Undocumented Black migrant workers are caught in a vicious cycle of racism in North Africa

Algeria’s real estate boom relies in part on migrant workers from elsewhere on the African continent, many of whom are undocumented.

“There is a criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape in Tunisia to erase its Arab and Islamic character and make it just another African country.” These words, spoken by Tunisian president Kais Saied in February at the Security Council meeting on irregular migration in Tunisia, sent out shockwaves and fuelled racism against Black Africans living in Tunisia. These migrants run the gamut from students on scholarship programmes to candidates for emigration to Europe to undocumented workers. The majority are citizens of countries located to the immediate south of the Maghreb region.

While North Africa remains a transit zone for candidates for emigration from Africa to Europe, border controls in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are forcing migrants to remain in those countries longer than they would like – for months and even years.

All three countries give priority to their own citizens when it comes to employment. Employers who wish to regularise the status of workers from other African countries must go through tedious procedures to obtain a visa or work permit, even a temporary one.

As a result, undocumented migrant workers find themselves trapped in a spiral of legal uncertainty and vulnerability. They are likely to be poorly paid and even exploited, and struggle to access housing, healthcare and police services when they are the victims of crime, such as violent attacks.

While official data for Algeria is lacking, civil society organisations estimate that the country is home to 100,000 migrants, mainly from the Sahel and French-speaking West Africa.

In his study L’Algérie Face aux Questions Migratoires et de Mobilité (Algeria Facing Migration and Mobility Issues), published in 2017, Aomar Baghzouz, professor of political science at the University of Tizi Ouzou, notes that Algeria has become a destination of choice following the country’s “economic upswing” and the numerous construction plans launched by authorities to tackle the country’s housing crisis. While Algeria does not practice systematic regularisation, according to Baghzouz, authorities turn a blind eye to the employment of migrants.

Migrant workers have thus become a common sight in recent years at construction sites in the major cities of northern and southern Algeria. The building sites also serve as temporary and precarious housing for these workers. As is the case in Morocco and Tunisia, migrants in Algeria also work in food service, agriculture, and perform domestic work.

Accused of taking jobs from locals

Some of those who were attacked or evicted in Tunisia following President Saied’s remarks turned to the police to report the assaults. Instead of receiving help, they were the ones who were arrested.

Anti-Black racism in Tunisia targets both foreigners as well as Black Tunisians, “who represent between 10 and 15 per cent of the population,” says Salsabil Chellali, director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Tunisia. In 2018, civil society organisations, very active in the country, pushed for the adoption of a law against racial discrimination. Several years later, however, the National Commission to Combat Racial Discrimination, established by the same law to oversee its application, has yet to be set up. As a result, the law has not been truly applied.

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According to Chellali, resistance and latent racism exist within institutions “such as the police and the justice system”. The emergence of the Tunisian Nationalist Party (‘El Hizb el Qawmi el Tounsi’ in Arabic), which has been recognised by the state since 2018, has led to the further mainstreaming of racist discourse that already existed on social media platforms. Its members rail against a supposed planned process of colonisation intended to “settle Sub-Saharans in Tunisia on a long-term basis”.

This “small anti-system party has latched on to great replacement theory and accuses Sub-Saharan Africans of stealing work from Tunisians. It targets migrant workers through actions on the ground in Tunis, convincing employers not to hire them and renters not to house them,” says Chellali.

Yet the official figures tell a much different story about the makeup of Tunisia’s population of foreign-born workers. Of the 5,500 work permits granted annually by Tunisian authorities to foreign nationals, only 4 to 5 per cent go to nationals of African countries, far behind those of European, Arab and Asian countries. This is according to a 2020 report by the NGO Terre d’Asile, a group devoted to providing access to work for foreigners in Tunisia.

In 2021, the country of 12 million registered “roughly 59,000 foreigners, including 21,000 Sub-Saharan Africans, including students, according to data from the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics,” says Mahmoud Kaba, head of the migration and asylum programme at Euromed Tunisia.

Summary deportations

Authorities in Algeria have recognised the importance of these workers for certain industries. In 2017, then prime minister and current President Abdelmadjid Tebboune went so far as to announce the creation of a migrant census intended to better integrate them into the labour market, though no further action has since been taken. At the same time, according to NGOs such as Amnesty International, Black migrants are regularly subject to racial profiling and raids that result in collective deportation.

There are several accounts of undocumented workers being arrested at their place of work and taken directly to centres to await deportation at the border with Niger, regardless of their nationality. Many are unable to recover their personal belongings.

“We’re in Algeria to work, not to steal. We migrants do all of the hard work at the construction site. They took my phone, my money, my shoes, everything was left behind,” said an undocumented Malian worker, deported to Niger in 2020, in a testimony reported by Alarm Phone Sahara, a cooperative project that documents the situation of migrants in the Sahel region.

According to the organisation, at least 11,000 people from various African countries were summarily deported from Algeria to Niger in the first three months of 2023. Despite appeals from civil society organisations, the situation does not appear to be improving.

According to the Syndicat National Autonome des Personnels de l’Administration Publique (National Autonomous Union of Public Administration Employees, SNAPAP-CGATA) in December 2022, “the lack of legal channels for sub-Saharan nationals to enter the Maghreb countries only benefits networks of smugglers and organised crime, which amass tens of millions of euros a year in the illegal trafficking of migrants between Niger an Algeria alone”.

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The organisation also called for the “regularisation of migrant workers in irregular administrative situations who wish to reside and work in Algeria” and a fight against “all forms of prejudice and stereotyping to which Sub-Saharan migrants and members of their families are subjected”.

In an attempt to reach undocumented workers in their country, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) in 2018 inaugurated ‘migrant spaces’ in several towns to provide information about labour legislation and existing mechanisms for dealing with abuse, as well as offer assistance in the event of disputes with employers.

These informal workers include foreign students, attracted by the education on offer in Tunisian state and public schools, who take on jobs to support their university studies. According to Kaba from Euromed Tunisia, the number of students in the country is reportedly declining sharply due to the “climate of insecurity and administrative problems that are lengthening the procedures for granting residence permits”.

Morocco’s half-hearted approach to regularisation

Many students are instead turning towards Morocco, where official figures show that over 80 per cent of foreign students are from elsewhere on the African continent, mainly from Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal.

“It was the first country in the region to adopt a national immigration and asylum strategy to address a number of problems, in particular the socio-economic integration of migrants,” explains Youssra Boughdadi, dialogue coordinator at Euromed Rights Morocco.

This policy, adopted in 2014, led to a campaign of regularisation in several phases that resulted in around 50,000 people being officially granted work permits. This figure is disputed by civil society organisations, however, which describe this period as a mere lull in repressive policies towards migrants that ended in 2018, when border management policies regained the upper hand.

Morocco’s generalisation of access to social security cover in 2022, “including for day labourers and informal workers [whether Moroccans or undocumented foreigners], breathed new life into the debate on access to social security and the granting of certain rights to undocumented people,” explains Boughdadi. “The debate is still taking place but the economic situation isn’t helping. Inflation in Morocco is at 11 per cent and the theory of great replacement in the labour market is also taking root,” she says.

According to Boughdadi, migrants are increasingly settling in Morocco, “but not necessarily by choice.” As she explains, “it has become more difficult to leave Morocco,” as access to Europe via the northern borders (Ceuta, Melilla and Gibraltar) is completely closed off and passage via the Canary Islands is too dangerous.

These conditions have led to extreme situations, such as the Melilla massacre in June 2022, when between 23 and 37 African migrants and refugees died after attempting to cross from Moroccan territory into the Spanish enclave and were met with deadly violence by Moroccan and Spanish security forces.

This article has been translated from French.

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