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Algerian passengers 'stuck' for three weeks at Paris airport due to COVID-19 border closure

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Placards with pictograms depicting Covid-19 sanitary instructions are pictured in Terminal 2E at the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris, March 18, 2021.
Placards with pictograms depicting Covid-19 sanitary instructions are pictured in Terminal 2E at the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris, March 18, 2021.   -   Copyright  ERIC PIERMONT / AFP
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A group of some 25 Algerians have been stuck in transit at the main airport in Paris for nearly three weeks, after leaving the UK trying to reach Algiers.

COVID-19 restrictions are being blamed for their plight, which has seen them camp out in an international terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport since flying from London Heathrow on February 26.

The Algerian authorities have reportedly refused to let them board, as the country has officially suspended air and sea links with France and the rest of the world since March 2020.

At the time, repatriation flights were organised for Algerian nationals, under conditions. But the recent emergence of the British variant of the coronavirus has brought a hardening of restrictions, and flights have been suspended for the whole of March.

"We absolutely had the right to leave for Algeria, we respected everything," said Hocine, a 49-year-old British-Algerian surgeon who has been stuck in Paris with his wife and three-year-old daughter. He insisted that all in the group had negative COVID-19 test results. AFP saw documents stating that he and his wife had also been vaccinated against the virus.

The group -- composed of single men and three families including a woman of 78 and two young children -- have been sleeping on chairs or on the ground. They have been using the airport's sanitary facilities, while meals have been provided via donations or vouchers from the airport authorities.

"Every day, there's someone who's going to crack up. Psychologically it's really not easy," says Hocine, who wants to return to Algeria to take care of his mother-in-law after she suffered a stroke.

The Algerian authorities had asked them not to undertake their journey a few days before their departure, according to two sources involved with their case. But the group are determined to reach their country at all costs and refused to do an about-turn.

Border closures 'political'

Several million Algerians are confronted with the closure of the country's borders. Even those resident in Algeria are subject to this measure, even though the nation currently has fewer than 150 coronavirus infections a day.

The restrictions have also affected people in Algeria seeking to reach Europe, especially France where there is a large diaspora.

"I was not at my daughter's side as she gave birth, as tradition demands," deplored Ouahiba, who was thrilled to be travelling to Lille in France. She has instead followed her grandchild's progress from the Kabylia region via videos.

In Algiers, 27-year-old Zakaria said he did not know when he would be able to rejoin his new wife in France. "It's terrible to be separated from the person you love for so long without knowing when we can see each other again," he added.

In February, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune praised the country's strategy against the coronavirus, a reference to the closed borders. However, the measures have not prevented the UK variant from entering the territory.

Samir Yahiaoui, an opponent of the Algerian government living in France, said the "total blockage" was imposed for "political rather than health reasons" and was provoking "heartbreak" in families, especially when deaths occurred.

"It's an Algerian exception which is obviously due to Hirak," he said, referring to the anti-regime protest movement, suggesting that the authorities were taking advantage of the situation to carry out a "purge".

"There are people in Kafkaesque situations... situations that are like big psychodramas," said Omar Tibourtine, an Algerian doctor in a Paris hospital, adding that a great part of the population found themselves in a straightjacket.

Merwan, a 34-year-old businessman, claimed a "VIP list" existed enabling people with the "right connections" to make return trips from Algeria to Europe. He added that he had been given the chance to take a flight to spend Christmas in Paris, but declined.