In August 2014, 18 year old Moustafa Albakkor travelled to Algeria. According to Amnesty International, he was arrested, detained, then tried on 12 October 2014, sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and fined 50,000 dinars ($600) for “entering the country with forged travel documents”. Imprisoned and languishing for over two months, he is now facing deportation by the Algerian authorities and his family have been denied from visiting their son. Moustafa is just one of the 3.5 million refugees (as of September 2014) who have fled Syria seeking safety abroad. The devastating impact of the conflict, now in its fourth year, has led to it being described as “the biggest humanitarian emergency in our era”. Simply a quick Google search will bring up hundreds and thousands of articles detailing the harrowing journeys and hardships faced by refugees lured by the dream of living again, only to have this dream cruelly taken away.
Moustafa is not the first, nor will he be the last. Despite being a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which expressly prohibits the expulsion of refugees ‘save on grounds of national security or public order’, the Algerian authorities have repeatedly displayed a chilling lack of compassion to the plight of Syrian refugees. In December 2013, Algeria decided to re-deport 197 Syrian refugees to Lebanon as they did not meet the set requirements to allow them to enter its territory. These “requirements” necessitate that Syrian refugees wishing to enter must have 4,000 euros, a certificate of residence, or an invitational document from an Algerian citizen. Earlier this year, in January, Morocco welcomed 27 Syrian refugees deported by Algeria. Sadly however, this is the only known figure. Estimates have been placed at hundreds heading west from Algerian territory into Morocco, with Morocco’s interior ministry affirming this unfortunate series of events, stating a “rise in expulsion of Syrian refugees onto Moroccan territory by Algeria”. Given the fluctuating tensions over the North African neighbours’ differences towards the highly contested off-shore oil rich desert territory Western Sahara, countless Syrian lives are being caught in the political crossfire.
One could assume that Algeria should empathise more with the plight of the Syrian people, given their own battle for self-determination and freedom. Recently, the country had commemorated the 52nd anniversary of independence in 1954 from French colonial rule, a brutal struggle which produced a significant number of refugees.
Ties between Algeria and Syria run deep; Emir Abdelkader, the Algerian Islamic scholar, military leader, and hero to both the Muslim and Western World, lived in exile in Syria following his unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the French colonialists controlling his homeland between 1832 and 1847. Further to that, during the First World War, thousands of Algerians fled French conscription to Syria. During the Dirty War of the ‘90s, Algerians yet again fled to Syria, although unfortunately the latter were deported by Hafez Al-Assad, the former president of Syria and father of Bashar al-Assad, who, like his father, also deported Algerians wanted by the Algerian regime back to Algeria from 2001 onwards. Algeria, loyal to her counterpart regime in Syria, now returns the favour.
According to the Algerian Ministry of the Interior, 12,000 refugees are in Algeria, with just 400 registered in Algiers. Since there are no visa requirements between Algeria and Syria, seen as a sign of goodwill on behalf of Syrian-Algerian relations, Syrian opposition sources contend that the number exceeds the official figure, with estimates of up to 18,000-20,000 Syrian refugees now living in Algeria, with some joining the Sahrawi people in the overstretched refugee camps in Tindouf. However other newspapers have reported as many as 23,000 Syrians in the country. Such figures are increasingly difficult to verify as they only include arrivals and not those leaving the country later. Moreover, the massive lack of documentation combined with the tightly controlled media culture of non-transparency, makes it almost impossible to obtain reliable information. Regardless of this, Algeria’s status as the fourth wealthiest country in Africa should make it materially capable of accommodating the refugees.
Formerly run by the National Liberation Front (FLN), Algeria once championed Arab nationalism, anti-colonialism and socialism–like its Syrian Ba’athi counterpart. However, Algeria has since regressed into the repressive rule of an endemically corrupt government run by military generals and the Bouteflika clan, whilst maintaining its revolutionary discourse to preserve its populist credentials, ultimately creating a sick sense of solidarity between the two. The most notable example of such solidarity can be seen in the Algerian intifada, 5th October 1988, when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) succeeded in Algeria’s first genuine (and only) elections. The victory of the FIS threatened the Algerian military, which consequently took a leaf out of Hafez Al-Assad’s book, replicating his “scorched earth” policy, which crushed a call for revolution by the Sunni Muslim community in 1982.
The duo-regimes’ love bond remains strong to this day. With the Arab Spring revolutions reverberating in neighbouring states Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, including mass socio-economic protests and self-immolations in its own backyard, Algeria objected to Syria’s suspension from the Arab League in 2011. In mid-August 2012, Algeria joined Iran in objecting to the suspension of Syria from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), where the suspension was approved by a majority. Also in 2012, Algeria rejected the Arab League’s call for Assad’s resignation was well as abstaining from voting on a UN draft resolution on the situation in Syria, which was adopted by a recorded vote of 137 in favour to 12 against. In March 2013, Algeria rejected the Arab League’s recognition of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. In September 2013, just 2 weeks after Assad launched a chemical weapons attack that killed an estimated 1,400 people, Algeria, in yet another abhorrent exhibit of indifference, objected to an Arab League call to “take the deterrent and necessary measures against the culprits of this crime that the Syrian regime bears responsibility for”. Exactly one month ago, the President of the People’s Council of Syria (Parliament), arrived in Algiers to “step up cooperation, coordination and consultation between the two countries in various fields.” Despite there being no evidence that Algeria is providing military support, unconfirmed reports claim that it has pledged financial assistance and military aircraft along with Iran and Russia in an attempt to prolong Assad’s tenure. This would come as no surprise since Algeria boasts the largest defence budget in Africa ($10.4 billion) and the simple fact that ensuring the survival of the Assad regime can only benefit the Algerian regime’s own survival.
Given the speed of the revolutions, many saw the tides of the Arab Spring reaching Algeria’s shores shortly after the fall of Assad. And the fear of this, alongside many factors, could still potentially topple Algeria’s dictatorship today, hence the regime’s intense desire to contain what it has called a democratic “plague”, and the “insect that must be eliminated”.
Political observers point out that the status of Syrian refugees in Algeria, homeless and begging, works effectively as a tool to discourage the domestic population from revolting, an explicit warning from the regime of what is to come, and a reminder of the spectre of the 1990s.
However, for Mustafa and the countless other Syrian refugees in Algeria who have already tasted death by the Assad regime, the exploitation of their unfortunate status will do nothing but breed animosity and dissent towards the Algerian regime. There is little hope for Mustafa and his counterparts given the world’s blind eye to atrocities committed against the Syrian people, but here is to wishing for his swift release, and for justice for the refugees.
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