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The Algerians' dream of Europe

February 20, 2017

Berlin is under pressure to deport refugees from so-called "safe countries of origin" back to their homelands. But a country like Algeria has other challenges to overcome before it takes back its people.

Algerien Tindouf Hausbau im Flüchtlingscamp
Image: Reuters/Z. Bensemra
Algerien Tindouf Hausbau im Flüchtlingscamp
Image: Reuters/Z. Bensemra

Before her official trip to Algeria was canceled on Monday because of Algerian President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika's failing health, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was expected to discuss the topic of deportations. The discussion on sending back refugees coming from the Maghreb countries - considered comparatively safe - has been dominating the headlines since the influx of migrants into Germany since 2015. The debate intensified early last year, when over a thousand men of North African descent were suspected of sexually assaulting and robbing hundreds of women at Cologne's central train station on New Year's Eve.

A few days back, Bremen's Mayor Carsten Sieling pointed out the difficulties  states and local authorities were facing. The Maghreb countries were not willing to take back these people. "We do not, in some cases, get any answers," Sieling said. Out of 15 persons who had to be deported, his city could send back only one. "That is not up to us," he assured. That is why the federal government needed to take things into its own hands. "Merkel wants to travel to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia - we all wish her success."

A gloomy economic situation

Angela Merkel is traveling to a country facing substantial challenges: the illiteracy percentage is about 20 percent, unemployment  at 10 percent. State debt stands at 13 percent and external debt is around $5.8 billion. For 2017, the figures according to Germany Trade and Invest are expected to go up to $8.7 billion. The country has a thin industrial base mostly focused on natural resources. In 2015, natural gas contributed 42 percent and crude oil 34 percent to total exports.

North African refugees are rescued by European coast guards near Spain
North African refugees are rescued by European coast guards near SpainImage: picture-alliance / dpa

The country does not have any noteworthy industry other than petrochemicals. The economy of the country is therefore all the more dependent on the prices of the energy market. The falling of oil prices since 2014 has affected Algeria severely: In 2013 the country registered a profit of 11 billion dollars. In 2015, losses peaked at $ 17 billion.

This also affects public spending and investment as well as subsidies for basic foodstuffs. Correspondingly, the condition of the country's 41 million citizens is difficult. The state-run oil company Sonatrach is responsible for the promotion of natural resources and employment is low. Alternatives to business are developing only slowly.

According to Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, Algeria ranks 108 out of 176 countries. Foreign companies are therefore wary of investing in the North African country.

Political concerns

Politically too, the country is not doing particularly well. President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika, born in 1937, has been running the country since 1999 and has suffered several heart attacks. He can barely be seen in public. His cabinet however continues to rule with a tight fist, says Rachid Ouiassa, a political scientist of Algerian origin. Nevertheless, the country's leadership has given up the classical authoritarianism of the older times. "There is for example, a bold, critical press. And there are no more the massive human rights violations like in the 1970s," Ouaissa, who teaches political science at Göttingen, told DW.

Merkel met Algerian PM Abdelmallek Sellal last year
Merkel met Algerian PM Abdelmallek Sellal last yearImage: Reuters/F. Bensch

However, the human rights situation in the country is far from satisfactory, according to Amnesty International. People accused of supporting terrorism are held in secret places and tortured and have no access to the outside world. But  those who committed serious crimes against humanity in the civil war in the 1990s have been guaranteed freedom from punishment. The fate of over 6,000 people who "vanished" is still unknown.

The "Untouchables"

The human rights watchdog has also complained about the restricted freedom of expression. According to Amnesty, criticism of government officials and security authorities is punishable. The latter is hardly controlled adequately, France-based journalist Mohamed Sifaoui writes in his book, " Histoire secrète de ´Algérie independante." The secret services have elevated themselves to the rank of the untouchables. They are the center of decision-making that has been determining political life in Algeria since over 20 years.

In reality, this pressure has had a restricting effect on the political situation, Rachid Ouaissa confirms. There are parties in the opposition, however their possibilities are severely limited. "The political forces have been trivialized."

The challenge of Jihad

Additionally, Algeria has had to fight Jihadism. Although the country succesfully battled terrorism in January 2013, when foreign technicians were taken hostage by terrorists on the Ain-Amenas gas field and also achieved military success, radical islamists continue to attract some of the country's youth. Last Wednesday (February 15), security experts shot at five suspected terrorists in the capital, Algiers.

The dream of Europe

Considering the difficult conditions, many Algerians want to leave their country. Many feel helpless and see no future, according to Rachid Ouaissa. "That is why Europe continues to be their dream." Germany however is not ready to take in the young Algerians. Chancellor Merkel is expected to put forward restrictions on illegal entry during her trip to Algiers. The Algerian government is now facing a big problem. Because to combat the reasons for people fleeing, thinking at all levels is needed.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East
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