Algeria’s protests and migration: the fearmongers have it wrong

2019-03-15

Over the past three weeks, Algerians have joined together in street protests across the country against a fifth term for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the opaque rule of the clan behind him, and the governing system that the ailing head of state represents.

Participants have come from all walks of life, engaging in one of the largest and geographically dispersed grass-roots political events in at least a generation. Excitement, determination, and deep frustration with the status-quo are palpable.

Even Bouteflika’s postponement of elections on 11 March and announcement that he would not seek another term have been viewed as insufficient by protesters. Any proposal extending his rule beyond the current term, including in a transition phase, promises to prompt more protest. Only a day after his announcement, thousands of students staged a rally at La Grande Poste in the heart of Algiers. Calls have multiplied on social media for another wave of countrywide protests today.

Outside Algeria the response to the protests and Bouteflika’s announcement has been more muted. Some in North Africa and Europe have staged solidarity protests. However in other quarters the protests have reawakened European fears that political unrest will lessen Algerian government enforcement and drive a rise in the number of Algerian irregular migrants sailing north.

Any proposal extending Bouteflika’s rule, including in a transition phase, will prompt more protest

This fundamentally misinterprets the current trends and drivers around Algerian irregular migration. While the protest movement is unlikely to drive migration, there is a deep connection between the factors driving young Algerians into the streets and onto migrant boats.

Well before Bouteflika announced his intention to run for a fifth term, Algerian irregular migration towards Europe was rising. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of Algerian migrants apprehended by Algeria and European states more than tripled. In 2018, nearly 13 000 Algerians were caught; many more likely arrived undetected.  

Unlike years past, when Algerian irregular migrants were overwhelmingly young men with limited education, over the past year significant numbers of educated youth, women, and families with young children have also made the journey. In December, two toddlers and an 11-year-old girl were pulled from a sinking boat off western Algeria. Others have not been so lucky: at least 119 died in 2018, and another 96 remain missing.

This outflow of Algerians is a rebuke of the current situation which many find untenable. The country’s leadership is overwhelming old. The population is overwhelmingly young. A human rights activist from eastern Algeria explained: ‘Not one of our leaders lives in our era, and they want us to live in a bygone era.’

Political discourse based on independence-era successes or protection from the violent threats of the 1990s civil war is far less likely to maintain the legitimacy of the semi-autocratic regime today than in the past.

Well before Bouteflika said he would run for a fifth term, Algerian migration to Europe was rising

Economic opportunities are limited, and even when jobs are available the wages are often not enough for youth to earn a living. For a growing number of young people, life steps like acquiring a house or marriage are put off. A despair exists: the common local phrase, ‘la mal vie’, (‘the bad life’), describes the sentiment for many Algerians. It is a sense that the youth are a blocked generation. ‘More and more there is the impression that they cannot breathe,’ noted a teacher in Oran.

And so increasing numbers of Algerians have departed for Europe, taking clandestine passage on boats or, if a visa or work permit can be accessed, departing legally on flights and ferries.

The same daily frustrations have prompted frequent protests throughout the country over the past several years. Most are local and sparked by socio-economic factors, including demands for jobs, housing, better infrastructure, and more responsive government services. Nationwide strikes in the health and education sectors have occurred intermittently. Few of these incidents have been reported outside the country.

The underlying frustrations leading many Algerians to oppose a fifth term for Bouteflika are indelibly linked to what has sparked other protests over recent years, and what has driven tens of thousands of Algerians to attempt to migrate to Europe.

Protesters themselves have explicitly referred to the migration issue. In Annaba and Algiers, families of disappeared migrants have marched, while across a far larger swath of cities protesters have chanted ‘harragas (migrants) are martyrs.’ A protest sign in Algiers expressed the prevailing feeling: ‘We will not flee to Europe on death-trap boats, we will not burn our mothers’ hearts with grief, we will not be eaten by fishes, we will rebuild Algeria.’

Rather than seeing protests as a risk, Europe’s migration hawks should see them as working in their favour

Algeria’s future is unclear but what is certain is that foreign fears that upsetting the status quo will lead to a migration ‘wave’ are misplaced. The old status quo, including securitised approaches to migration, are not tenable and have not been for some time.

Rising irregular migration over the past several years has been a potent indicator of this, albeit one that has been largely overlooked. Future migration is far more likely to be driven by efforts to maintain this status quo than by any decline in security force capacity to police Algeria’s shores that political change could bring.

Rather than seeing the protests as a risk, Europe’s migration hawks should see the situation as working in their favour. The engagement of young Algerians in a movement for generational change is the only realistic way to address popular frustrations and lessen the pervasive sense that migrating from Algeria is a necessity, not a choice.

As one piece of protest graffiti proclaimed: ‘Pour la 1ere fois j’ai pas envie de te quitter mon Algérie.’ (‘For the first time I don’t want to leave you my Algeria.’) This is a time for Algerians to focus on Algeria, without European migration politics getting in the way.

Matt Herbert, Senior Research Consultant on Migration, ISS and Partner at Maharbal, and Sofian Philip Naceur, Freelance Journalist covering North Africa

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