Every year, Algeria expels thousands of sub-Saharan Africans to Niger, abandoning them at a place called Point-Zero on the border in the middle of the Sahara. The Nigerien village of Assamaka, a few hours south by foot, has been overwhelmed by these waves of successive pushbacks. Mehdi Chebil reports for InfoMigrants.
Fifteen kilometers of walking in the Sahara with a broken foot means lifting the crutches that sink into the sand while crossing the dunes, the grains of sand entering the bandages with every step, for hours. Alpha Mohamed and Houssain Ba experienced this in early November when the two young Guineans were abandoned at Point-Zero, which marks the border between Algeria and Niger.
The place where Algerian authorities have pushed back tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans in recent years is extremely inhospitable with sand as far as the eye can see.
"We were abandoned at Point-Zero at 2 am and we had to walk on our crutches for hours. We finally made it to Assamaka at 11 am", Alpha Mohamed told InfoMigrants.
The two 18-year-old friends are far from alone. Among them, more than 600 Malians, Guineans, Ivorians, Sudanese, Nigerians and Senegalese wander through the desert. They have haggard features and the ocher dust of the Sahara covers their skin, as they focus on a few lights twinkling 15 kilometers a little further south.
A shadow army made up of workers, waiters, bakers -- the little hands that help keep the Algerian economy running. Some still have the construction boots they were wearing when the authorities arrested them at work. They were all torn from their daily lives, whether they were at home waking up, in a restaurant during a meal, during an outing in town, or at work.
This is the case of Alpha and Houssain, who police arrested on a building site in Oran, where they worked as laborers. "The police came at 9 am and all the black workers immediately fled. We tried to escape by going upstairs but a police officer caught up with us. He jostled us on purpose and we fell: that's how we broke our foot," Alpha remembers.
After a rapid visit to a hospital in Oran, the two young Guineans were sent to the Tamanrasset deportation center, 1,900 kilometers south of Algiers. The migrants there were stripped of their meager belongings: mobile phones, cash, passports, jewelry... Packed into cattle trucks, the migrants were later abandoned at Point-Zero. For Algiers, it was the end of the operation soberly called "exit to the border".
For Alpha and Houssain, it was just the beginning of their ordeal. After hours of walking in the sand which was swept relentlessly by a freezing wind from the northeastern Sahara called the Harmattan, the two young men neared a place called "The Dune". Located three kilometers north of Assamaka, it is in this post-apocalyptic setting that some of the most tired migrants decide to spend the night. The rising sun illuminates the silhouettes of wrecked cars, half-buried tires and old diesel cans used to mark the territories of the cabins of the mechanics and fuel traders who populate the area.
The Guineans continued their journey directly to the registration center of the Nigerien authorities, before presenting themselves at the transit center of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the arm of the United Nations (UN) that assists the voluntary returns of migrants to their country of origin.
Authorities overwhelmed by the influx of deportees
The arrival in Assamaka marks the beginning of a long wait for those expelled from Algeria. The multiplication of waves of expulsions combined with the slowdown in repatriations has caused the number of migrants in the town to swell to nearly 3,000 individuals – more than twice the initial population of Assamaka. Alpha and Houssain were able to settle inside the IOM transit camp, which has a maximum capacity of 1,000 people. The vast majority of migrants sleep under the stars or seek shelter in open sheds. Their patience is wearing thin.
"For two months, we have been told that we will be leaving soon!" exclaims Seyni Diallo, a young Senegalese expelled after a six-month stay in Algeria. "There isn’t enough food and blankets, it's really hard to sleep outside here because nights are very cold", adds Sagma Kaboré, from Burkina Faso.
Also read: Algerian desert: The 'point zero' where migrants are abandoned
The precarious living conditions of the 3,000 migrants worry several NGOs. "We fear a real humanitarian crisis in Assamaka if this situation continues. A major epidemic could break out very quickly if one person has measles, meningitis or COVID," says Diabry Talaré, coordinator of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Agadez. The geographical isolation of Assamaka increases the difficulties, both for humanitarian logistics and for the daily life of the migrants stranded there.
Assamaka, a crowded isolated island in the middle of the desert
The town of Assamaka is so isolated it gives the impression of an overpopulated island lost in the middle of a sea of sand. The rutted tracks that lead to Arlit and later to Agadez are teeming with highway robbers. These pirates of the desert regularly rob travelers, even going as far as recently intercepting and stealing a 4x4 used as an ambulance on the road leading from Assamaka to Arlit.
The isolation also affects telecommunications. Most Nigerien telephone networks do not work in Assamaka. In the center of the village, there are a few stalls with improvised antennas -- long wooden rods rising six meters into the sky, from which dangles half a plastic bottle containing a telephone with an Algerian SIM card. This is the primary way of connecting to the internet.
Also read: Crossing the Algerian desert: 'There were 15 of us at the start and only two at the finish'
Yet many migrants are expelled from Algeria without money or cell phones, it is nearly impossible to contact their relatives during their long weeks of waiting.
"Some migrants have spent two or three months without hearing from their families, it's a constant worry that has an impact on their mental health", explains Mahamadou Toidou, in charge of psychological consultations for MSF in Assamaka. "There are cases like a young Guinean who was arrested in the street by the Algerian police, while his two and a half month pregnant wife was at home. Since his deportation, he has not been able to contact her and he isolates himself in a corner and thinks about what happened all the time... He suffers a lot as soon as he sees a woman with her child," adds the psychologist.
Sweeping operations in the desert
The fact that the Algerian authorities carry out these pushbacks without any coordination with the Nigerien authorities sometimes has dramatic consequences. Since 2020, around 30 bodies have been found north of Assamaka. To prevent migrants from losing their way and reaching exhaustion in the desert, teams from IOM and MSF launch combing operations whenever a "pedestrian convoy"* is reported. 4x4s then rush towards Point-Zero in order to find people who are lost or too exhausted to move forward.
Since last July, they have been joined by a team from Alarme Phone Sahara (APS), a Nigerien humanitarian organization equipped with an all-terrain tricycle to rescue lost migrants.
Also read: Around 40 Moroccan migrants returned by Algeria via land border
"I could no longer bear to see these poor people in this situation", says Ibrahim François, a member of the APS team who regularly participates in search operations. "Now that the nights are cold, the Algerians always push back the migrants around 2 or 3 am. This is done on purpose so that they leave to to seek shelter, and so that they don't stay", he says.
The arduous forced march in the desert experienced by the two young wounded Guineans remains fixed in their minds. "We were treated like animals in Algeria, we don’t ever want to go back there", says Houssain Ba. "Now all we want is to be able to leave Assamaka and go home".
Also read: Doctors Without Borders criticizes EU for undignified treatment of migrants in Niger
*The expression "pedestrian convoys" in Niger refers to people expelled from Algeria who are non-Nigeriens. The Algerian authorities abandon them at Point-Zero, 15 kilometers from Assamaka. Nigerien migrants are deported in "official convoys", as enforced by a bilateral agreement from 2014 on repatriating undocumented Nigerien nationals from Algeria to Niger. The Algerian Red Crescent operates the trucks of the official convoys and they take the deportees directly to the city of Agadez. A "pedestrian convoy" on November 1 consisted of 634 individuals, while an "official convoy" on November 3 consisted of 840 individuals (including some non-Nigeriens). The 3,000 migrants currently in Assamaka are the 'left overs' after successive waves of "pedestrian convoys".