More than one million internally displaced people ignored by the international community

More than one million internally displaced people ignored by the international community

The Global IDP Project, 05.03.04,

A government decision to cancel elections in 1991 sparked off fighting between government forces and Islamist groups that ravaged Algeria throughout the 1990s. As government forces gained control in the major towns, armed attacks, massacres and large-scale human rights violations continued in rural areas, leading to massive displacement from the countryside to the outskirts of nearby cities. The precise number of Algerians displaced by the political violence is impossible to assess given the information void that has pervaded the conflict in Algeria since its onset. The European Union estimates that violence has displaced more than one million people, while others say the number is as high as 1.5 million. According to available sources, the large majority is still displaced. Despite government incentives, most are discouraged to return by the security situation and lack of basic infrastructure in their home villages. Internally displaced in Algeria have not received any international assistance as Algerian authorities have denied access to the affected population, nor have the UN and other international actors tried to address their situation. Local media have regularly documented the misery of the displaced and their precarious living conditions. It is high time that this issue be addressed in cooperation with the Algerian authorities in order to get an overview of the actual number and particular needs of the internally displaced population.


The current violence in Algeria was triggered by an army-backed coup in December 1991 that blocked the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) over the National Liberation Front (FLN), the then ruling party and political heir of the Algerian revolution. An army-backed High Council of State headed by a FLN representative was set up in January 1992 and the FIS was dissolved during the following month. In response, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), an armed group affiliated to FIS, launched a violent campaign aimed at bringing down the new regime. Thousands of Algerians supported the opposition campaign, and violence quickly spread throughout the country. Between 1992 and 1998 Algeria was in a state of virtual civil war as fighting intensified between the military-backed regime and a number of, sometimes conflicting, factions that sprang up within the AIS (ICG 2000, UN January 2003).

This brutal conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000–200,000 people. A further 7,000 people arrested by security forces and their allies have « disappeared » and remain unaccounted for (EU 2002; HRW 2003; FIDH 17 March 2003). During the height of the crisis, some 1,200 people were reportedly killed each month, victims of barbarous massacres, indiscriminate armed attacks and assassinations (ICG October 2000 Executive Summary). The Islamic Armed Group (GIA), notorious for its brutality, was said to be responsible for the bulk of the violence (HRW 2000). However, government security forces were also to blame for direct abuses of human rights as well as the repeated failure to protect civilians from attacks (Martinez April 2003; Cohen 6 December 1999). Women were often the targets of this ruthless violence and faced abduction, slavery, rape and later execution (HRW 2000; HRW 2004). The activities of self-defense groups, legalised by a 1997 law, have also added to the insecurity as some of the leaders of these groups reportedly have evolved into local war lords, terrorising the population themselves. Between 150,000-200,000 people joined these militia groups and another 80,000 others were recruited as communal guards. They were all armed by the military (Sidhoum, December 2003).

The security situation in Algeria has improved considerably during recent years. The death toll due to the conflict was down to 1,100 people (900 according to official estimates) during 2003 and security has returned to the larger metropolitan centres (Middle East Online 19 December 2003; USDOS 27 February 2004). However, residual cells of the GIA and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) continued to terrorise the local population in the east and west of the country throughout 2002 (HRW 2003; AI 2003; Strategic Comments August 2003). Although more sporadic, there were also regular reports of attacks and intimidation by extremist groups during 2003 (e.g. le Matin 7 and 27 January 2003; Middle East Online 11 February 2004; l’Expression 31 March and 25 June 2003; BBC News 27 May 2003; El Watan 30 July 2003).

During recent years, violence has been worst in the Kabylie region to the east of Algiers, the hills around the Mitidja plain as well as the province of Medea to the south and southwest of Algiers, the provinces of Chlef and Aïn Defla in the west and the Batna and Jijel provinces in the east (UK Home Office, 1/2004).

Estimates of the number of armed extremists still active range from 650 (by the military) to 2,000-5,000 for the GSPC and from 70 (by the military) to several hundred for the GIA (Middle East Online 19 December 2003 and 11 February 2004; Strategic Comments August 2003). Dozens of members of armed groups who had surrendered to the authorities under the « Civil Concord », an amnesty for fighters who agreed to lay down arms by mid-January 2000, have reportedly rejoined armed groups (AI 2003).

A commission has been appointed to examine the case of the more than 7,000 who disappeared, but President Bouteflika’s government has made little effort to seek justice for the thousands of victims of the conflict. Perpetrators of crimes, both members of government security forces and armed self-defense groups, continue to enjoy impunity (AI 28 November 2003; US DOS March 2003). The government has, despite mounting international and domestic pressure, so far refused to declare an end to the state of emergency that has been in place since 1992 (Reuters 15 February 2004). Also, there are speculations that violence will increase prior to presidential elections in April 2004.

Numbers and pattern of displacement

In recent years incidents of displacement have mainly been reported from rural areas where the local population has fled massacres, armed attacks and large-scale human rights violations. Threats and intimidation by local guerilla groups have also led many to leave their homes. Another direct cause of displacement has been the destruction and theft of crops and agricultural property by extremist groups. It was reported, for example, that such incidents led to massive population displacements near Relizane in July 2002 (le Quotidien d’Oran 31 July 2002).

Most of the displaced fled to the relative safety of nearby cities where they live with family and friends, or find refuge in shanty-towns, rather than live in camps or shelters. It is therefore very difficult to assess the actual number of displaced with any accuracy. There are no available estimates from international organisations because the Algerian authorities have denied access to the affected areas.

UNDP acknowledges a clear link between the violence and the aggravated rural exodus during the 1990s but makes no estimates, while the European Union, on the other hand, states that violence displaced over one million people. Several newspapers report massive displacement from rural areas because of the security situation, with one estimating that 1.5 million had fled as of the end of 2002. Another source estimates that more than 1.3 million people displaced by violence continue to live as internally displaced in the periphery of the big towns (l’Expression 18 November 2002; Martinez March 2003; EU Strategy 2002-2006, p.38; UNDP 2001, National Poverty Eradication Plan).

Disaggregated information found on this subject is fragmented and only gives a scattered image of the extent of the problem. Local media states that 300,000 live as internally displaced in the province of Medea, 125,000 in Jijel, 90,000 (15,000 families) in Chlef, 66,000 (11,000 families) in Aïn Defla, 30,000 in Tiaret, and 30,000 in Saïda. Also, tens of thousands fled the violence and took shelter in the outskirts of Oran (Le soir d’Algerie 11 September 2003; El Watan 4 August 2003; 20 November 2002; 12 November 2002; 6 August 2002; UNDP 2001-programme pilote-Oran 2001-2005). There is no information about the internally displaced in Algiers, although it is likely that many also moved to the outskirts of the capital city.

Internal displacement from rural areas over the last decade should be seen in the context of a more general urbanisation process where unemployment and poverty have led to widespread economic migration into towns. According to one newspaper, close to five million people left the countryside for urban areas between 1977 and 1998 (le Matin 8 September 2002).

Subsistence needs

Algeria is facing a range of more general economic and social problems which leave those internally displaced particularly vulnerable. The worst-hit regions suffer from unemployment rates of over 35 per cent, widespread poverty, social exclusion and malnutrition. A massive influx of people fleeing armed attacks from extremist groups has added more pressure to the overall situation, and as a consequence living conditions have further deteriorated in the shanty-towns of the major urban centres. Several newspapers have documented the decline in urban living conditions describing the breakdown of sanitation systems, the lack of drinkable water, overcrowded households and insufficient schooling facilities. Added to this already desperate situation, many of the displaced also face psychological trauma (FIDH 2001; El Watan 12 November 2002; 23 September 2002; 6 August 2002; Tribune d’Algerie 20 January 2004; l’Expression 3 January 2004; 8 January 2004).

The enormous population movements in recent years led to an acute housing shortage in urban areas. According to UNDP, Algeria has one of the world’s highest housing occupancy rates, and the government estimates that the country has an immediate shortfall of 1.5 million housing units (US DOS Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs November 2003). On several occasions, the housing shortage has pushed the authorities into relocating people due to construction projects. The affected families have in general been provided with alternative housing, while internally displaced have sometimes been expelled without receiving compensation. There are also cases where the authorities have destroyed the shantytowns where internally displaced have been living in order to make sure that the sites would not be re-occupied (El Watan 20 December 2003; le Quotidien d’Oran 21 November 2002).


In general, the security situation in Algeria has so far not allowed for a mass return of the displaced population, since armed attacks and massacres are still occurring. People have also been discouraged from returning to their home villages because living conditions in the countryside can be even harder than in the town, with an absence of drinkable water, poor general infrastructure, as well as a lack of health facilities. Despite this situation, the government does encourage the return of the displaced to their home villages. The authorities have tried, for example, to re-populate villages by promising direct financial assistance to returnees as well as implementing programmes to rehabilitate houses, increase employment and revitalise the agricultural sector that suffered during the 1990s. Despite these intentions, the reality remains grim and effectively hampers sustainable return.

According to one source, between 50,000 and 170,000 internally displaced returned to their home areas between August to November 2002 (l’Expression, 19 August 2002). The only additional information found about large-scale return in the francophone media is an article about the return of 2,300 families to their province in December 2003 after numerous projects had been launched to improve the infrastructure in the worst affected communes (l’Expression 21 December 2003).


Throughout the whole of the conflict, the Algerian government has heavily restricted and often censured information about human rights conditions (HRW 2000). For years, all major international human rights organisations have been prohibited from visiting the country. Though some agencies were finally permitted entry in 2000, the visit of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), for one, was reportedly conducted under conditions of strict surveillance (FIDH July 2000). Requests by FIDH, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and UN special rapporteurs have been refused. One encouraging development was the visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in September 2002. ICRC has also carried out prison visits since 1999 (AI 2003; HRW 2003).

At the same time, the few domestic human rights NGOs working in Algeria have faced obstacles and restrictions in the conduct of their work (AI 8 November 2000). The US State Department reported that the authorities occasionally harass the human rights groups through surveillance and obstruction of communications. Moreover, domestic NGOs must be licensed by the government and are prohibited from receiving funding from abroad (US DOS 4 March 2002, sect.4).

International response

Overall, international reaction to the situation in Algeria has been one of cautious observation. The UN and individual states condemned the large-scale massacres of late 1997 and 1998 (Dammers 1998). For the most part, EU countries have kept their distance, avoiding involvement or attempts to use its influence to direct events within Algeria (ICG 20 October 2000). The US has expressed concern about the human rights situation, while at the same time, remaining steadfastly committed to doing business in Algeria and supporting the authorities with military aid (HRW 2000; Arabic News.Com 28 October 2003; NYT 10 December 2002).

Although the local media has raised the problem of violence-induced internal displacement on several occasions, the plight of the internally displaced in Algeria has so far been largely ignored by international actors. Not a single document examined for this profile concerns the particular needs and rights of internally displaced. In its strategic document for cooperation with Algeria, the EU says that return of the displaced population is a prerequisite for the future development of the rural areas and foresees projects for the rehabilitation of areas affected by violence (EU 2002-2006, p.38). However, projects are still under negotiation with the Algerian authorities. UN information about the internal displacement situation in Algeria is strikingly absent although it should be noted that some planned UNDP activities are likely to benefit internally displaced (UNDP 2001-2005). It is high time that this issue be addressed in cooperation with the Algerian authorities in order to get an overview of the actual number and particular needs of the internally displaced population.

Displacement due to natural disasters

Algeria is also plagued by natural disasters which have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. In November 2001, devastating floods hit Algiers, killing more than 800 people, mostly in the capital’s Bab El-Oued area. In May 2003, a strong earthquake with a magnitude of 6.8 struck the country and caused catastrophic damage in five provinces in the north-central section of Algeria. The province of Boumerdes and the eastern district of Algiers were most affected by the earthquake. Official figures put the number of casualties at 2,320 persons killed and 10,147 injured. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless (USDOS, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs November 2003).