Young Algerians, struggling to find opportunities, look to Europe for a better future

President Bouteflika is pledging $150 billion to create jobs. Algerian young people – an estimated 70 percent of whom can't find work – are getting impatient.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Jamal sits inside a brightly lit cafe one recent rainy day, watching cars splash through puddle-strewn potholes in the working class neighborhood of Douera. Al Jazeera played on a muted TV above the counter, while nearby three bloated goldfish bobbed in the murky water of an aquarium.

A quiet man in his early thirties, he frequently finds refuge here. In the middle of the day, the cafe is crowded with other young men watching TV, chatting, or just staring into space. Like Jamal, they are part of the mass of unemployed young people in Algeria.

Many say that, despite their love for their country, they have lost faith that Algeria can provide them with good jobs – or even a good life. They long to move overseas in search of better opportunities, saying they feel held back at home by deep-seated corruption that ensures only the well-connected get ahead.

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The government says tackling unemployment and convincing people to stay are high on its agenda, but few ordinary Algerians are convinced their leaders are committed to providing opportunities for everyone.

For Jamal, who would not give his last name, it is a moot point. He has decided that Algeria is not for him.

He left school at age 14 to work on a construction site, but almost 20 years later has little to show for his labor. He cannot afford to marry, and today only has intermittent work as a handyman and house painter. He says he does not have enough connections, or piston, to find well-paid work.

"I have tried to have a steady life here but it is impossible," he says. "If you don't know someone rich or important you can never find a good job."

Jamal wants to join the millions of Algerians who have traveled abroad – mainly to Europe – in search of a better life. Most go to France, Algeria's former colonial ruler, which is home to roughly 700,000 Algerians, according to the French National Institute of Statistics.

But Jamal dreams of joining his brother in Italy, where he moved in 1989 to work as a housepainter.

"My older brother is there, and he has a family and kids," he says. "He is happy there, and if I could just go there and find a job I am sure I would be happy too."

In fact, he thinks leaving the country may be the only way he can be happy.

"There is no future here," he says. "My future is in Italy."

Creating jobs a 'difficult challenge'

In the run-up to this April's presidential election, incumbent and eventual winner Abdelaziz Bouteflika pledged $150 billion for a job creation program that was short on details, but promised to create three million jobs over the next five years.

It is a tall order for a country still emerging from decades of state socialism and a ruinous 10-year civil war between the government and Islamist militias, which cost the country as many as 200,000 lives and more than $30 billion in damaged infrastructure.

Today, official statistics put the unemployment rate at 12 percent, but independent estimates place it far higher. Mohamed Benguerba, former minister of employment and social security, estimates that closer to 30 percent of the workforce is out of a job.

The weight of that figure falls harder on the country's young people, he says. People under the age of 30 make up around 70 percent of the population, and also 70 percent of the unemployed.

He calls creating three million jobs in five years "a difficult challenge," but says the country needs "drastic measures."

Chief among them is moving the country away from its dependence on oil, which accounts for 98 percent of export revenues. Mr. Benguerba says it does not create as many jobs as agriculture, industry, or services like call centers.

"We need to have investment, but it must be managed well," he says. "We need to encourage investment that will create jobs."

He thinks job creation will go a long way towards alleviating the alienation and wanderlust of young men like Jamal, but doesn't think there is a direct connection between joblessness and a desire to emigrate.

"Seventy percent of the young are unemployed, and not 70 percent of the young want to leave the country," he says. "Some people say they want to but they don't – they're just words. It's a dream. If they found a job here, they would stay."

Hoping to leave Algeria

But the sense of dissatisfaction felt by the young and unemployed is not confined only to them. Squeezed by low purchasing power and a pervasive sense that a better life lies just across the Mediterranean, even some young Algerians with jobs hope to get out someday.

Back in Douera, Jamal Ammour owns a tidy Internet cafe equipped with a dozen desktops. He is the same age as Jamal, but thanks to some piston at a local bank – a relative works there – he was able to secure a loan to start his own small business, even though he did not have enough collateral.

Mr. Ammour is one of the lucky ones, but he too is unhappy.

He does not make enough from his venture to beat the high cost of living, and cannot plan for the future. Even with his own business, he cannot afford to buy a car or save up for marriage.

"Here we work for nothing and it's impossible here to save for the future or make long term plans," he says. "You need to be rich to live here. You need to have piston."

So Ammour, like Jamal, hopes to leave it all behind to start a new life in Europe or Canada.

"If I could have any of the things I want in life then I would not think about leaving my country," he says. "If I had a good steady job and a good house, then I would stay here. I love my country, but life is hard."

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