On the God-Forsaken Banks of Wadi Jorgi

Maghnia (Algeria): The remains of the shacks made of sticks, metal, and plastic are indicative of a violent assault. Worn-out shoes, torn-apart cans, and utensils are strewn about along the dusty and smashed alleys of the area.

By Chahreddine Berriah

Thursday, 15 March. Gloomy weather. A trenchant wind blows over Wadi Jorgi. Wrapped-up in a large overcoat, we hug the walls to hurtle down the slope leading to the ghetto.
As astonishing as this may seem, taking the path that leads to the Illegal sub-Saharan migrants is considered suspicious. A suspicion born from this far-fetched idea suggesting that any mixing with illegal migrants is synonymous with trafficking, prostitution, crime…Stereotypes that are hard to die.

Down there, the remains of the shacks made of sticks, metal, and plastic are indicative of a violent assault. Worn-out shoes, torn-apart cans, and utensils are strewn about along the dusty and smashed alleys of the area. It is as if the territory had been shattered by an inescapable fate.

The dried-out river reeks of distrust and anger. The communities, previously well-organised, have turned into disoriented, resentful groups…

Eager to know more, we stroll through the meanders of the doomed valley.  At the foot of a mound, a “village” composed of about eight dilapidated houses seems to have survived the tragedy.

“We will stop migrating when the West stops deciding for us!”

“Our territory was set on fire over night by unknown actors. Consumed with fear, we moved a little further away and raised these shacks in the urgency with whatever means came to hand, explains a worn-out Abdullah, a Cameroonian in his early fifties.
The face emaciated, Ismail confesses having lost this irresistible urge to breathe the Iberian air, but at this point, he thought, abdicating would be considered cowardice.”

As if to summarise the philosophy of illegal and perilous migration from the South to the North, he continues “we will stop migrating when the West stops deciding for us!”

Settled in a make-shift tent, likely to collapse at the slightest jolt or the most harmless wind, Ismail complains “we live in the middle of trash, threatened by reptiles, with no sanitary provisions, no water nor electricity. We too, of course, would like to live in houses as tenants. To live as human beings. By isolating and rejecting us we are reduced to sub-humans. And to think that we are in our own continent!”

Mata, a young nurse in her home country, seems to have never had a smile on her face in her life. Her sad eyes express her pain and her misfortunes. “I’ve long dreamt of coming to Algeria to practice my profession. But once I got here, my dream simply evaporated. I was not aware that working in your country was impossible,” she says, in a tone that would melt down the mound at the foot of which she chooses to live.

Her young spouse, an economics student, mortified by disillusion and despair, simply reveals, “I was driven by the sole desire to finish my studies in one of the Algerian universities. I thought it was possible, I was too naive…”
Dibena, a simple electrician in his state who was deported from Paris to his home country in 2016, is only looking for his three children (two girls and a boy born in France) and his wife.

Morally very affected by his particular situation, Dibena, who doesn’t seem to find solace, swears at those who left him stuck in his destiny, “I was a legal migrant in France and I had never committed any offence. I was driven back to the border without giving me the shadow of an instant to defend myself. As an international refugee, I cannot legally be deported. And even if that was the case, I would have been repatriated to the border of the country I came from, that is, Spain. Today I am calling for a fair trial to recover my rights. At this very moment, I should be with my wife and my young children in Paris, not on the banks of the God-forsaken Wadi,” he says, his anger doing a bad job of hiding his misfortune…

However, ironically or due to human stubbornness, this deportation to the border hasn’t made one dent in his eagerness to get back to the Hexagon. In fact, three weeks after his deportation to Cameroon, he was off on his travels again, headed for Algeria only to land in the Maghnia ghetto in September 2016.

Right at this moment, Falone, an elegant silhouette of age 24, joins us with a smile on her face. “Don’t trust appearances, I’m not better off than them. To me, smiling or singing is a way of relaxing, of keeping hope. Being in a good mood kills my setbacks…” Actually, a sort of autotherapy that Falone applies to herself and which seems to be working for her and, maybe occasionally, for the fraternal atmosphere of the ghetto’s group.

Falone provides further information, “you know, my goal is not Europe, but to live here in Algeria. I only hope that the Algerian authorities accept us by giving us legal status!”
From the top of the ridge overlooking the valley, Fadack Maboualé Franck Basile, in his fifties, addresses himself to me: “Hey Mister, I come from Paris where I lived for 15 years. My odyssey should be called ‘From Paris to Wadi Maghnia, through the bushes and the desert’.”

Fadack, who has kept his sense of humour, lives in the ghetto with his wife and his twins.

“I never let go of hope. My goal is to go back to Paris or otherwise, if needed, stay here with a legal status to support my family here and back in Africa. We know that we are in Algeria and that it is our duty to abide by the country’s laws and to adapt to the Algerians’ customs and habits in order to live together in symbiosis, to avoid clashes…”

An illusion, in that sense that, beyond the political discourses full of deep humanism, the Algerian State unexpectedly undertook to deport sub-Saharans en masse to the border with Mali. Deportations which doubled in ferocity during these last three weeks.

On 11 March, the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH) revealed that, “280 migrants, among them 13 women and 12 children, were arrested on the streets, in houses, and on building sites by police officers, some of them undercover, and were grouped in the Zéralda vacation centre (west of Algiers) before being transferred to the Tamanrasset refugee camp in the south of the country.

According to the same source, “Most of the people who were arrested are Malians, Cameroonians and Ivorians who account for 70% of the migrants settled in Algeria.”

The non-governmental organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW), has in turn criticized, during the same period, the “waves of arbitrary expulsions” of sub-Saharan migrants to “no-go zones in Mali” where some are “ransomed”. According to the same NGO, Algerian authorities “do not filter the migrants, nor do they allow them to challenge their expulsion, including those who are entitled to a refugee status”.

The Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights estimates up to “2000 cases of expulsion from the national territory since the beginning of the year,” with an important precision that “the deported migrants sometimes have a legal status” and an indication that “there are at least 60,000 migrants in Algeria who work on construction sites, more particularly in Algiers and Oran…”.

Responsible officials, such as the regional emigration services of Maghnia and the Algerian Red Crescent, did not follow up on our request to speak with them about the latest massive deportation operations.

Foreign affairs insisted on the fact that this operation was performed in consultation with the countries of origin and clearly stated that the Algerian State does not want any illegal migrants on its territory. That is exactly why such deportation operations are part of a series of measures initiated in coordination with the countries from sub-Saharan Africa, especially Mali and Niger, in order to contain the migratory flow towards the Algerian territory and fight illegal immigration, as well as human trafficking networks.

But how long will Ismail, Debina, Falone, Mata, Abdullah, Fadack, and the others be able to hold out in their ghettoes…?

Wadi Jorgi lives in fear and dread of an uncertain future, the fear of an incoming raid by the security services, to see its occupants be arrested and deported to the south of the country. This notwithstanding, the last survivors of the Wadi continue to hold on to a glimmer of hope. The hope of staying on the Algerian territory and …maybe embrace the West…

Dibena Kouam Jacques-Alain: from Paris to Wadi Jorgi in Maghnia
Dibena Kouam, age 31, has an atypical story. Contrary to many migrants living in the ghetto, he came legally to France in 1996 with his mother. There, he studied, as evidenced by his end of semester evaluations of the Arago French high school, before earning his diplomas and an employment. He then went on to start a family and became a father of three, among them one boy, all of them born in France. A diligence which automatically insured a legal residency in the Hexagon. But his setbacks started the moment he went to visit one of his daughters who was placed in a children’s social welfare centre in Sens. He was arrested right in front of the institution. After being held in police custody, he was transferred to the detention centre in Metz and on 3 July 2016, he was put on a plane headed for Douala, Cameroon. “An unjustified deportation, I was in France legally and I hadn’t committed any offence.” Dibena Kouam has appointed a lawyer in Paris: “It is my hope to regain my rights.”

This is an English translation of the report, which was published in the Algerian newspaper El Watan Week-end on 23 March 2018. It was written as part of the IMS programme Migrant Voices and received in September 2018 a Migration Media Award.