ALGIERS – The ultimate goal is Europe. But first the immigrants from countries in central Africa are trying to get refugee status in Algeria.
“We were told that if we claimed we were fleeing the war, we would be taken care of and handed out IDs,” says Trésor, a Congolese migrant taken in by the United Nations' refugee agency (UNHCR).
Trésor was told to say he was from Goma, capital of the North Kivu region, where civil unrest has been raging for the past year between M23 rebels and the Congolese army. He is among the asylum seekers who failed to reach Spain last summer through Morocco, and landed in Algeria after a long a dangerous trip across Africa.
About 40 Central Africans from Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Cameroon, and the Central Africa Republic, pretended to be from Goma. Most of them have actually never even been to this city in the North Kivu region and they don’t speak the local language of Swahili.
“I’m from Kinshasa and I don't know anything about the country’s hinterland,” admits Tocha, a Congolese woman.
Annie from Burundi hadn't even heard of this town, which is near the border of her country. “I grew up in Kisangani where my family arrived, back in 1997,” she says.
Mamicho is Rwandan, she’s also faking to be from Goma. At least she's heard of it. “I know Goma because I’m from Morocco where my boyfriend and I used to live. We're forced to make up these stories because we were led to believe that the UNHCR could help us fly over to the U.S. and live there as refugees.”
A long journey
All of these immigrants paid a high price – physical and monetary - before reaching Algiers, a place none of them ever thought of setting foot in. Annie went through the desert in November 2011 with her husband and two children, dreaming of Europe. “We met Algerian smugglers in Niamey, they told us we could reach Spain by going through Algeria and Morocco,” she says. “But when we arrived in Algeria, they were gone with all our money.”
They used fake IDs to get from one border to the other, passing through Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger. “In Brazzaville, we had fake Benin IDs made to get to West Africa without a visa. Before Algeria, the smugglers gave us fake Malian passports,” which grants free entrance to Algeria.
Amisa, holding her newborn baby, recounts her own desert odyssey. “My fiancé came up with the idea to go to Europe. We traveled by road, the most common way,” she recalls. “But our smugglers let us down. They brought us here and told us to go see with the UNHCR since these are difficult times to reach Ceuta and Melilla” the two Spanish enclaves in Morocco.
The smugglers' role
Each person who has come to the UNHCR as Congolese refugees fleeing the war have one thing in common: they were led here using smuggling networks. “The smugglers are responsible for all this,” says Father Yan, head of Encounters and Development, a Catholic NGO helping migrants in Algiers. "Before the smuggling process begins, they demand the money up front for the transportation fee, bribes at checkpoints and the hotels along the way.”
A smuggler known as “Father” to his customers, gives his perspective: “Each of these people who I escorted through Nigeria, gave me $500 to get to Algeria. Here, we have to delegate them to another network to go through Morocco,” he explains. “Since the routes to Spain are a little bit jammed, I told them to ask the UNHCR for an asylum seeker certificate.”
He says with that document, they may stay in Algeria until they can find a new way to attempt to get to Europe. Officials at the UNHCR have reportedly begun an investigation into the matter.