For some years now, certain videos posted on Facebook, Algerians’ preferred social network, have been causing a sensation here: They show groups of young Algerians brandishing smartphones and singing, taking videos of one another as they laugh, looking at once happy and worried. Over time, more and more young women and small children appear among them. Diversity may be frowned upon throughout the country, but it reigns, apparently, on the little vessels that ferry illegal migrants away.
In Algeria, these adventurers are called by a strange name: harragas, or border-runners — in other words, the bold and the crazy. The term has long stopped denoting any standard characteristics other than being young, preferably minor; Spanish law, for one, forbids the expulsion of anyone under 18 years of age. Today, the call of the sea is chiefly heeded by Algerians — students or not, women or men. Sub-Saharans passing through Algeria prefer to head for Europe by overland routes, via Morocco.
This migration, known as the harga, is a problem, of course, because it kills people. But it troubles the Algerian government in a particular way. That Algerians are voluntarily leaving on such a dangerous journey is glaring proof of its numerous political and economic failures: repression, unemployment and the rising cost of living, among other things.
The escape corridors are well known. From the easternmost part of the country, about 500 kilometers, or 310 miles, from Algiers, the capital, migrants head for Italy. From the region around Oran, to the west, they tend to set out for Spain. The harga has its rules by now, with its professionals, its seasons, its fees — and its success stories. There is one, notably, about the Algerian migrant who ends up marrying an American girl and converting her to Islam.
The trip, not including food and emergency supplies, costs about $1,200 all around — compared with the monthly minimum wage, which is set at 18,000 dinars, just over $100 dollars at common black-market rates. The crossing to Spain takes one day, two days at most. Never mind that the smugglers often are illegal immigrants who returned home and figured out that they could make more money doing this here than doing anything else over there. The harga has sent the prices of speedboats, boat motors, life jackets and GPS systems skyrocketing.
Mostaganem, my hometown, is a small coastal city between Algiers and Oran. It was once a lovely weekend destination, with its stilt bungalows by the sea and its sardine restaurants, but today tourism lags for lack of investment. The government is suspicious of all foreigners. Algeria sells oil, and unlike its neighbors Morocco and Tunisia, it doesn’t need money from tourists. What’s more, it is run by a gerontocracy that clings to power by any means and is increasingly out of step with the country’s very young population: 29 percent of the total is under 15.
Young people suffer from the lack of employment and opportunities, and especially from the lack of leisure activities. Their isolation is reinforced by rising Islamism. In Mostaganem, as in other towns and villages throughout Algeria, there are no movie theaters, no swimming pools, no dance floors and no restaurants. Lovers may not kiss or hold hands in public. So Mostaganem’s beautiful, still-wild coastline is a point of departure. More than 110 small craft set out from there in a single week last year, according to the local authorities; 286 Algerians are said to have been intercepted on the open sea in just three days in November. The Mediterranean Sea regularly throws up the corpses of the drowned, but that doesn’t seem to discourage prospective travelers.
The harga’s scale is difficult to measure. There are no definitive statistics; very few numbers have been made public. The data have not been centralized; the harragas fall within the purview of the coast guard but also the military authorities as well as various ministries. And then, illegal migration is a sore topic.
Some sources say there were more than 3,100 illegal immigration attempts from the coasts of Algeria in 2017. Others place the number closer to 5,000. This figure may seem modest compared to greater exoduses that receive more media coverage, but according to the French daily Le Monde, it has increased. The interior ministry of Spain reported a deluge at the end of November: Nearly 500 migrants, more than half of them Algerians, disembarked in Spain in the course of just one week. An article from October in the leading Algerian newspaper El Watan reported, citing figures from N.G.O.s, that more than 10,000 harragas had been stopped between 2005 and 2016, while 20,000 to 25,000 were thought to have reached other shores and more than 1,500 had died during the crossing.
The Algerian government manages such statistics with prudence. Too large a number of Algerian emigrants would be evidence of its shortcomings and serve as fodder for its opponents. Yet too small a figure couldn’t mobilize public opinion against the exodus.
The harga already signals the authorities’ failing twice over. First, it’s proof that the government hasn’t managed to build a nation that is attractive to its own people. And the government’s disastrous attempts to stem the problem have only made it worse: Emigration has increased since the state criminalized it in 2009. (Any citizen or resident of Algeria who tries to leave the country illicitly is subject to a fine and a prison term of two to six months.)
Was it fair to penalize the victims of a national failure? Worse, the law designed to do that, controversial from the outset, has turned out to be ineffective.
And so the government has resorted to other methods. To block emigration with more than the coast guard, it has begun tapping conservative media. Those outlets publish appeals to patriotism and numerous reports about shipwreck victims, disconsolate parents, disillusioned returnees and mistreatment in Spanish refugee camps. In February, Echorouk, a popular Islamist newspaper, ran a teaser of a headline that claimed “gangs” were stealing the organs of some migrants and contaminating others with H.I.V. (The article itself contained hardly a word about any of this.)
More spectacular and more problematic still, the government has mobilized the religious to help with its messaging. Early this year, it called on imams for help. The Higher Islamic Council, the country’s most important religious body, decreed that the harga was haram, contrary to religious law, and a sin.
But the move backfired with at least one segment of the public. Some people have asked: How can these religious men declare the right to leave to be a sin while staying silent about repression, corruption, ecological destruction and the lifetime mandate of a president who won’t die? Such criticism puts the minister of religious affairs in a bind — and so he has defended the imams, but not too much. To say nothing would have amounted to passively watching a tragedy unfold; to say anything more would have been an attack on his own administration. He also announced that the government would consider offering young people favorable terms for bank loans.
Oddly, the flow of harragas leaving Algeria seems to both offset and imitate the flow of immigrants who come to Algeria from sub-Saharan Africa — only to be welcomed here with indifference at best, and more often with violent racism. Besides, the regime’s apparatchiks are exiling their own children even as they condemn the harga. Why? Because illegal emigration is a sort of indirect denunciation — against the lack of democracy and clean elections, the lack of the right to free expression or, simply, to happiness. One votes “no” by leaving the country — and all the more so when leaving for Europe, which many Algerian conservatives and political or religious leaders hold responsible for nearly all of our great ills.
On their makeshift boats, departing migrants often sing instead of staying silent and being discreet. They seem to be mocking those who stay behind. Really, they are yelling things at the government from the sea that for years they didn’t dare tell it to its face. To leave illegally is, above all, to speak out.
• Kamel Daoud is the author of the novel “The Meursault Investigation.” This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.
New York Times