“We were abandoned in the desert at 2 a.m.”: migrants expelled from Algeria to Niger
Every year, Algeria deports thousands of sub-Saharan Africans to Niger, abandoning them at a place called Point-Zero on the border in the middle of the Sahara. The Nigerian village of Assamaka, a few hours walk to the south, was overwhelmed by these waves of successive pushbacks. Mehdi Chebil reports for InfoMigrants.
Fifteen kilometers of walking in the Sahara with a broken foot means lifting the crutches which sink into the sand while crossing the dunes, the grains of sand entering the bandages with each step, for hours. Alpha Mohamed and Houssain Ba experienced this in early November when the two young Guineans were abandoned at Point-Zero, which marks the border between Algeria and Niger.
The place where the Algerian authorities pushed back tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans in recent years has been extremely inhospitable with sand as far as the eye can see.
“We were abandoned at Point-Zero at 2 a.m. and had to walk on our crutches for hours. We finally arrived in Assamaka at 11 a.m.,” Alpha Mohamed said. InfoMigrants.
The two 18-year-old friends are far from alone. Among them, more than 600 Malians, Guineans, Ivorians, Sudanese, Nigerians and Senegalese roam the desert. They have haggard features and the ocher dust of the Sahara covers their skin, while they concentrate on some twinkling lights 15 kilometers a little further south.
A shadow army made up of workers, waiters, bakers, those little hands that keep the Algerian economy running. Some still have the construction boots they were wearing when authorities arrested them at work. They were all torn from their daily lives, whether they were at home when they woke up, in a restaurant during a meal, when out on the town, or at work.
This is the case of Alpha and Houssain, arrested by the police on a construction site in Oran, where they worked as laborers. “The police arrived at 9 a.m. and all the black workers immediately fled. We tried to escape uphill but a policeman caught us. He pushed us on purpose and we fell: it’s like that broke our foot,” Alpha recalls. .
After a quick visit to a hospital in Oran, the two young Guineans were sent to the Tamanrasset deportation center, 1,900 kilometers south of Algiers. Migrants were stripped of their meager possessions there: mobile phones, cash, passports, jewellery… Packed into cattle trucks, the migrants were then abandoned at Point-Zéro. For Algiers, it was the end of the operation soberly called “exit to the border”.
For Alpha and Houssain, this was only the beginning of their ordeal. After hours of walking in the sand swept relentlessly by an icy wind from the north-east of the Sahara called the Harmattan, the two young men approached a place called “La Dune”. Located three kilometers north of Assamaka, it is in this post-apocalyptic setting that some of the most tired migrants decide to spend the night. The rising sun illuminates the silhouettes of damaged cars, half-buried tires and old diesel cans used to mark the territories of the cabins of the mechanics and fuel merchants who populate the neighborhood.
The Guineans continued their journey directly to the registration center of the Nigerien authorities, before reporting to the transit center of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the arm of the United Nations (UN) which assists voluntary returns of migrants to their country of origin.
The authorities overwhelmed by the influx of deportees
The arrival in Assamaka marks the beginning of a long wait for those expelled from Algeria. The multiplication of waves of evictions combined with the slowdown in repatriations has caused the number of migrants in the city to swell to nearly 3,000 individuals, more than double the initial population of Assamaka. Alpha and Houssain were able to settle inside the IOM transit camp, which has a maximum capacity of 1,000 people. The vast majority of migrants sleep under the stars or seek refuge in open hangars. Their patience is running out.
“For two months, we have been told that we will soon be leaving!” exclaims Seyni Diallo, a young Senegalese expelled after a six-month stay in Algeria. “There is not enough food and blankets, it is really difficult to sleep outside here because the nights are very cold,” adds Sagma Kaboré, from Burkina Faso.
The precarious living conditions of the 3,000 migrants worry several NGOs. “We fear a real humanitarian crisis in Assamaka if this situation continues. A major epidemic could break out very quickly if a person has measles, meningitis or COVID,” explains Diabry Talaré, coordinator of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Agadez. The geographical isolation of Assamaka increases the difficulties, both for humanitarian logistics and for the daily life of the migrants stranded there.
Assamaka, an overpopulated isolated island in the middle of the desert
The city of Assamaka is so isolated that it gives the impression of an overpopulated island lost in the middle of a sea of sand. The rutted tracks that lead to Arlit then to Agadez are teeming with highway robbers. These desert pirates regularly rob travelers, even going so far as to intercept and recently steal a 4×4 serving as an ambulance on the road leading from Assamaka to Arlit.
Isolation also affects telecommunications. Most Nigerien telephone networks do not work in Assamaka. In the center of the village, a few stalls with improvised antennas, long wooden rods rising six meters into the sky, from which hangs half a plastic bottle containing a telephone with an Algerian SIM card. This is the main way to connect to the Internet.
Yet many migrants are expelled from Algeria without money or mobile phones, it is almost impossible to contact their relatives during their long weeks of waiting.
“Some migrants have spent two or three months without hearing from their families. It’s a constant worry that has an impact on their mental health,” explains Mahamadou Toidou, head of psychological consultations for MSF in Assamaka. “There are cases like a young Guinean who was arrested in the street by the Algerian police, while his two and a half month pregnant wife was at home. Since his expulsion, he has not been able to contact her and he isolates himself in a corner and thinks all the time about what happened… He suffers a lot as soon as he sees a woman with her child,” adds the psychologist.
Search operations in the desert
The fact that the Algerian authorities carry out these pushbacks without any coordination with the Nigerien authorities sometimes has dramatic consequences. Since 2020, around 30 bodies have been found north of Assamaka. To prevent migrants from getting lost and becoming exhausted in the desert, IOM and MSF teams launch combing operations as soon as a “pedestrian convoy”* is reported. The 4x4s then rush towards Point-Zero in order to find people who are lost or too exhausted to move forward.
Since last July, they have been joined by a team from Alarme Phone Sahara (APS), a Nigerien humanitarian organization equipped with an all-terrain tricycle to rescue lost migrants.
“I couldn’t bear to see these poor people in this situation anymore,” says Ibrahim François, a member of the APS team who regularly takes part in search operations. “Now that the nights are cold, the Algerians always push the migrants back around 2 or 3 a.m. It’s done on purpose so that they go to take shelter, and so that they don’t stay,” says -he.
The painful forced march in the desert experienced by the two young wounded Guineans remains etched in their memories. “We were treated like animals in Algeria, we never want to go back there again,” says Houssain Ba. “Now all we want is to be able to leave Assamaka and go home.”
*The expression “pedestrian convoys” in Niger designates persons expelled from Algeria who are not Nigeriens. The Algerian authorities abandoned them at Point-Zéro, 15 kilometers from Assamaka. Nigerien migrants are deported in “official convoys”, as provided for in a 2014 bilateral agreement on the repatriation of undocumented Nigerien nationals from Algeria to Niger. The Algerian Red Crescent operates the trucks of the official convoys and they take the deportees directly to the city of Agadez. A “pedestrian convoy” on November 1 was made up of 634 individuals, while an “official convoy” on November 3 was made up of 840 individuals (including non-Nigerians). The 3,000 migrants currently in Assamaka are the “leftovers” after successive waves of “pedestrian convoys”.