However, this new, daring and every so often unlawful flow of people is full of dangers. The magnitude of the problem is also destabilising. In a negative feedback, North African migrants are caught up in the crackdown by the region’s governments against sub-Saharan migrants. Paradoxically, this actually affects the region’s own migrants first, as attested by the large number of Algerians held in Tunisian and Libyan prisons and the rising number of people dying on increasingly dangerous routes. Yet, sub-Saharan migrants are growing in numbers and visibility in North Africa, emerging as a more diversified economic group. If their weight is obvious in the Sahara where they represent an essential component of the workforce, they are also increasingly present across the rest of the region, including the main coastal cities.
Although everyone can see them, migrants are not officially there; they are stuck in no man’s land. The authorities alternate between tolerance and repression, expressing an ambiguous attitude towards their legal status. Thus, migrants constantly face a lot of uncertainty and are highly vulnerable to police harassment, employers’ blackmail and above all mounting xenophobia.
In fact, intolerance towards migrants is as much at home among government officials as it is in the general public. When they enforce repressive measures requested by Europe, those in authority can enhance their legitimacy by arguing that Algerian society is victimised by immigration and that foreigners are a threat to the nation; for their part, ordinary people are easily swayed by such arguments since they come from officialdom. The 2005 anti-immigrant riots that broke out in Oran are a case in point. The same is true for the independent press.
However, the fact that African immigrants are stigmatised is deeply rooted in the collective remembrance of the past. Their presence has revived memories of the trans-Saharan trade that for a thousand years structured relations between the Arab-Berber and Black African worlds. During this long period, the slave trade played a key role in creating collective images and shaping mental representations. This is best illustrated by the way migrants are referred to today, by words like Abd (slave) or Sudani (black, from bilad as-Sudan, the Land of the Blacks, that part of West Africa where Arab-led trans-Saharan trade developed).
Anti-immigrant bias reflects certain psychological mechanisms, which continue to underpin exclusivist attitudes, including towards native black communities, whose ancestors were for the most part bound in servitude. This tends to undermine one of Algeria’s greatest myths, namely that it is a socio-culturally homogeneous society.
Since independence and in a backlash to colonial rule, cultural and religious monolithism has ruled Algeria, with little room for cosmopolitan influences; the presence of sub-Saharan migrants is changing all that as the latter add new, African elements through the backdoor. These newcomers are the bearers of an apparently radical otherness, but share so many elements already present and rooted in local societies and cultures, like singing and popular religious rituals, and more.
Yet the most unexpected effect of this cosmopolitanism is the comeback in Algeria of the French language and Catholic religion (as well as the arrival of English and Protestant denominations). The Churches, whose presence was limited to “bearing witness”, are now undergoing a renaissance largely due to the presence of Christian migrants.
In a region like North Africa, so jumpy about its identity, the presence of these migrants in its cultural and religious life is easing tensions. By giving otherness so many faces, their presence is undermining the region’s binary relationship with the West, the only mirror North Africans had at their disposal to define their sense of themselves until now.
At the same time though, migration has always been a very sensitive topic in Euro-North African relations, and the presence of sub-Saharan migrants in the region is complicating matters. In order to keep migratory flows under control, North African nations, including Algeria, are expelling migrants with the direct assistance of Europe’s law enforcement agencies. The Sahara has thus become a limes, a borderline, where local authorities play frontline cops and exploit the situation to better bargain with European nations. Despite their growing numbers, repressive measures have failed to choke off the flow of migrants; they just made it riskier. There is nonetheless a consensus that the number of deaths has dropped since 2006.
In the end, despite regular ebbs and flows, constantly changing routes, migration remains a globally stable phenomenon, and on an upward trend. Migrants are also settling down in host societies regardless of government repression. Showing an uncommon steadfastness, they have found the weak points in Europe’s soft African underbelly (Ceuta and Melilla, the Canary Islands, Lampedusa or Malta). They have become masters at adapting to changing circumstances, a remarkable feat for people whose movement is largely spontaneous and disjointed, determined actors of their own destiny, fully cognizant that they might pay their daring with the ultimate price of death.
Such determination is stirring up a useful and healthy “disorder” at the international level. It is shaking European public opinions and decision-makers and putting migration back on the world’s agenda. The world is thus changing “from below”, along the “fault-line”, because of the action of outsiders. No tragedy is real without a ray of hope.