Mediterranean European nations made international headlines again last week when both Italy and Malta refused to allow vessels carrying African and Asian asylum seekers to dock. The decisions left hundreds stranded off the Maltese coast for over five days, after the refugees, stranded in the Mediterranean Sea, boarded a German NGO search-and-rescue ship called Lifeline. On Wednesday, June 26, a group of EU nations, including Italy, Ireland, France, Portugal, and Belgium, reached an agreement that allowed the ship to dock in Malta. Asylum seekers on board the ship will reportedly be distributed amongst various EU member states.
In recent years, anti-immigrant hostility has swept Europe, with a wave of nationalist right-wing governments gaining power, as a result. “Migrant” issues also continue to complicate relations between EU nations, which are looking for ways to limit the movement of people, particularly from Africa and Asia, into Europe. According to reports, sixteen EU member states are in the process of revising a previously failed proposal to create a network of detention centers, or refugee camps, for refugees and asylum seekers in North Africa. Talks are ongoing, but the hope is that these detention centers would keep refugees away from European shores.
Meanwhile, a new report from the Associated Press released on June 25, reveals that the Algerian government has expelled and abandoned roughly 13,000 refugees in the Sahara Desert over the past fourteen months, forcing entire families to trek through punishing conditions without food or water in order to find safety elsewhere. The majority of refugees, who are from sub-Saharan Africa, have been forced to cross on foot from Algeria to Niger. More than two dozen survivors were interviewed for the piece, and shared harrowing stories of survival and loss, speaking of the “untold” numbers of dead.
According to the report, which is entitled “Walk or Die: Algeria strands 13,000 migrants in the Sahara”:
Algeria’s mass expulsions have picked up since October 2017, as the European Union renewed pressure on North African countries to head off migrants going north to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea or the barrier fences with Spain. These migrants from across sub-Saharan Africa — Mali, the Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger and more — are part of the mass migration toward Europe, some fleeing violence, others just hoping to make a living.
A European Union spokesperson said the EU was aware of what Algeria was doing, but that “sovereign countries” can expel migrants as long as they comply with international law. Unlike Niger, Algeria takes none of the EU money intended to help with the migration crisis, although it did receive $111.3 million in aid from Europe between 2014 and 2017.
Algeria provides no figures for the expulsions. But the number of people crossing on foot to Niger has been rising steadily since the International Organization for Migration started counting in May 2017, when 135 people were dropped at the crossing, to as high as 2,888 in April 2018. In all, according to the IOM, a total of 11,276 men, women and children survived the march.
At least another 2,500 were forced on a similar trek this year through the Sahara into neighboring Mali, with an unknown number succumbing along the way.
The migrants the AP talked to described being rounded up hundreds at a time, crammed into open trucks headed southward for six to eight hours to what is known as Point Zero, then dropped in the desert and pointed in the direction of Niger. They are told to walk, sometimes at gunpoint. In early June, 217 men, women and children were dropped well before reaching Point Zero, fully 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the nearest source of water, according to the IOM.
The full report, complete with interviews, can be read here.