy has merely shifted the problem southwards, with the attendant humanitarian and diplomatic consequences. A multilateral agreement between the EU and the African Union, for example, would certainly involve a long and complex process, but would be more effective in dealing with such a phenomenon.


Translated by Deepl.
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