In Tragedy of Migrant Deaths in Sahara, Signals of a Renewed Integration

The countries of Arab North Africa and those of the Sahara-bordering Sahel region to the south are reestablishing their ancient historical links, in direct contradiction to the political and security wishes of their leaders, says Ali Bensaad. The Algerian sociologist tells El Watan in this interview that the interventions of the modern states that have developed on both sides of the Sahara, building artificial cities in the desert to define and control the boundaries there, have paradoxically made the borders more porous and increased the flow of migration.

Forty-six Nigerien migrants died trying to cross the Algerian desert a couple of days ago. What are conditions like for migrants coming from the south?

There is nothing new about this. This is an ancient tragedy, something older even than the disasters we see on the Mediterranean sea crossing. But we didn’t used to talk about it. We talk about it more nowadays because this region, the Sahel, is in the spotlight due to the ‘terrorism’ issue. So it has became a preoccupation in Europe, and the media now cover it more and better. Personally, it hit me for the first time in February of 2001, after a similar disaster-when an overloaded truck full of Nigerien migrants tried to bypass the Libyan border post at Tidjeri and got lost with all of its passengers. Twenty-seven bodies were found and buried. The other bodies were never found, and we will never know how many passengers there were at the start.

It is generally believed that there were a hundred of them. But there was virtually no reporting of this incident. I regularly come across descriptions of these ‘desert shipwrecks’ which are not covered at all in the press. Even more than on the Mediterranean, it is a macabre and difficult accounting for these Sahel journeys which never reach their destination, with their anonymous and unseen dead, buried in the immensity of the desert and never spoken of. Still, these desert disasters mirror those of the Mediterranean. They are movements in the same symphony, all part of the increasing unity of our world.

In North Africa we get justifiably outraged at the incompetence of our local leaders, who are incapable of giving any kind of hope to our children, and are thereby responsible for the disasters of the harraga [Mediterranean boat migrants]; but Europe shares their responsibility. Closing the European borders has produced contrary effects: encouraging and strengthening illegal migration, moving migratory barriers further south, and multiplying the dangers of crossing and the numbers who die. And then, mirroring their European counterparts, the North African countries have begun applying the same immigration policies, with similar effects, even before Europe directly asked them to join its dangerous immigration games. New policies brought to life in the silence that once reigned in the shadow of these authoritarian regimes. Nowadays there is more media attention, but there is also the fact that security fears have made migration routes more complex and dangerous. All of this has made disasters more likely and escalated the immigration issue in the region.

There has been a noticeable influx of a large number of sub-Saharan migrants into Algiers and the other large cities of the country in recent days. Do you have an explanation?

We should not lose sight of the fact that this is an old migration pattern. It began in the independence days, before securitarian policies would have made an issue out of it. It actually helped to even out some of the territorial imbalances of the North African countries. Particularly in their Saharan regions, which are lightly populated but are developing exceptionally quickly due to their economic and strategic importance. The Sahara region remains the most important destination in spite of some degree of filtration of these migrants toward the north. In exchange for exploiting them in primitive conditions, the North African countries were happy to allow them in, since they contributed to the construction of their Saharan regions. So, it is paradoxically the new attempts to repress this migratory flow, and the disasters the repression entails, which have made it appear to be a new and invasive phenomenon.

But it is clear that beyond the media attention, there has in fact been an increase in the number of disasters. This does not necessarily mean that there are more sub-Saharan immigrants, only that their travel conditions have become much more complicated. The tensions in the region, particularly the war in Mali, the increase in military resources, the augmenting of surveillance, all compel the immigrants to seek out more and more risky routes, and thus to get lost in the desert. But they are also more vulnerable to the violence of the Saharan milieu. Contrary to what some have thoughtlessly claimed, the nomadic population of the area has not really contributed to the flow of emigration; it has instead helped to move others through the harsh environment. But the nomads have also attacked migrant groups and lost them in the desert. This is clearly what happened in this case, with the nomads playing their traditional dual role of caravaners/bandits.

Frequently, it is not even so much about the robbery as it is about affirming their dominance in their Saharan lands, when both the population and the traffic is on the increase. And finally, there is the crisis in Libya, which was the most important job market in the region, with nearly two million immigrants at a certain point. The Libyan crisis had the effect of rechanneling the flow toward the other countries, among them Algeria. But this particular state of affairs, though it temporarily and locally increased the flow of immigrants, does not explain the overall pattern. There is a basic tendency at work, independent of these circumstances.

What tendency is that?

It is a tendency toward increasing integration between the Sahel and North Africa, and the thickening of the links between them, of which the migrants are only one manifestation. It might well seem paradoxical, or merely an academic pose, to talk about integration when we know that simultaneously the states of North African and the Sahel are turning their backs on each other. But at the margins of these states, and moreover as an unintended and indeed unwelcome consequence of the very actions of these states, the ancient fabric that connects the North Africa and the Sahel states is being rewoven; and this process is happening in the face of the disingenuous denial of the reality by these states, since they are certainly aware of what is happening.

Seeking to solidify their control of an increasingly strategically and resource-important Sahara region, Libya and Algeria constructed artificial cities like Tamanrasset and Sebha in the distant south, as windows into the region and also as outposts of Libyan and Algerian nationalism. But in doing this, they could not predict the excessive growth of the cities, (with populations of over 100,000 each), or more importantly the huge number of foreigners they would attract. Across the border, Niger constructed out of nothing a city of 8,000 inhabitants to exploit the uranium mines nearby. In doing so, it could not predict that it would become today’s city of Arlit, with 140,000 inhabitants, a city that exists as a geographic and cultural twin of Algeria’s Tamanrasset, and in which far more people make their living from commerce with North Africa than from the uranium mines.

So while North Africa and the Sahel develop, the connections between them grow stronger. These are the connections which build and strengthen paths of migration. Even the jihadi Islamism which has abruptly focused world attention on the region did not appear out of nowhere. Its spread to the south cannot only be explained, as the securitarian outlook would dictate, as a series of strategic retreats into the hinterlands by armed groups due to state pressure. Its spread is equally the product of this process of human and economic interpenetration that is creating a common future for the Sahel and North Africa.

What would you say are the best ways for taking care of the migrants in their North African host countries, and for slowing this exodus?

We cannot really address migratory questions unless we put them in context. But in North Africa and in particular Algeria, there is no overall plan that might help construct something beneficial from the migratory reality. Qaddafi, with his Machiavellian outlook, was the only North African leader who was ever able to foresee this common future, and thereby able turn it to the service of his geopolitical machinations with the countries of both the Sahel and Europe. These days, Morocco, with its decision to regularize the status of its sub-Saharan migrants, shows that there are other ways to deal with the question, even if its actions are probably related to its own geostrategic calculations. In any case, taking into account this common destiny, respecting and upholding human rights, that is the geostrategic way forward.


Interview by Madjid Makedhi. Translated from French by International Boulevard