In the last few weeks, the EU neighbourhood and the Western foreign policies alongside the ongoing economic domination of the African continent have yet again shown their deadly consequences in the immigration tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea.
Thousands of people, mainly from Africa and Syria, risk their lives every year crossing the sea in fragile boats to flee war-torn areas, poverty, persecution and misery in order to reach the shores of Europe for a better and safer life. Sadly a significant number of them perish in the attempts to do so or end up in humiliating camps and prisons in southern European countries only to be deported and returned and see their dreams shattered.
What distinguishes this year’s tragedy from the previous ones is the sheer scale of it as the death toll of drowning this year now stands at over 1,500 – 50 times more than at the same point in 2014. This can be explained mainly by the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya and Mali as well as the inhumane decision by several European Union (EU) governments to refuse funding to the Italian-run rescue operation Mare Nostrum, preferring thus to let migrants die, something that was claimed would act as a deterrent for unwanted people who are trying to reach fortress Europe.
Trying to halt this flow of humanity has been the EU’s logic for years with the introductions of sanctions and heavy fines on marine carriers that fail to check the validity of travellers’ passports and visas. Already in September 2007, seven Tunisian fishermen were indicted and jailed by an Italian judge for “support of illegal immigration,” their boats confiscated because they dared to save a boat transporting passengers to Lampedusa (Sicily), preventing it from sinking as stipulated by maritime rules.
It is worth remembering here how European countries externalised the protection of their borders to authoritarian regimes in North Africa. An edifying example was the Berlusconi-Gaddafi agreement to send immigrants back to Libya without screening them for asylum claims in return for lucrative economic deals between both countries. Morocco also zealously performed its role as the guardian of Fortress Europe. In 2005, 20 people from Sub-Saharan Africa met their deaths while trying to cross the fences in the Spanish-Moroccan border at Ceuta and Melilla, some by falling, others by asphyxiation and others more shockingly under the fire from the Moroccan army.
This delocalisation and militarisation of immigration control was epitomised by the European Union agency Frontex that was created in 2005 to intercept migrants coming between the African shores and the Canary Islands as well as in the Sicily canal, regardless of the legitimacy of certain asylum cases and far from any democratic control.
Algeria did not escape this logic of cooperation with its European neighbours in the “war on migrants”. That’s how, in 2009, it made “illegal immigration” an offence under its law. Algeria, which praises itself as a beacon of stability in the region and which harbours vast wealth from its oil and gas resources, is nevertheless one of the main countries that produces what we call “illegal migrants,” more exactly Harraga in the Maghrebi language. Harga (the phenomenon) literally refers to the verb “حرق“ (burn in Arabic) in its strict sense (to burn their papers and documents) and metaphorically: to overcome a restriction like going through a red light or jumping the queue – or in this case crossing the borders and the seas.
Algeria and its harragas
In 2014, there were 7,842 detections of illegal border crossings in the Western Mediterranean region that consist of several areas of the southern Spanish coast and the land borders of Ceuta and Melilla. In terms of nationality, most of the migrants are from West Africa, in particular from Cameroon and Mali. Algerians and Moroccans have also been reported among the top ten nationalities, but mostly at the sea border.
According to the 2015 Frontex annual risk analysis, Algeria was ranked third after Syria and Afghanistan for detected clandestine entries at border crossing points (BCPs) in 2014. Algeria was also ranked eighth when it comes to illegal residents.
The Algerian harraga take different maritime routes from Algeria to reach Europe: one from the coasts of Oran (West Algeria) towards continental Spain, the other one (less developed) links the shores of Dellys (100km east of Algiers) to the island of Palma in Majorca; and the last one is from the oriental coasts (Annaba and Skikda) towards the Italian island of Sardinia.
However, they also use other routes through Tunisia, Libya as well as through Turkey. In fact, from November 2010 to March 2011, 11 percent of the 11,808 irregular migrants intercepted in Greece by Frontex were identified as Algerians, behind Pakistanis (16 percent) and Afghans (23 percent). These alarming statistics were surprising because the number of Algerians exceeded those of Moroccans by a factor of two and Tunisians by a factor of six, despite the unrest in these two countries with the start of the Arab uprisings.
Harga – the result of poverty and hogra
All social classes are touched by this phenomenon: working-class people, the unemployed, university graduates and even doctors and engineers. One asks: why is this social scourge so widespread, reaching far beyond the poor classes? This question deserves serious consideration and answering it adequately will be a challenging task – but I will attempt to give a few possible answers.
Harga in a way represents the pursuit of a future that came to a dead-end in the home-country. It is a means to overcome the restrictions on freedom of movement, precariousness of employment and the marginalisation by clientelist networks – in a nutshell everything that makes life unsustainable, in order to realise a life project that we think is impossible to achieve in Algeria given present conditions. One inhabitant of a marginalised village, Sidi Salem in Annaba, eastern Algeria, declared to his Harrag brother: “I lost the keys of my future in a cemetery in Algeria called Sidi Salem.”
Illegal immigration from Algeria is also the logical consequence of more than three decades of liberalisation of the economy that pronounced a death sentence on a productive and job-generating economy, leading to massive unemployment and the perpetuation of a rent-seeking mentality relying on oil and gas exports and importing everything else.
Harga cannot be really understood without looking at another scourge we call Hogra in Algeria. Hogra means contempt, disdain, exclusion and also describes an attitude that condones and propagates violence against the many, the laissés pour compte (the forgotten and marginalised masses).
‘We would rather die eaten by fish than by worms’
Due to the restrictions on freedom of expression and association and also because of the lack of space of entertainment, art and creativity, young people feel suffocated, humiliated, without dignity – foreigners in their own country and the only horizon they can see is the one beyond the sea. In that respect, it is an act of denunciation of authoritarianism and in a sense it is a culture of contestation coming from a social group that feels marginalised and neglected. In a powerful message to the ruling classes in Algeria, the youth says: “Roma Wella Antouma”, meaning “Rome rather than you.” They also say: “We would rather die eaten by fish than by worms.”
Algerian youths risk their lives to reach the northern shores of the Mediterranean in order to escape the despair of being marginalised and relegated to being Hittistes – literally, those who have their backs to the walls, a term used in reference to the unemployed who ceased to be stakeholders of post-colonial Algeria. But instead of reindustrialising the country and investing in its people, the Algerian authorities offer financial support to the IMF, a neo-colonial tool of plunder that crippled the economy in the first place. Endemic corruption, which has become the normal state of affairs in Algeria, has made things even worse.
Harga is only a reflection of what has become of Algeria and other African countries five decades after independence, with ruling elites only content in satisfying foreign capital and abiding by the diktats of their Western masters. It is also the epitome of white supremacy, capitalist exploitation and imperialist domination that go hand in hand with repressive and corrupt regimes in Africa and elsewhere.
The immigration tragedy that we see in the Mediterranean Sea will go on as long as the entrenched authoritarian structures of power and oppression are still in place, as long as the looting of Africa’s natural resources is underway, as long as the profoundly unjust system we live in continues its domination and exclusion of the wretched of the earth and the damned of the sea. It is necessary and urgent to engage in the struggle for global justice against a system that puts profits before humans.
Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian writer, activist and co-founder of Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC). His writings appeared in the Guardian, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, Jadaliyya, New Internationalist and openDemocracy.
This essay originally appeared in Middle East Eye.