The El Dorado for Algeria's "Harragas"
In the Maghreb, people who cross international borders without valid tickets and visas are known as harragas. Although the phenomenon of illegal migration from North Africa is nothing new, the destination of these migrants certainly is, writes Hamid Skif
For many years, Morocco was the first port of call for young Algerians searching for a better life in Europe. These migrants would either cross the border between the two countries, which has been closed since 1994, and try to make their way to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, or stow away on ships bound for Europe.
For those kissed by Lady Luck, the chosen route to Western Europe was to pay middle men large sums of money for "courtesy visas" that would allow them to travel to countries such as Bulgaria, Poland, or the Czech Republic, from where they could then set out on a westward odyssey.
The tightening of controls at the border between Algeria and Morocco following the bloodshed in Ceuta and Melilla in the autumn of 2005, meant that hundreds of young people decided to try their luck by sailing from western Algeria to Spain.
For several months, however, emigrants have been steering a different course, namely to Sardinia. Word of mouth has spread, turning Sardinia into the new El Dorado for Algeria's harragas. Every day the press is full of reports about their attempts to reach the Italian island.
While some of them certainly do succeed in reaching their destination, many do not. There are no statistics to indicate the extent of this phenomenon, which continues to grow.
The coast guards are having great difficulty curbing the tide of illegal crossings which cost many harragas their lives. Fishermen and the crews of merchant ships make daily reports about harragas whose little boats have capsized on the open seas.
But the horror does not end there. Several years ago, the crew of a Ukrainian cargo vessel discovered harragas stowed away on their ship and threw them overboard. Despite the fact that international warrants were issued for their arrest, neither the captain nor the sailors have been brought to justice.
Messages in a bottle from the deceased
It has also happened that before sinking into the depths, refugees manage to send messages in bottles in order to draw attention to their tragic fate.
In March of this year, the Algerian authorities arrested a dozen Egyptians who were trying to set sail for Sardinia from the port city of Annaba.
Their arrest uncovered a new network that sprang up as a result of the tightening of controls in and around the traditional embarkation points on the Libyan and Tunisian coasts, from where migrants from Africa and the Middle East try to reach the island of Lampedusa or the Italian mainland.
In Algeria, any harragas who are apprehended are brought to court and charged with attempted illegal immigration. In Tunisia, one can be sent to prison just for planning to leave the country by such means.
The incompetence of North Africa's governments
The growth of the phenomenon shows how incapable the governments of the Maghreb are in solving the problems encountered by their young people. Unemployment, lack of qualifications, and the endemic disease of corruption are driving an increasing number of young people to stake everything on getting to the land of their dreams.
What is new, however, is the fact that so many women and girls are now willing to hazard their lives for the same dream.
One might have assumed that Algeria, whose public revenues have rocketed in the light of rising oil prices, would have been able to put an end to this tragedy. This, however, has certainly not been the case thus far. The daily talk about increasing economic performance is revealed to be an empty lie by the bitter reality faced by the disillusioned.
The European Union, which is both perplexed and helpless in the face of the extent of the phenomenon, recently agreed to create a rapid reaction force of 450 border guards, whose job it will be to get a grip on the massive influx of unwanted immigrants.
Spain has reported that approximately 6,000 people died in 2006 while attempting to reach the Spanish coast.
For several years now, this drama – which Massimo D'Alema, the Italian foreign minister, has termed the "tragedy of the 21st century" – has been the focus of many a novel and film. While writers and filmmakers use their respective arts to draw the public's attention to the tragedy, the governments on both sides of the Mediterranean continue to negotiate about their respective responsibilities in this matter.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan