Algeria has abandoned more than 13,000 people in the Sahara Desert over the past 14 months, including pregnant women and children, an investigation by the Associated Press has revealed.
Expelled at gunpoint, thousands of people have been forced to walk miles in temperatures of up to 48 degrees. The majority head for Niger; the lucky ones arrive at the village of Assamaka after trekking tens of kilometres in search of water. Some are rescued by UN squads, but untold numbers do not survive the trip.
“Women were lying dead, men… Other people got missing in the desert because they didn’t know the way,” said Janet Kamara, who was pregnant at the time. “Everybody was just on their own.”
The migrants and refugees’ accounts have been confirmed by videos collected over months, which show hundreds of people stumbling away from lines of trucks and buses. They travel in crammed trucks for six to eight hours before being dropped in the desert and pointed in the direction of Niger. In early June, 217 men, women and children were dropped off well before reaching the usual drop-off stop, dubbed Point Zero and 30 kilometres from the nearest source of water, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
“There were people who couldn’t take it. They sat down and we left them. They were suffering too much,” said 18-year-old Aliou Kande from Senegal who was interviewed for the investigation.
Kande said nearly a dozen people simply gave up, collapsing in the sand. His group of 1,000 also got lost and wandered for 11 hours in the heat of the desert. He never saw the missing people again.
Kande said Algerian police stole everything he had earned when he was first detained, amounting to some 40,000 dinars ($340) and a Samsung mobile phone.
“They tossed us into the desert, without our telephones, without money. I couldn’t even describe it to you.”
In leaked comments, authorities in the country have said the investigation is part of a “campaign of defamation” which the north African state is being subjected to.
Algeria’s mass expulsions have increased since October 2017, as the EU renewed pressure on North African countries to prevent migrants and refugees travelling north to Europe.
Whilst migrant expulsions are not documented by Algiers, the number of people crossing on foot to Niger has been increasing since the IOM started counting in May 2017, when 135 people were recorded, to April 2018, when the monthly figure stood at 2,888. At least another 2,500 were forced on a similar trek into neighbouring Mali, with an unknown number succumbing along the way.
The IOM has estimated that for every person known to have died crossing the Mediterranean, as many as two people are lost in the Sahara, amounting to more than 30,000 people since 2014.
An EU spokesperson said the EU was aware of what Algeria was doing, but that “sovereign countries” can expel migrants and refugees as long as they comply with international law.
Algerian authorities have refused to comment but have previously denied that it is committing rights abuses by abandoning migrants and refugees in the desert. Many have accused the government of contributing to the anti-migrant backlash that has seen sub-Saharan Africans branded as invaders, and popularised xenophobic and racist stereotypes in the public discourse.
Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has previously said: “European governments want to make Algeria and its neighbours (Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt) camps to prevent the influx of Africans into its territory.”
“We do not want to play the role of police in the Mediterranean,” former interior minister Dahou Ould Kablia said.
Despite the threat of violence and expulsion, for many migrants, Algeria is a necessary transit point to recover their strength and to save enough money before attempting to continue their journey towards Europe.