On the borders of the Maghreb: Focus on Algeria

by Zahir Hadibi

This paper aims to review the detailed elements of the context situation at the Maghreb borders with a focus on the Algerian ones, shared, moreover, with all the countries of the Maghreb region and even the Sahel. We intend to analyze the borders that are being tested by the dynamics at work at several levels: i) the maritime borders whose overlap of Algeria’s maritime zones with Spain and Italy is under negotiation, a process already underway between Morocco and Spain, ii) the management of air borders in the light of the global pandemic, iii) and finally, Algeria’s land borders, the scene of multiple human flows and various cross-border exchanges.

Maritime borders with the North: Delimitation under negotiation with Spain and Italy
The Mediterranean was an important epicenter of the world, it remains as an influential and highly strategic part. The three countries of the central Maghreb have a very important seafront. Tunisia’s seafront extends over 1300 km, the Algerian coastline develops over about 1600 km while the maritime border of Morocco opens on two seafronts, an important one on the Atlantic Ocean and another, less important, on the Mediterranean Sea, totaling a length of more than 1835 km excluding the seafront of Western Sahara. The Maghreb’s maritime frontage gives it a position of crossroads at the North/South interface where two continents but also two seas are combined.

2020 is marked by a political process of the delimitation negotiation of maritime borders and territorial waters with the north, especially Spain. Morocco has established its legal jurisdiction (BORM, 2020) over the adjacent waters of Western Sahara, in addition to the Polisario Front, which rejects the texts, the Regional Government of the Canary Island and the Central Government of Madrid have reacted. The disagreement is expressed, a negotiation process is at work about the overlap between maritime areas.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) in its 2nd section confers sovereignty to States to delimit the width and outer limit of their territorial sea. Algeria delimited its territorial sea in 2018 (JORADP, 2018), Article 1 establishes an exclusive economic zone off the Algerian coast. Article 2 specifies that ‘The outer limits of the exclusive economic zone may, if necessary, be modified within the framework of bilateral agreements with States whose coasts are adjacent to or facing the Algerian coasts’. Article 74 of the UN Convention provides: ‘The delimitation of the exclusive economic zone between States whose coasts are adjacent or opposite each other shall be effected by agreement in accordance with international law…’. In this spirit, Algeria and Spain have opted for bilateral negotiations to hear the statements of the Algerian and Spanish MFAs during the press conference held in early March 2020 in Algiers.

A Joint Technical Committee in charge of the delimitation of maritime borders between Algeria and Italy was also set up in September 2020.

Tunisia, for its part, established its territorial waters in 2005 (JORT) already. Its maritime borders with Italy were delimited in 2013 (JORADP, 2013).
Air Borders in Light of the Pandemic COVID-19: Preventive Lockdown

The emergence of the global pandemic COVID-19 has impacted borders in a new way. The borders of the Maghreb are not left behind. Strict and abrupt measures of travel restrictions have been taken by the Algerian high authorities, including the closure of all land, sea and air borders, starting in mid-March 2020 already after the first cases of contamination were imported. Traffic being an important vector of propagation. This early measure is crucial for the stabilization and mitigation of the epidemic according to health experts. Sharp programs of repatriation flights have been planned for the diaspora abroad, the demand remains higher. Despite the start of the vaccination campaign towards the end of January 2021 (APS, 2020). Borders remain tight, with a temporal reduction in international repatriation flights, especially after the appearance of COVID-19 mutants. The impact of the measure would be significant from an economic, but above all human, point of view.

The Maghreb countries have also imposed movement restrictions that have closed the borders. This is the case of Morocco which closed its air and sea routes with Spain, France and Algeria and land with the two Spanish conclaves (Ceuta and Melilla) and Mauritania from mid-March 2020. A possibility of crossing the border is possible from July of the same year for some categories (Moroccan citizens, foreign residents in Morocco, individuals on official mission or invited by a company, but also foreign citizens not subject to visa formalities (MAP, 2020). A slight opening, especially after September 2020, in the hope of mitigating the shock on the tourism sector. Tunisia, whose economy also depends on tourism, closed its borders from March 18, 2020 before opting for the opening, in late June, for an important list of countries, air links opened with Libya in November (TAP, 2020).

Land Borders: Multiple Cross-Border Dynamics
A focus on Algerian borders is necessary, especially since they are not shared with the Maghreb countries only.

Algeria: geographical configuration of the land border
Algeria, being the largest country on the continent with an area of 2.382 million km2 shares a very important border with several countries. The Algerian borders are estimated at 6,358 kilometers. Algeria has 16 border wilayas in the light of the promotion of delegated wilayas (February 2021). They extend over an area of 910 154 km, or 38.2 of the total area of the country for a population estimated at 920 000 inhabitants, or 2% of the total population of the country. Nearly 93% of the border area is occupied by the southern zones (849,036 km2) (MICLAT , 2018). Algeria shares 1601 km with Morocco, 1376 with Mali, 982 with Libya, 965 with Tunisia, 956 with Niger, 463 with Mauritania and 42 with Western Sahara.

Political and security condition in the region.
The regional geopolitical situation is unprecedented. The ‘Arab Spring’ has turned the geopolitical map and relations in the MENA region upside down. Authoritarian regimes fell under the snowball effect of unheard-of popular movements that began in the Maghreb, Tunisia. It quickly spread to other countries: Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen…

A cycle of instability has set in in different countries. This climate of instability has cleared the way for geopolitical tensions, foreign armed interventions, the proliferation of terrorist groups, and the circulation of weapons.

The situation in the Sahel is not without serious problems, particularly with the conflict situation in Mali. Armed groups were threatening, as early as 2012, to break the political and territorial order of the country. The crisis is still going on; in 2020, the then president was deposed by the military.
Other conflicts remain unresolved and brought to the level of the United Nations, including the Sahara issue, the oldest continental conflict, it dates back to the 1970s. The status quo is increasingly untenable. The break-up phase is taking place, particularly with the evolution of world relations and the unilateralism of powers and interest deals . The ceasefire is broken in November 2020. The triggering factor occurred at the Guerguerat border crossing.
Algeria’s posture in the face of these conflicts is not just a matter of its diplomacy, which tries to find political consensus. Algeria has repeatedly found itself obliged to militarize its borders. The costs of this borders securing are huge and borne solely by the state budget.

Cross-border dynamism:
A) Human movements:

This dynamic translates into illegal migratory flows of migrants passing through an ‘invisible’ intra-Maghreb perspective (Zeghbib, H. 2020) and take the route of the Western Mediterranean to reach Europe through Spain.

Beyond migration flows, these ‘routes’ are used by cross-border criminal networks of informal activities.

B) Informal cross-border activities:
We conducted empirical surveys during the years 2016 and 2017 (Hadibi, Z. 2019) on the land borders of Algeria.

Multiple activities and networks across borders is a serious security threat. States need to be more cooperative in border management, risks are now transnational and organized crime has become cross-border. As an illustration, Algeria was the scene of a hostage-taking at a strategic gas site in the southeast (In Amenas) by terrorists who infiltrated from Libya. A Joint Operational Staff Committee (CEMOC) based in Tamanrasset has existed since 2010 with the mission of ensuring security cooperation between the countries of the region (Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger).

2021: The beginning of integration
The year 2021 begins with ambitious projects to make the borders more open with the entry into force of the FTAA continental zone. During this year, the Trans-Saharan Highway, a regional cooperation and integration project, will be largely delivered.

There is indeed at the level of the region a coastal and territorial extent but also multiple hotbeds of tension, the borders interact with the multiple socio-economic, political-security and health issues. In the current era of globalization, borders are disappearing and distances are shrinking but also closing superstitiously and inopportunely. A dialectic at work is visible at the level of the multiple borders of the Maghreb.