Too distant shores

MAINLAND Spain – the promised land. Although it is visible from their hideouts, thousands of Africans – who have set up camp deep in a forest on the coast of northern Morocco – have learnt to despair at the sight. Penniless, hungry and exhausted by their voyage, they are now being deported en masse.

Five chartered air-flights have returned an estimated 1,500 West Africans to Nigeria since last November. For the first time ever, Moroccan authorities are bending to the wishes of the European Union – and above all Spain – by policing the flow of clandestine immigrants from across the Sahara. ‘Morocco is now playing the role of Europe’s border guard,’ says Khalil Jemmah, head of AFVIC, a Moroccan association representing the victims of illegal immigration. ‘And it has no choice: it needs the money.’

The latest sweeps and patrols have only served to drive the 3,000 inhabitants of Missnana forest – close to the port city of Tangier – further into what they call ‘the bush’. Their sole hope of getting to Spain remains the small wooden boats known as pateras that ply the hazardous trade in migrants. According to Jemmah, 504 passengers from the Maghreb region (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), sub-Saharan Africa and Asia died or went missing in such vessels last year, with at least 37 perishing in one sinking after their boat capsized 200 metres from a Spanish beach last October.

Zero tolerance both to peopletraffickers and their clandestine cargo – all too frequently washed up on Spanish shores – is the new motif of Spanish policy. From being a source of migrant labour for decades under General Franco, a newly enriched Spain has become the top destination for immigrants to the European Union last year.

Madrid now insists that the death-toll in the Strait can only be reduced by stopping the boats and curbing Europe’s appeal to newcomers: a law stripping illegal migrants of rights, a policing accord with Morocco in December and an injection of funds into maritime surveillance form the new barricades.

There is no doubt that a ruthless mafia, which cares little for its passengers, dominates the trade in illicit sea-crossings. Aid-workers around Tangier even testify that many of those arrested and deported in recent months were hand-picked for return by Nigerian clan leaders, who are also behind the constant traffic in young women effectively enslaved for prostitution in Europe.

For those in the forest, however, the mafia is less of a threat than local ‘bandits’ who come to steal, harass and attack, leaving many migrants with deep knife wounds. Yet the extreme dangers of the crossing and of living indefinitely outside the law in both Morocco and Europe seem no great deterrent.

‘It’s better over there. You can clothe and feed yourself but you cannot in Nigeria. Our country is not a place to dwell,’ explains Paul, a 25-year-old with a university degree in economics who has spent the last eight months exposed to rain, cold and hunger in a makeshift tent.

The migrants survive through begging, the hospitality of a few locals and sporadic visits from relief workers. Some are waiting for funds from relatives in Europe to pay for the patera: others just wait for a miracle.

Yet even if all the West Africans in several camps dotted around the country are deported, there are innumerable Moroccans willing to take their place. Success stories of rich migrants in the country’s two-millionstrong diaspora who brandish cars and cash on summers spent back in their homeland far outweigh the news of deaths in the Strait. In a recent poll carried out by Jemmah, 53 per cent of Morocco’s young people said they were intent on moving to Europe – with or without residency papers.

Those working with the migrants fear that more repressive policies will only force the boats on to longer, more perilous routes that deepen the misery of those in transit while doing nothing to dull the temptations of that glimmering European coastline. ‘The United Nations can help us by bringing a big ship,’ says David, a Nigerian living in the forest. ‘That is what they are supposed to do: wipe our tears away.’

New Internationalist issue 366 magazine cover This article is from the April 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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