Algeria stops forcing migrants into Sahara after outrage

Algeria's deadly expulsions of migrants into the Sahara Desert have nearly ground to a halt after widespread condemnation and the abrupt firing of two top security officials.

Mass detentions continue, with migrants being warehoused in overcrowded jails

Here, migrants head toward Libya from Agadez, Niger on June 4. Algeria's mass expulsions have picked up since October 2017, as the European Union renewed pressure on North African countries to head off migrants going north to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea or the barrier fences with Spain. They've since ground to a halt. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

Algeria's deadly expulsions of migrants into the Sahara Desert have nearly ground to a halt after widespread condemnation and the abrupt firing of two top security officials.

The expulsions have all but ended since The Associated Press reported less than three weeks ago that more than 13,000 people, including women and children, had been dropped off in the stark, dangerous region since May 2017, according to officials with the UN's International Organization for Migration.

Before AP reached out to Algeria for comment and published the report on June 26, the North African nation was expelling migrants by the hundreds almost every week into the unforgiving desert along the borders that Algeria shares with Niger and Mali, sometimes to their deaths.

Algeria has refused repeated AP requests for comment on the expulsions.

The European Union also declined to comment. The expulsions came as Europe is pressuring North African governments to head off the migrants before they can cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Warehousing migrants in jail

An aid worker with contacts in Algeria told the AP that the mass detentions continue. But now migrants, including dozens of pregnant women, are warehoused in overcrowded jails. The worker requested anonymity to avoid retribution from the Algerian government.

Algeria also continues to deport migrants from neighbouring Niger, with which it has had an expulsion agreement since 2015. But while migrants from other sub-Saharan countries were dropped in the desert secretly and forced to walk for miles under the blistering sun, the Nigeriens have long been driven to the border by convoys. After the AP report in June, Algerian officials invited local media to watch such a round of deportations to prove they were humanely done.

Since the AP report, Algeria's security forces have fallen into disarray, with the head of the gendarmerie and the chief of national security both being forced from their jobs. It is unclear why the men were fired, but both were linked to the migrant expulsions in the desert, as well as to an unrelated corruption scandal involving the seizure of more than 700 kilograms of cocaine from a cargo ship in May.

In its few public statements, Algeria has insisted that migrants are treated appropriately, but the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the expulsions in the desert. Two days after the AP report, Human Rights Watch also released an investigation into the forced desert marches.

"Algeria has the power to control its borders, but that doesn't mean it can round up people based on the colour of their skin and dump them in the desert, regardless of their legal status and without a shred of due process," Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

A sandal lies on the ground in Niger's Tenere desert region of the south central Sahara on June 3. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

Migrants filmed videos of themselves fanning out across the open desert, stumbling through heat that reaches above 50 C in summer as Algerian gendarmes with guns ensured they did not turn back. Of the more than two dozen migrants who AP journalists interviewed in Niger, nearly all reported seeing deaths during the forced march, which sometimes lasted days.

Even before the AP report, the conditions that migrants were enduring in the Sahara Desert had been an open secret among aid workers, as well as governments in Africa and Europe. The African Union had already complained about Algeria's policies toward migrants in a statement in May.

"We cannot accept African countries ill-treating Africans, even if they enter the country illegally," the chairman of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

European Union officials say they discussed the desert expulsions with Algerian government officials privately in recent months, but the EU nonetheless settled upon Algeria as one of a handful of countries where it had hoped to set up centres to sort economic migrants from asylum-seekers fleeing for their lives.

Algeria refused the dubious honour, as did multiple other countries.​