‘I live on crumbs’: why older Algerians risk small boats to Spain | Global development

A7am on a clear day in Algiers, Nouara looks out the window at the narrow street below that leads to the market and says, “I can’t stand living here anymore.

Nouara, 65, wants nothing more than to leave her country and is now considering boarding one of the boats that ferry migrants on the often deadly Mediterranean crossing to Spain. “I lost the little hope I had in this country,” she says.

Nouara, who preferred not to give her full name, lost her husband, Foudhil, to Covid in 2020. He was one of more than 6,800 Algerians believed to have died so far.

“Despite his advanced age, he was a fit man – healthy and active,” she says. “He died overnight, after a drastic lack of oxygen.”

Nouara in her apartment in Algiers. She plans to make the perilous journey by boat from Algeria to Spain. Photography: Zineb Bettayeb/The Guardian

Nouara is in trouble. The antique wooden table in his living room is covered with papers: visa application forms and copies of his birth certificate.

The couple had no children, but Foudhil did from a previous marriage. “My husband’s children have cut off his retirement allowance and I am now living on crumbs. If my visa application for France is rejected, I will sell this small apartment and board the speedboat.

“I know it’s illegal and dangerous,” she said. “But I’m looking for a decent place where I can spend what’s left of my life in dignity.”

According to the Spanish authorities, at least 10,000 Algerians thus reached the Spanish coast between January and December 2021, i.e. 20% more than the previous year. Most depart from the west coast, from cities like Oran, Chlef and Maghnia, mainly in summer when the sea is calmer. The shortest distance from Algeria to the Spanish coast – Oran to Almeria – is 150 km (90 miles).

Smugglers charge between €2,000 (£1,670) and €7,000 for one person. The higher the price, the bigger the engine and the faster the crossing, which can take anywhere from three hours to three days.

El Harga stands for “the arson”, describing the act that many illegal travelers undergo of setting fire to their identity papers to remain anonymous and avoid repatriation if they are arrested in Europe.

The pace of illegal migration has intensified recently, despite a 2009 law that can impose six-month prison sentences on those arrested by the coast guard. Smugglers can get up to five years.

In response to soaring numbers, the Algerian government created the National Assembly for Youth Awareness of the Dangers of Illegal Migration (ANSJIC) in 2018, to seek measures to address the problem. More than 20 national organisations, officials from the Ministry of Interior, local authorities and experts took part.

A fragment of identity papers by the waves on a beach
Identity documents destroyed during ‘El Harga’ in the waves of the Sablettes beach in Algiers. Photography: Zineb Bettayeb/The Guardian

ANSJIC, which has held meetings and workshops in some coastal towns to persuade people not to risk their lives, is considered a pioneer organization.

“The objective is to raise awareness of the danger of El Harga and to preserve the country’s human resources,” said Samir Zoulikha, president of ANSJIC. “We involve schools, mosques, sports clubs and families.”

Nabil, who prefers to use a single name, is also considering El Harga. He failed to find a job in his field after graduating from the National Institute of Marine Science and Coastal Development and earns a living doing odd jobs. “I spent four years applying for different jobs, without success,” says Nabil, now in his thirties.

A man stands on the corniche of Algiers
Samir Zoulikha, who carries out actions to raise awareness of the risks of illegal immigration, on the quays of Algiers. Photography: Zineb Bettayeb/The Guardian

“I began to lose hope when I saw fellow academics occupying positions in important institutions and came up against the sad reality that I am not the descendant of a high official.”

His desperation is clear. “The ambitions I had for the development of the coast have vanished. I was fascinated by the sea and its enigmas.

“My mother needs money for dialysis,” he adds. “But I don’t see any future here; El Harga is my only way to shape a good future for me and my family.

Zoulikha persuaded Nabil to take part in an ANSJIC conference aimed at “training young volunteers on the right ways to approach people who are considering fleeing the country illegally, not only to make them aware of the dangers but to listen to their concerns and come up with solutions,” he says.

“His presence would give the conference a new dimension,” says Zoulikha. “Previous meetings were mainly aimed at civil society and the authorities. A face-to-face dialogue between leaders and young people could lead to practical and tangible solutions.

Nouara has a visa appointment at the French embassy. She is excited. “I am planning to go to Belgium after landing in France. My cousin offered me to stay in her house there. I will try to find a job or at least volunteer in any organization in the civil society I can help with the skills I have acquired as a teacher.

But France recently decided to halve the number of visas it grants to nationals of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, due to the refusal of Maghreb governments to take back illegal migrants.

“If plan A doesn’t work, illegal migration will be my last refuge,” says Nouara.

Zineb Bettayeb is an Algerian computer scientist and former cultural journalist

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