(Pictured: Harraga apprehended.)
We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the thirty-third in the series.
Every once in a while, on the long march through the often mind-numbing bureaucrateeze that characterizes the mountain of embassy cables published by WikiLeaks, you’re rewarded for your labors with a bit of hilarious gossip, razor-sharp political analysis, or some surreal storytelling. And then there are the moments when you’re treated to nothing less than absorbingly excellent writing.
Such was the case this weekend when WikiLeaks published an otherwise unremarkable cable outlining Algeria’s growing problem with disaffected young people attempting dangerous escapes from North Africa’s shores to the promised land of opportunity in Europe. The dispatch, which dates from the summer of 2008, opens with a literary journalism hook more appropriate to the pages of Mother Jones than anything a diplomatic database might spit out.
On the desolate beach of Sidi Salem, in the eastern suburb of Annaba, a dozen young Algerian males alternate between kicking a soccer ball and working on several small, unmarked wooden boats. Each week, several boats leave from this beach, filled with a cross-section of frustrated young Algeria—doctors, lawyers, dropouts, the unemployed. They set out across the open sea, usually ten or twelve to a boat, armed with water, food, blankets, a small motor and GPS tracking device, headed for the Italian islands of Lampedusa, Sicily, or Sardina. They are the harraga—literally, “ones who burn”: identity papers and vital documents before departure—and over 90 percent of them will either die at sea, be arrested and detained indefinitely in Tunisia or Libya, or be returned by the Algerian, French, Spanish or Italian coast guards.
The numbers of harraga are not insignificant: in 2007 alone, over 50,000 young Algerians reportedly attempted to flee their homeland to Europe, numbers that show no sign of letting up with each passing year. The situation “has paralyzed the Algerian government,”as the “harraga have become a fixture in the Algerian media, popular media and daily conversation, a symptom of a society in which entertainment is limited, the education does not link to the job market, and the doors of opportunity are closed but to the well connected.”
Seeking to familiarize themselves with this emerging phenomenon, embassy staff in Algiers took to the streets to collect first-hand impressions of the human trafficking network that transports hundreds of Algerians to Europe each month.
During out [sic] April visit to the beach at Sidi Salem, police officers standing in front of their precinct watched harraga prepare for departure. “We are not the border police,” they told us…A look around revealed a soccer field littered with trash, a trash heap and a mosque alongside public low- to middle-income housing projects.
pointed down the street from the police station at two small, dingy cafes. Those cafes, he told us, are where harraga gather to exchange information, meet with departure organizers, and pay their way. [The source] said that would-be harraga from all over Algeria know by word of mouth to come to the cafes, where an “oral bulletin board” exists of young men pooling resources, organizing departures and coordinating basic supplies.
US diplomats also interviewed harraga youth to get a sense of the often harrowing journey between North Africa and European shores.
On the western ourskirts of ASnnaba lies the smaller and more secluded beach of La Caroube. XXXXXXXXXX sat idly with three friends on a concrete stop, while several old wooden fishing boars lay overturned on the sand nearby. XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that last summer he set out in a boat of ten people, leaving Algerian territorial waters, which he was quick to point out represented a victory for him. He and his shipmates follows the coastline to Tunisia [where] the waters turned rough and they were forced to turn back at which point they were stopped by the Algerian coast guard…and sent back. All of XXXXXXXXXXXX three friends said they had also tried at least once to leave their country by sea.
Harraga cite three reasons “Algerian youth want to burn their documents and leave: hogra (humiliation), poverty and corruption.” In a country that country that continues to operate under a nearly twenty-year state of emergency that disproportionately suffocates the hopes of Algeria’s ambitious young, illegal exit is often seen as the only way out. The situation has obviously not escaped the attention of the Algerian government which “simply does not know what to do” about it. According to sources interviewed by embassy staff, the Algerian government was
“well aware”of the public passions that have been aroused by the harraga…Minister of National Solidarity Djamel Ould Abbes, in a highly publicized April visit to the coastal towns of Ain Temochent and Tiaret in western Algeria, gathered returned in front of the press and offered 400,000 dinar (about USD 615) to each, along with an offer of work.
The visit, coming just a week after ten harraga were killed attempting to cross over to Europe, was not well-received by the public which came to view it as “‘an insult,’ since at the end of the meeting [Ould] asked all those assembled to sign a statement of support for President Bouteflika.” In fact, the situation almost spiraled out of control. The cable reports that the local harraga
rallied and encircled the house Ould Abbes was staying in, intending perhaps to take him hostage…When the minister got wind of this, he left Tiaret before dawn, earlier than expected, and rushed back to Algiers.
The cable tellingly registers one young harraga’s disgust at the ploy. “We do not want someone to throw money at us,” the young man asserted, “we want opportunity. XXXXXXXXXXXXX then said he would ‘sweep this beach’ if someone gave him a broom and a modest salary. Instead, he and his friends agreed that the best thing to do with Ould Abbes’ 400,000 dinars was ‘to buy a better boat.'”
Embassy personnel also take note of the fact that many harraga ultimately assuage their frustration by finding refuge in the country’s mosques. And while the embassy’s concern naturally drifts to the threat of terrorist breeding amongst disaffected harraga, what they discover is far more depressing. According to one local sociologist interviewed by diplomatic staff,
“Algerian society is still suffering from ‘cultural post tramatic stress syndrome’ after the violence of the 1990s. This, when added to current pressures of terrorism and socioeconomic stagnation, leaves many ‘dazed and paralyzed, with their eyes glazed over. Most people simply don’t understand what has hit them over the past fifteen years.'”
Despite the fact that the issue has captured the country’s popular imagination—the harraga have become the subject of movies and pop songs—the prospect of positive change in the near term for Algeria’s struggling young remains remote. The cable wraps up its report “back on the beach of La Caroube, “where XXXXXXXXXXX listed at least six jobs he had applied for over the last year, all of which he said ultimately went to ‘people with connections.'” When embassy diplomats asked where they could contact him and his friends in the future “if [they] needed to, he smiled and shook his head. ‘You can come back in ten years,’ he said. ‘and we’ll be sitting right here.'”