Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A smuggler in illegal immigrants tells his story

For well over a year now, on a number of different postsCulturissima's David Winter has been drawing attention to the plight of Algeria's harragas, the young men - and increasingly women - who pay smugglers to ferry them across the Mediterranean to the "El Dorado" that is Europe. The following article has just appeared in the French press.

In spite of increased surveillance on the Spanish coast and around the islands off Italy, large numbers of young Algerians are still trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach the European Union - ensuring happy times for the smuggling industry in the Algerian town of Annaba, the hub of illegal immigration.

The coast off Annaba
At least one million dinars [£8, 500] is the gold mine reaped by a smuggler for each "crossing" or "consignment". The books are closed after three crossings per season at the rate of one crossing every two weeks. How is this "turn-over" achieved? What kind of logistics are called for?

We spent weeks trying to find out before being put in direct contact with a smuggler whom we are going to call "Ahmed". After several days of prevarication, our smuggler ended up by agreeing to meet in a restaurant situated at the end of Annaba's Rizzi Ameur beach, the headquarters of the smugglers' union. For nearly two hours, Ahmed explained to us the initial steps involved in organising a crossing.

They start by collecting details about the number of applicants so that they can narrow down what type of boat to buy, and whether to order it from an illegal workshop or to hire it from some off-shore fishermen. Once the boat has been supplied, it has to be painted black to avoid being intercepted by the coast-guards at night. The assignment to find the boat is entrusted to intermediaries who receive on average a sum of 1,000 to 1, 500 dinars [from £8.50 to £13]: a craft 7 metres long, able to take up to 20 people, costs a smuggler some 70,000 dinars [£600], as opposed to 40,000 dinars [£340] for a 5 metre boat with a capacity of 10 to 12 places.

For VIP applicants - known in the trade as fachafich - the smuggler, at the request of his clients,  will opt for a small boat with an outboard-motor, with the price varying between a million [£8,500] and one and a half million dinars [£12,750]. According to Ahmed, the motor-boat itself is either bought (following a levy on the VIP harragas) or stolen. Then they have to procure the outboard-motor through casual networks in the capital, Algiers. New,  and with a 10 HP motor,  it comes to 460,000 dinars [£3,900],  with a 5 HP and 7 HP costing respectively 150,000 [£1,300] and 200,000 dinars [£1,700]. 

The next step,  as outlined by Ahmed,  consists of acquiring a GPS and a compass - two pieces of equipment that are essential for the crossing - for which the smuggler will have to pay out the tidy sum of from 30,000 [£256] to 80,000 dinars [£685] for the former and 3,000 [£25] to 4,000 dinars [£35] for the latter. Twenty drums (each with a capacity of 20 litres) represents the amount of petrol necessary for the crossing,  as well as drum of oil. For this,  explains Ahmed,  recourse to an intermediary is absolutely necessary. To dispel any suspicion that might be aroused by buying so much petrol in a service station,  the smuggler calls on the help of the owners of high-powered cars,  often the sons of well known figures in Annaba,  with whom he enjoys "good" relations.

Rare are the smugglers who think to equip a boat with life-jackets: the harragas are deemed to be good swimmers,  Ahmed makes clear. Having gathered together all the logistical equipment,  negotiations are opened about the price of the trip,  that is to say with the "passengers" to be carried. These prices are fixed according to what the client looks like and where he comes from: the price per place can go from 40, 000 [£350] to 200,000 dinars [£1,700] for the applicants known as zawalia (the poor). The price applied to the most well off,  the VIP harragas or those hailing from other towns in Algeria,  varies between 150,000 [£1,300] and 200,000 dinars [£1,700].

Half of the sum is paid in advance a few days before departure. The balance is paid on D Day. "We demand that half the price is paid before departure so that we can settle all the preliminary expenses. The remainder is cashed in a few minutes before departure and is then entrusted to a member of the family who must be on the spot at the moment they leave. This money has to be held as security as there's always the risk that the relevant authorities might mean the operation has to be aborted",  emphasises Ahmed.

Questioned on the possible turn-over, Ahmed first of all refrained from replying then,  as we insisted,  finished up by letting slip the figure of one million dinars [£8,500] minimum per crossing,  at the rate of three or four shipments per season.  Sniffing this juicy bonanza,  numerous are those who have launched themselves into this new market. When this activity first started to emerge, in 2005,  it was under the control of only three individuals. Today,  their number has risen to more than a dozen in Annaba.

This article first appeared in the French journal Courrier International and was translated from the French by Culturissima's managing director, Dr David Winter.

Links to further harraga posts:

Harraga and Hittistes I
Harraga and Hittistes II
Harraga and Hittistes III


  1. It's astonishing that we don't know more about this in the UK, isn't it? To think that some of them are only kids and they put their lives at risk - imagine what it must be like "back home" for them. Keep up the good work.

  2. Yes, it's very hard to be young, in particular, in Algeria at the moment.

  3. Oooops, hadn't finished... but it doesn't have to be like that because there's enough (petrol) money in the country for us all to be happy.