When 16-year-old Yusuf (not his real name) left his native Guinea, in West Africa, with a neighbour, he didn’t know where he was going. He’s now at school in a small town in southern France. To get there, he travelled through war-torn Mali, entered Algeria, faced the burning sands of the Libyan desert, then crossed the Mediterranean and reached Europe nine months later. He had to pick his way through landmines on the road between the town of Gao in Mali and the Algerian border, dodging brutal Algerian police, and Libyan militias who hold their victims to ransom in Tripoli.
But the most astonishing sight on his journey was the wall of sand that forced him and his fellow migrants to walk through the desert for three days and nights to cross from Algeria into Libya. ‘Suddenly,’ he said, ‘we found ourselves facing a huge sand wall that was impossible to get over in a car. Our people smuggler dropped us off and told us to walk till we reached the wall. Once over it, we were in Libya.’
Without local people’s support, without close collaboration with the young people, without considering the human ecology of the Sahara, any security effort is frustrating, is seen as state contempt, and fuels tensions with the security services
Every migrant from Sub-Saharan Africa encounters this sand wall, or berm, when they cross into Algeria. Saharan traders and traffickers have learned ways of circumventing it. People living in border towns have had to adapt to it. But few Algerians realise almost all of their country’s Saharan territory is now surrounded by an immense artificial dune 2-5 metres high. ‘Almost no one in Algiers talks about this wall,’ says geopolitical researcher Raouf Farrah, who has investigated the south of the country (1).
Building walls and fences to protect borders has become common around the world in both authoritarian and democratic countries, but until recently North and West Africa had escaped the trend. No longer: analysis of recent satellite images reveals the existence of many more sand barriers than previously suspected (2). The Sahara, often described as a vast, boundless desert, or a grey zone where trafficking is rife, and smugglers, bandits, jihadis and migrants move freely, is in reality criss-crossed by huge sand barriers from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.
Hemming in the Polisario
The best known and oldest of these is Morocco’s north-south wall across Western Sahara, a territory it occupied when the Spanish left in 1975 and which is claimed by the Algerian-backed independence movement Polisario Front. Morocco erected its 2,500km ‘separation barrier’, also known as the Moroccan Western Sahara Wall or ‘the Berm’, in the 1980s, and has since extended and enhanced it with sophisticated surveillance equipment. Despite a 1991 UN-backed ceasefire agreement, Morocco has built a new 14km extension to the Mauritanian border to try to prevent the only surfaced trans-Saharan road being blocked, and to deny the Polisario Front access to the Atlantic. In March 2021 a new 50km sand wall was erected in the far north of Western Sahara, near the Algerian border. The Moroccan press described this as a means of stopping the Polisario from gaining access to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, but as satellite images show, it does not entirely seal off access to the south.
Morocco’s original sand wall was long thought an exception; now it looks more like a model for other states to copy. Tunisia and Egypt are using bulldozers to enclose their borders, allegedly to protect themselves from armed insurgents since the collapse of Libya in 2011. Tunisia is building a sand wall that already runs 200km from near the border post of Dehiba, equipped with an electronic surveillance system, courtesy of the US.
Egypt’s berm-building follows the route of the 270km ‘Frontier Wire’, a defensive system erected by Mussolini’s Italy in 1931 from the Mediterranean to the oases of Siwa and Al Jaghbub. Egypt has also had US support to enhance the electronic surveillance of its western and southern borders with Libya and Sudan. Satellite images show another sand barrier on its border with Sudan extending 30km inland from the Red Sea, potentially consolidating Egypt’s occupation of the disputed Halaib Triangle.
But no country is more enthusiastic about sand walls than Algeria. A vast assemblage of ditches, sand levees, fences and concrete walls now surrounds almost the whole country, running 6,700km. More than 50,000 soldiers patrol the Saharan sector alone. The sand wall on the Libyan border went up in 2015 and was later extended to the borders with Mali, Niger and Mauritania. It’s a 2-5m-high bank with a parallel trench and track (or sometimes a surfaced road) linking military bases tens of kilometres apart. Satellite images show it adapts to the terrain, sometimes departing from the border by a few kilometres and sometimes petering out entirely, when natural features such as sand dunes (erg), mountains or rocky plateaux (hamada) make vehicular access impossible.
Crossing is harder
Like any wall, Algeria’s is not completely impenetrable — people smuggling still goes on at night, as Yusuf can attest. But it has made crossing harder and riskier. The EU, in the form of its Frontex border agency, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) were delighted at the 79% drop in migrants leaving Niger in 2017 at the Arlit and Séguédine flow monitoring points, compared to 2016. They attributed this to their own effectiveness and a 2015 law in Niger criminalising irregular migration. They omitted to credit the impact of the sand wall Algeria built in 2016 on its border with Niger (3), yet it has been a great (though untrumpeted) help to the EU’s policy of externalising migration issues.
Algeria’s wall has also dealt a blow to the trade that sustains the local Tuareg population and Arab traders, especially those in the lop-sided twin towns that have grown up on either side of the border between Algeria, Niger and Mali. On the Niger side, the border post of Assamakka, where the IOM and Nigerien armed forces are based, has perhaps fared best. A population that depends on cross-border trade has established an informal district, El Akla, with houses that double as warehouses and an open-air market that began in the early 2000s and has grown since 2013. Thanks to special day permits, the population of the village has not declined and the semi-clandestine market still thrives.
The situation is more difficult in In Khalil, Mali: this village, established in 2000 by Arabs from Mali’s Tilemsi valley, became a major centre for trafficking, particularly arms, which made it a target for the Algerian military. Since then, Algeria has reinforced the wall, creating a triple enclosure to stop anyone getting through. The market then declined and the young residents of Bordj Badji Mokhtar, In Khalil’s twin town on the Algerian side of the border, describe feeling ‘suffocated’: their once lively town is now a dead end. Algeria militarised the area when it built the wall, thwarting all cross-border activity, whether trade, trafficking or livestock farming.
‘We’re like prisoners in our own homes,’ said one Arab trader on the Malian side. ‘We used to be able to go between countries easily. But it’s become hard. We can’t work anymore.’ A Malian journalist who regularly visits the area and requested anonymity said, ‘Here people live from livestock, trade or transport. There’s nothing else to do. But every one of these activities requires mobility.’ Many young people with a pick-up truck make a living by exporting subsidised Algerian products (couscous, pasta, tinned tomatoes) to Mali. ‘Take that away from us and we no longer have a means of subsistence,’ the trader said.
People feel trapped in Tin Zaouatine, too, another town straddling the Algerian-Malian border, which runs through a wadi. It’s in a sensitive location: a place where migrants pass through and also the stronghold of Iyad Ag Ghaly, one of the main leaders of the Sahel-Saharan jihadist groups and France’s most wanted terrorist. The Algerian part of town, which has a population of 10,000, is a nine-hour journey on rough roads from Tamanrasset, southern Algeria’s biggest city. The Malian part lacks all public services and is inhabited by just a few dozen families. The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a coalition of armed groups which signed up to a 2015 peace agreement, controls this part of town. The state has abandoned it.
Closed border with Mali
The Algerian armed forces, having officially closed the border with Mali in January 2013 on the grounds of national security, extended the sand wall, nicknamed ‘El Pipe’, to the outskirts of Tin Zaouatine in 2018. In an article published in 2020, Raouf Farrah noted that ‘the population has never been involved in assessing this project.’ Yet, he added, ‘without local people’s support, without close collaboration with the young people, who know the desert roads, without considering the human ecology of the Sahara, any security effort, even a legitimate one, becomes a source of frustration that fuels the idea of state contempt and tensions with the security services’ (4).
This frustration boiled over in June 2020, when the authorities extended the wall along the wadi marking the border and topped it with barbed wire, preventing local people, especially herders, from accessing their wells, gardens and pastures on the Malian side, as well as the gold mines that they work there. Angry youths tried to tear down the barbed wire, leading to clashes with security forces and rioting. One young man was shot dead. Soon after, the regional military announced the barbed wire would come down and crossing points would be opened for herders.
In the Saharan parts of the Maghreb, sand walls act as barriers, security measures, means of defence. In these conflict zones, they maintain the status quo. In the eastern Sahara, it’s different. From the Salvador Pass (between Niger and Libya) to a few hundred yards from the Red Sea (between Sudan and Egypt), cross-border movements are relatively easy. The incursion by Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) rebels from Fezzan (Libya) into Kanem (Chad), which led to the death in combat of Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno in April, is proof of this.
Yet there are sand barriers here too (5); they are less spectacular and less heavily defended than in the west, but still numerous and sometimes long. They are erected not by national armies but by armed groups, who use them to monitor (and tax) all movements. These barriers, erected around checkpoints, enable these groups to ensure their informal appropriation of southern Libya’s and northern Chad’s numerous gold mines; to monitor tracks and roads; and to control access to wells, industrial sites, airports and towns. The road from Oubari to Ghat in southwest Libya, for example, is controlled by a checkpoint flanked by sand walls that extend to the foothills of the surrounding mountains. A vast sand wall round the town of Kufra in southeast Libya blocks all unauthorised access. Some cities and their airports are now fenced off and even walled in (6).
The berm being built in the north of Libya between Sirte and the Jufra region is the country’s longest (more than 100km in early 2021) and most strategic structure: it is reportedly being constructed by the Russian group Wagner for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) (7). The wall follows the front line between the rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk, designated after the LNA failed to take Tripoli in 2020. The transitional government established in early 2021 has probably downgraded its importance; it has advanced only a few kilometres south since February. But concern remains: if the political process in Libya fails, could this wall of sand become a border, paralysing the conflict and even leading to the country’s partition? Such a development would be a grim echo of what happened in Western Sahara 40 years ago.