Until recently, the Sahara desert has never been a destination for black African migrants, but as trans-Saharan travel from Niger to Algeria has increased due to closures of other migration routes to Europe, Algerian desert towns and cities have become the new landing spots for many black migrants. The “influx” of black migrants into the Sahara has sparked racial tensions between them and Arab North Africans, with numerous attacks by Arabs against black migrants occurring throughout Algeria. Anti-migration efforts have focused on the Sahara desert, the new path to Europe, deporting thousands of black African migrants from Algeria and “repatriating” or dumping them in Niger each year. Since Niger allowed Algerian authorities to cross into its territory to repatriate migrants in 2015, many black migrants have reported racist treatment from Algerian security forces during deportation, including theft and violence. In addition to direct police action against black migrants, Algerian officials have deployed xenophobic attacks against migrants in the press to drum up anti-migrant sentiment.
Displaying a cruel irony, the president of the Algerian National Commission of the Promotion of Human Rights, Farouk Ksentini, justified a sudden mass expulsion of black African migrants from Algiers in December 2016 by saying to a national newspaper “the presence of African migrants and refugees in several localities of the country could cause problems for the Algerians, notably the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases… Hence, the decision of the Algerian authorities to expel them in order to avoid a catastrophe.” In another xenophobic statement from a leader of a humanitarian organization, Saïda Benhabylès, the president of the Algerian Red Cross, said to an Algerian daily last year, “The presence of the African migrants and refugees in several places of the country could cause problems for the Algerians, notably the proliferation of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases… From where, the decision of the Algerian authorities to expel them in order to avoid a catastrophe.” The leaders of groups that purport to protect human rights and provide humanitarian aid to all peoples blatantly treat black migrants as if they are unworthy of defense for their own human rights. Occupying the savage slot, the black migrant cannot embody human rights or receive humanitarian aid, as these “defenders” of human rights and “humanitarians” treat black migrants as if they are not human.
This pathologization of black Africans as disease carriers who threaten the livelihoods of Algerians is based on racial prejudices, and is part and parcel of the larger structure of anti-black racism in the Sahara. Such disease discourse naturalizes the idea that blacks are associated with disease, rendering the decision to allow blacks into Algeria matter of life and death. This xenophobic rhetoric has been adopted by Algerians online, with some saying that migrants “must be exterminated like rats” and “they are violating and spreading AIDS in our cities,” using the social media hashtag #NoToAfricansInAlgeria.
Such rhetoric feeds the xenophobia and racism towards black African migrants in Algeria but the insistence that black Africans are diseases evokes a biological racism that not only condemns blacks as inferior to Arabs, but also equates blacks with death. The presence of blacks in Algeria portends imminent death for Algerians, susceptible to the purported diseases of “blacks.” Even the categorization of Arabs and Africans demonstrates this differential logic, with Algerians referring to blacks as Africans, as if Algeria is on a different continent. This geographical slight actually promotes a destructive ideology; that disease in Africa is geographically located in the lands of black Africans, or the metonym Algerians use to denote black origin, “le subsaharien.” Sub-Saharans bring disease to North Africa and Algeria, so therefore, Sub-Saharan or Black Africa is the source of disease. By simply claiming black migrants to be disease carriers and harbingers of pathogenic disaster for Arabs, Algerians have turned marginalized peoples into biological weapons. Treated as less than human, black migrants in Algeria cannot be diseased, however, to the scores of people advancing this racist disease-discourse in the media, black African migrants are actual diseases.
Speaking to the newspaper d’Ennahar on the topic of black migrants in Algeria, Ahmed Ouyahia, the Minister of the State and cabinet director to Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, declared that migrants residing illegally in Algeria are “the source of crime, drugs and disease.” The new president of the Algerian National Commission of the Promotion of Human Rights, Noureddine Benissad, condemned the words of Ouyahia, stating that a migrant is “neither a delinquent nor a criminal or transmitter of disease,” signaling a strong shift away from the rhetoric of her predecessor. Many other Algerians have decried this racism and xenophobia, and there are substantive efforts in place to improve legal status for migrants, including issuing temporary work permits to migrants in the country.
However, this pathologization of black migrants has not stopped, with this disease-discourse criminalizing black Africans’ existence, both in Algeria and beyond. It fortifies the fictive border between North Africa and Sub-Saharan or Black Africa, with a clean, virgin North Africa needing to protect itself from a vile, infectious black Africa. Thus, black migrants’ existence becomes synonymous with the diseases they are said to bring to Algeria, and this fear of a blackening of Algeria is supported by the public campaign to keep blacks out of Algeria. Hopefully the organizations and people supporting migrant rights will hold the Algerian government accountable for its poor actions towards black migrants and pressure it to squarely address the treatment and conditions of migrants in Algeria.