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Libya violence re-routes migrants to hostile Algeria

Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa trying to avoid growing conflict in Libya now face poverty and discrimination in neighbouring Algeria
A man from Niger walks through a tent city in Bouflika, from where hundreds of migrants hope to cross over to Europe (AFP)

Mohammed is openly disdainful towards the hundreds of African migrants now entering Algeria in a bid to reach Europe, as worsening violence in neighbouring Libya makes transit ever more perilous.

Algeria has long prided itself on its African identity, but the mounting influx of migrants from south of the Sahara has sparked a racist backlash, even in sections of the media, that has shocked traditionalists.

"They bring diseases with them, they don't even wash," Mohammed says, speaking in Boufarik, one of a string of northern Algerian towns that now host the tent cities that house hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants.

Boufarik lies just 35 kilometres from the Mediterranean coast in the rich farmland of the Mitidja region, south of Algiers.

It has become a favoured stopping-off point for migrants who have endured the arduous journey across the Sahara before they brave the perilous sea voyage to Europe as armed conflict between rival militias rocks the Libyan cities that used to be the preferred route.

Those who make it this far are the lucky ones. Many lose their lives in the desert.

Earlier this month, dozens of migrants disappeared on the rough piste between Niger and Algeria.

Troops recovered the bodies of 13 of them, a Nigerien military source said.

Last October, 92 migrants died of thirst when the two trucks carrying them to Algeria broke down.

But despite the hardships they have endured, the migrants find little sympathy from many Algerians.

"These Africans spread disease, they are dirty and they don't work," said Karim, another young man in Boufarik, reflecting views propagated by some Algerian media.

Arabic daily Al-Fajr carried a front-page article about "the thousands of Africans invading the streets of the capital."

It accused them of "spreading epidemics and other social ills such as trafficking in counterfeit money."

Last week, Adel Zeddam, the country officer for UNAIDS, denounced as "scandalous" and "discriminatory" the press comments linking the influx of migrants with an alleged rise in AIDS cases.

In reality, just 8,258 people are infected with the HIV virus in a country of 38 million, according to official figures.

'Lack of humanity'

Ali, a retired teacher, bemoaned the "lack of humanity" of his fellow Algerians and the "racism" of parts of the media.

Sociology professor Fatma Oussedik said the mounting racism showed by Algerians towards fellow Africans from south of the Sahara smacked of a crisis of identity in the continent's largest country.

"When we hear Algerians speaking about Africans, we find ourselves asking where in the world we are," she said.

"This rejection of the other, it's a kind of self-denial."

Without the right papers, the migrants sometimes have to hide, to avoid being "sent back to square one", says Mahamadou, an unemployed builder who scrapes by doing informal work so he can send money back to his family in Niger.

On Saturday, police bussed some 300 of them back to Tamanrasset in Algeria's deep south, according to one of the migrants.

Laoura, a mother in her 50s who arrived in Boufarik seven months ago, has acute stomach pain that prevents her from leaving her tent.

"She doesn't want to got to hospital for fear that she will be picked up by the police," says Soulaima, a friend and neighbour.

The migrants at the camp in Boufarik are all from Zinder, Niger's second city, and have paid the equivalent of around 1,100 Euros to make the two-day desert crossing.

"The price is fixed, whether it's an adult or a child," says Massahoudou, who arrived at the camp several months ago, hoping to be joined later by his family.

He has found no work but clings to his dream of a better life across the Mediterranean.