Last Updated: Monday, 19 February 2018, 14:34 GMT

World Refugee Survey 2008 - Algeria

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Refugee Survey 2008 - Algeria, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 20 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

DZA figures


Algeria hosted around 95,700 refugees, mainly from the disputed Western Sahara, who sought shelter from the 1976 conflict between Morocco and the nationalist rebel group Polisario Front over the area's sovereignty. Around 4,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Algeria along with some 1,600 sub-Saharan asylum seekers with no recognition.

Refoulement/Physical Protection

There were no reports that Algeria directly returned refugees to countries of feared persecution. In August, however, authorities deported 28 Congolese men the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had recognized as refugees, even as they awaited settlement in a third country. The Government deported them after trying them for illegal entry, without giving them information about their trial or access to legal counsel. At the end of the journey to the Malian border, one man was missing and authorities left the rest in a zone of Malian rebel activity at Tinzaouatine. They remained there for two weeks without provisions until UNHCR Mali picked them up and took them to the Malian capital, Bamako, from which the United States resettled them.

Several times during the year, Algeria conducted mass expulsions of thousands of sub-Saharan migrants and possible asylum seekers, placing them in cages aboard trucks to Mali. It did not allow them to apply for asylum or to appeal against their expulsion.

Algeria was party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. The 1989 Constitution (amended 1996) provided that in no case may a "political refugee" with the legal right of asylum be "delivered or extradited." A 1963 Decree established the Algerian Office for Refugees and Stateless Persons (BAPRA) in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and called for an appellate board consisting of representatives of various ministries and UNHCR, but the authorities never requested that UNHCR designate its representative. The 1963 Decree authorized BAPRA to decide cases and stipulated its recognition of those UNHCR had already recognized. In fact, the Government considered all sub-Saharan asylum seekers who entered without visas to be illegal immigrants, even if UNHCR recognized them as refugees. The number of applicants overwhelmed UNHCR's status determination process and the time between registration and interviews was over a year in most cases and determinations were available only in the capital. The Government did recognize the Sahrawi and all 4,000 Palestinians as refugees, but did not permit UNHCR to conduct a census of the Sahrawi although it considered them to be UNHCR's sole responsibility.

In December, Al Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) bombed a bus and UNHCR's offices in Algiers, killing dozens and disrupting all activities.

Six Sahrawi former camp residents testified before the Belgian parliament that Polisario forced them to undergo military training in Tindouf and to go to Cuba for more.

Detention/Access to Courts

On average, authorities arrested some 20 refugees and asylum seekers per month, generally for illegal entry, movement, and employment. Authorities in Algiers at least released those not charged with common crimes upon the intervention of UNHCR-paid lawyers and sentenced them within two weeks. Authorities expelled those of whose detention UNHCR was not aware to the Malian border area.

Polisario authorities maintained their own police, judiciary, and detention facilities and applied their own penal code with the acquiescence of the Government of Algeria. They detained up to 100 refugees in at least two jails, Hamdi Ba Sheikh for men, about 30 minutes' drive outside of Polisario's Rabouni headquarters and another for women, and a juvenile detention facility. Refugees interviewed in Morocco reported that authorities imprisoned one refugee for three months for expressing an interest in returning to the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. Polisario authorities did not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross or UNHCR to monitor the facilities but did allow Human Rights Watch to visit the facility for men outside Rabouni in November. There was also a protective center for women pregnant out of wedlock, but it was difficult to determine whether residence was voluntary, as women reportedly had to remain there indefinitely until a man agreed to marry them or their family members agreed to raise the child. UNHCR helped construct a legal library in the camps.

Polisario issued refugee identity cards to all Sahrawis over the age of 18. UNHCR issued attestation letters to nearly 1,600 refugees and asylum seekers who approached the agency in the capital but had little presence elsewhere. The letters stated that the persons were refugees or of concern to the agency. Police officers contacted UNHCR several times to verify the certificates and released the bearers upon confirmation. Under the law, refugees were eligible for three-year residence cards, but the Government did not recognize any other than the Sahrawis and the Palestinians. Other refugees and asylum seekers did not have access to courts and avoided them for fear of arrest.

Many black Sahrawis who lived in the refugee camps were slaves under Arab Sahrawi masters, whose names the slaves took. Slave women complained that judges would not allow them to marry without the permission of the male heads of the families that owned them. In May, Polisario detained two Australian documentary filmmakers for about five hours near Rabouni and confiscated their mobile phones because they were documenting slavery in the camps, but released them after UN officials intervened. A Spanish court ruled against the return of a Mauritanian Sahrawi girl to the Tindouf camps when she testified, and SOS Slaves Mauritania confirmed, that she had been a slave. Also in June, a Polisario Ministry of Justice official formally emancipated at least one slave. In June, Polisario's National Saharan Council ratified a new law on civil status law that modified some deficiencies in kinship and marriage cases.

Freedom of Movement and Residence

The Government allowed Polisario to control the movements of some 90,000 Sahrawis in four isolated camps outside the Tindouf military zone near the Moroccan border. Refugees required permits from the Chiefs of dairas (districts within camps) to move from one daira to another within a camp or from camp to camp or to travel to the surrounding countryside, to Tindouf, or to Mauritania, which they generally issued. An estimated 3,500 Sahrawi at most lived in Tindouf with Algerian passports, some of them married to Algerians. Polisario forbade return to the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, however, and arrested those who expressed an interest in doing so. Even so, a number managed to reach Morocco through Mauritania. To travel to Algiers, refugees needed passports from Polisario, which restricted their issuance according to criteria it did not disclose.

In the summer, Polisario guards reportedly ceased requiring all passengers on vehicles bound for Mauritania to have travel authorization papers, just the drivers. Polisario guards reportedly opened fire, however, upon at least one pair of persons attempting to cross the sand wall separating the camps from Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Polisario checkpoints surrounded the camps, the Algerian military guarded entry into Tindouf, and the police operated checkpoints throughout the country.

The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara facilitated more than 2,100 flights by refugees to visit family members in the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Polisario also allowed some refugees to leave for education in Algeria and elsewhere and to tend livestock in the areas of the Western Sahara it controlled and in Mauritania. Nonetheless, members could not leave with their entire families. An unknown number reportedly held Mauritanian passports. The Algerian Government also issued passports to those Polisario members permitted to travel abroad but not to other refugees.

Right to Earn a Livelihood

Algerian law severely restricted the rights of foreigners to work and made negligible exception for non-Palestinian refugees. Other refugees had no more rights than other foreigners. Their lack of status and right to work legally forced refugees into the informal sector. One with an electronic engineering degree worked as a construction worker and others turned to prostitution.

The 1981 Employment of Foreign Workers Law and the 1983 Order of the Ministry of Labor allowed only single employer work permits and then only for jobs for which no nationals, even those residing abroad, were qualified. Employers had to file justifications consistent with the opinions of workers' representatives. Permits were valid for no more than two years and renewal required repetition of the same procedure. Employees could not change employers until they completed their contract and then only in exceptional circumstances after consultation with the previous employer. Violators were subject to a fine and/or imprisonment from ten days to a month. The 1990 Labor Law reiterated these requirements, without exception for refugees. A 2005 Decree established regional labor inspection offices to enforce laws regulating the employment of foreigners and to take action "against all forms of illegal work." According to UNHCR, Palestinian refugees had access to the labor market under a special policy.

Skilled refugees and asylum seekers engaged in some self-employment but risked arrest and detention for it and enjoyed no social security or labor protections. Sahrawi refugees could work in informal businesses in the remote southwest garrison town of Tindouf, near the camps, but had to have permits to work in Algiers and elsewhere and there were no reports that any received them.

Although the Constitution provided that "Any foreigner being legally on the national territory enjoys the protection of his person and his properties by the law," refugees could own only movable property. Sahrawi refugees could own goats and sheep. Legitimate commerce and smuggling cigarettes, medicine, and humanitarian aid were a major source of revenue in the camps.

Public Relief and Education

In February, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that about 39 percent of children under five in the Tindouf camps suffered chronic or acute malnutrition, with the latter often undetected, and that two thirds of women of childbearing age suffered from anemia. In July, WFP did not distribute cereal rations, the source of 70 percent of the refugees' nutrition, and food was of insufficient diversity and poor quality. The Government contributed over $200,000 in food aid in 2006 and a large amount of wheat flour during the shortage of 2007. It also supplied health services, transportation, housing, and most of the refugees' heating and cooking fuel.

The law required all humanitarian aid to go through the Algerian Red Crescent Society, which worked with its Polisario partner, the Sahrawi Red Crescent Society. The Government's refusal to allow a registration census prevented UNHCR from profiling the population for humanitarian and protection needs or monitoring aid distribution. A joint UNHCR/WFP assessment mission in January recommended a more transparent and accountable distribution system. In March, Interfaith International testified before the UN Human Rights Council that Polisario diverted and sold humanitarian aid in other countries and "spent enormous sums of money on festivals and military parades."

UNHCR was able to increase its aid to sub-Saharan refugees and asylum seekers in Algiers and they had free public health services and medicine through its implementing partner, Rencontre et Développement. The Palestinian refugees had integrated and did not have contact with UNHCR.

There were primary schools in the Tindouf camps for Sahrawi children, but they lacked adequate clothing for the cold winters. There were reports that families keeping slave children as domestic servants in the camp did not allow them to attend school. Algeria did not allow sub-Saharan refugees the residency permits necessary to attend classes. UNHCR, however, paid tuition for 32 to attend private schools.

The national poverty reduction strategy, including the Common Country Assessment and the UN's joint plan of action with the Government for 2007-2011, did not include refugees.

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