Morocco: The forgotten frontline of the migrant crisis

By Obinna Anyadike

It's late afternoon on the forested slopes of Mount Selouane. In single file or knots of friends, young West African men are trudging down the hillside to the dusty, dishevelled outskirts of the Moroccan village of Shadia.

Nearly everyone is carrying an empty water bottle, part of their daily routine to fill them for free from standpipes outside the few general stores. They come as well to get a better network connection, to check their Facebook, make calls home, or catch up on friends who have made it to Europe.

By nightfall, the growing agricultural village of half-finished apartments – and watchful local men – will transform once again. The West Africans will be gone; back in the relative safety of the forest, where more than 1,000 irregular migrants are camped.

Shadia is 20km from the north-eastern city of Nador, which borders the Spanish port enclave of Melilla and doorway to Europe. That’s the goal of the visitors up in the Selouane: they are gambling that through luck or daring, they can make it through and into a better life.

But the odds are stacked against them. Getting past the Moroccan border guards, the three layers of security fencing, the razor wire, motion sensors, CCTV cameras and the Spanish Guarda Civil is now next to impossible. Since the end of February, there has only been one attempt, and it ended in failure when the man fell from the nine-metre high fence, breaking a leg.

It could have been worse. Last year, 15 people drowned when the Guarda Civil fired rubber bullets and tear gas at migrants trying to swim around a breakwater separating Morocco from Spain’s other port enclave of Ceuta. The Spanish interior minister denied his men were responsible for the deaths.

Migrants with money can hire a boat for around $1,500 and sail across the Strait of Gibraltar. For $5,000 you can be smuggled in the boot of a car directly through the Melilla crossing, past the guards and x-ray scanners if luck’s on your side – a new twist to an old bootlegging tradition.

But few of the men and women camped around Shadia can afford those prices. For them, Morocco has become the end of a journey that can be years in the making. An unwanted destination, just a few frustrating kilometres short of their aim.

“To go back is not easy, to go to Europe is not easy, to stay here is not easy,” says ‘Biggy’, a 31-year-old Nigerian migrant who has been in Morocco for four years. Neatly dreadlocked and nearly two metres tall, he carries the scars of the beatings he’s received from Moroccan and Spanish border guards. He has tried and failed umpteen times to scale the fence or cross by rowboat into Spain.

“The preoccupation of every migrant is how to get out of Morocco,” explains Sy Mamadou Lamine, who until four years ago was a math teacher in Guinea. “It’s not a country where an immigrant can earn money to help his family [back home]. It’s a country where young Moroccans don’t have jobs, much less us.”

Morocco was historically a transit country and is itself the generator of 3.4 million migrants.

But for the thousands of sub-Saharan Africans arriving each year, it has become a choke point in the flow across the Mediterranean, pinched by the Moroccan and Spanish governments working in tandem to halt crossings onto Europe.

Of the main routes from Africa into Europe, the Moroccan passage is now the least used. According to the Spanish authorities, 4,043 “irregular migrants” made it into Spain from Morocco in 2014, compared with the 170,664 that crossed the central Mediterranean to Italy and Malta.

Nador is particularly hard on migrants. “We are on the frontline,” explains Hicham Arroud, a Moroccan who works with the local human rights NGO, ASTICUDE. “The strategy of the security forces in Nador, under pressure from the European Union and Spain, is to push the migrants away from the border.”

On 10 February, the police swept through Mount Gourougou, overlooking Melilla, beating and rounding up an estimated 1,200 migrants. They set alight their tents and few possessions, put them on buses heading south, and dumped them outside the cities of Rabat, Fes and Casablanca. Under pressure by human rights groups, the police no longer deport them to the border with Algeria, as was once the case.

A warning by the Moroccan government that other migrant camps would be dismantled, including those around Selouane and Ceuta, prompted a desperate rush on the Melilla fence the same day involving over 600 people - only 35 were successful in making it into Spain, according to the Spanish authorities.

There are 12 makeshift camps of sub-Saharan migrants dotted across the dry, limestone hills of Mount Selouane.

The hike up the slopes is an archaeology of migration: abandoned tents from years past, shoes, scraps of clothing, a child’s water pistol, a dumbbell fashioned out of plastic bottles.

Each camp on the stony ground is a collection of bivouacs covered in plastic sheeting and blankets, set among the trees. Some migrants huddle their shelters together; others prefer their solitude – making it harder for the Moroccan security forces to catch everyone by surprise.

The camps are roughly divided into francophone and anglophone sections, then by country, and subdivided again ethnically. But the separation is loose: people come together simply based on friendships. Among a community of ethnic Igbos from south-eastern Nigeria, for example, were francophone Cameroonians.

The camps are regarded by Moroccan society as lawless, but each has its rules. Among the more tightly organised is the Nigerian Igbo community, gathered under the traditional self-help village or district-based “unions”, replicated abroad wherever Igbo people travel.

There are committees for welfare – assigning new arrivals tents for example – and for discipline. Theft earns lashings, administered by “somebody the size of Biggy”, says ‘Nicodemus’, who in true hustler fashion tries to distinguish himself from the largely Nigerian migrants around him by claiming to be a refugee from Sierra Leone (no one believes him).

There are bars deeper in the forests of Selouane – even tent “hotels” – in an area known as “Bolingo” (which means “love” in Congolese Lingala). And there is prostitution, with some women exchanging sexual services for money with Moroccan men and migrants.

Mount Gourougou, overlooking Spanish Melilla, was cleared of migrants by the police in February

Mount Gourougou, overlooking Spanish Melilla, was cleared of migrants by the police in February

Trafficking of women, especially Nigerians, is mentioned in virtually every report on migration into Morocco and on to Europe.

A recent study by the consulting firm Altai made the startling claim that trafficked Nigerian women were controlled for the duration of the route by the threat of voodoo against their families. But psychologist Almudena Vaquero, who works with the Delegation for Migration of the Diocese of Tangier, questions the blanket assumption that all women are exploited and have no control over their lives.

“Inside each camp is a different microcosm,” she tells me. “Being a woman is not easier, but at times it doesn’t have to be more difficult either.”

Nigerian men I spoke to said women were vulnerable on the journey, so usually looked for a financial “sponsor” to support them, or a man to accompany them. “A girl usually comes into town on somebody’s money,” explains Ihama, a volunteer at ASTICUDE.

If she becomes pregnant, or gets into a relationship, “then the girl becomes your responsibility and you have to pay the [sponsor] the money used to transport her”, he says. The literature insists a more sinister arrangement, in which women are in debt bondage over their passage, which they must pay off – most commonly through sex work.

An overarching all-migrant body called ECOWAS – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the governmental Economic Community of West African States – aims to keep the peace among migrants, and regulate relations with the host community, says Ihama, a 15-year veteran in Morocco.

It also plays a role in escape coordination. On Gourougou, the mountain overlooking the Spanish port enclave of Melilla, people trained to assault the fence, making ladders and hand-held climbing hooks. It was largely cleared by the police in February in a violent raid, but people are still up there surveying possible weak spots in the fence security.

“We know the fence is impossible but we still hope one day we’ll have a chance,” says Lamine, the Guinean maths teacher. “Every day, people go to see if they can find a way though.”

Morocco is commonly perceived as an “outsourced” gendarme for southern Europe – a key strategic partner.

It has signed a raft of agreements with the European Union aimed at strengthening border security – and has been rewarded in return with millions of dollars in funding. In 2006 alone the EU provided US$80 million for border management.

The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network describes it as a “donor/beneficiary logic” where “economic aid and visa facilitation are conditional on Morocco’s ability to effectively control migration flows”. But the relationship is more complex.

Spain and the EU do want to externalize border security, and Morocco was the first Mediterranean country to sign a Mobility Partnership with the EU, part of the European Neighbourhood Policy, meant to promote a “global approach to migration and mobility” – essentially controlling irregular migration.

But Morocco has refused to sign a readmission agreement as part of the Mobility Partnership. Such an agreement would mean Morocco would not only have to readmit its own nationals residing or entering the EU irregularly, but also non-citizens that have transited through Morocco.

“Morocco is not just doing what the EU tells it to do – that’s too simplistic,” says Camille Denis of the migrants’ rights NGO, GADEM. She points out that readmission negotiations have been ongoing since 2000.

Morocco is a key strategic partner for the EU in the Mediterranean. A free trade agreement is being discussed and the northern port of Nador is being expanded. Links with Spain are exceptionally strong.

“Spain is never critical of Morocco over the migrant question. There is economic complicity: Morocco seeks to sell its agricultural produce in Europe, its oranges from Nador. Spanish firms are coming to Morocco looking for new markets as a result of the economic downturn at home,” says a Spanish human rights worker with a religious charity in Nador, who asked not to be named.

The men and the few women in the forests above Shadia are suspicious of visitors, paranoid over being identified, and ever-fearful of police raids.

“If I was in Europe you could photograph me, show my face, no problem. I would have made it. I would want my people at home to know,” says ‘Austin’, a humorous but powerfully-built man, who is dead serious about no pictures.

Most have taken many months, some over a year to get here, traveling from places like Nigeria on a false passport through Niger, or Mali, on to Algeria and then across the officially closed border into Morocco. The journey time “depends on your pocket,” says Biggy.

And so, most are unwilling to settle for Morocco, preferring to press on, despite the risks. “I don’t want to taste what’s in Morocco,” he says. “I want to suffer [the hardships] completely and be done with it.”

“If you are in Morocco, you are just 20 percent done. If you get to Europe, you are 80 percent done” in establishing a new life, says Arroud. “No one wants to take any chance of being caught and dumped on the border with Algeria.”

Many find work on the way to pay for each leg of the journey, including the bribes necessary for the cops and officials. Biggy, like many others I spoke to, was cheated out of his money on the journey; and as also can be the case, was helped along by other young men heading north.

Now on Selouane, the men are trying to get their money together, making connections with people that can help, or preparing to head back to Algeria to find work, and hopefully come back with enough cash to hire a boat. But the boasting sounds empty.

“I was told Europe was the land of milk and honey, but I didn’t know it would be so difficult to get there. Morocco should stop being a barrier to us,” says Nicodemus. “I can’t go back without succeeding. If I look my mother in the eyes now, she’ll have a heart attack.”

There are an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 irregular migrants in Morocco, the majority from Cameroon, Nigeria, Guinea, Senegal, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire. In addition, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has registered 3,580 people of concern, mainly from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire.

“You need to understand that not all migrants left their country as a result of war or political issues,” says Victory Idada, who studied law for two years in his native Nigeria. “Many of us are here to help our families. There are also other criteria: under that I’d put destiny, energy, that drive to forge ahead.”

It is “aspirational migration” that triggers the long and often traumatic journey, and the ability to endure the tough conditions of stay in Morocco. Those that have braved that road should be no less deserving of protection, according to Denis of GADEM.

In 2013, The Government made a dramatic about turn on immigration policy, moving away from a security-centred hard-line approach and launching major policy reform. 

Under pressure from domestic and international NGOs, and the embarrassment of being taken to task at the UN, King Mohammed VI accepted recommendations from the National Council of Human Rights – including a proposal on the temporary regularisation of all unauthorized migrants and an end to summary deportation to the Algerian border.

He also pledged an integration policy for migrants in Morocco, a potentially far-reaching recognition that migration dynamics are changing, with Morocco no longer simply a transit country. But funding to implement such a programme has been limited, and the strict "Moroccans first" labour laws remain intact.

The reforms are broadly seen “as an assertion of independence and refusal to obey the wishes of the European Union,” notes Hein de Haas of the International Migration Institute. “The reforms may also be beneficial in strengthening Morocco’s strategic relations with sub-Saharan countries.”

There is only limited interaction between Moroccans and migrants

There is only limited interaction between Moroccans and migrants

Morocco is cultivating its political and business interests in West Africa, partly with an eye to its claims to sovereignty of the Western Sahara. Its long relationship with Senegal will have been further cemented by Senegalese migrants receiving, after Syrian applicants, the bulk of regularisation passes.

But implementation by the Moroccan government has been less radical, partly as a consequence of the conditions set. After vetting, less than 18,000 irregular migrants were regularised by the beginning of this year of 27,000 that had applied – although one enlightened step was that all women would qualify regardless of their circumstances. But human rights groups say that 5,000 of those regularised were Syrians, who should be categorised as refugees or asylum seekers.

The regularisation program - as applied by the government – is not meant for the men in the mountains around Nador. Only 100 migrants in the entire Nador area were granted the Carte de Séjour; only three were men, and one of those was a professional footballer. 

The beneficiaries for the one-year residency card are more likely students turned job-seekers, or Filipino maids to Morocco’s growing middle class, who came legally but whose visas have expired. 

"Here people think that all sub-Saharan Africans cross [the Algerian border overland] to Oujda, to stay as irregular migrants," Denis explains. "But that's not true. A lot arrive at the airport but overstay their visas because of the difficulty of getting papers and the 'Moroccans first' employment policy.

"It's important to note that there are a lot more Europeans in an irregular situation here than sub-Saharan Africans," she adds. "The Europeans are typically working while on tourist visas, but they can go to Spain every three months, and then come back in."

There is some unofficial work to be had in Morocco, like in the construction industry, but the opportunities are slim for anglophones, and the chances of being exploited are high. Most migrants are therefore forced to survive by begging on the streets.

A few NGOs provide a little food and plastic sheeting. According to Biggy, there is also a small underground economy based on a “money washing” counterfeit scam and a bit of cocaine dealing. 

Living on Selouane has the advantage of being free, but even if the migrants wanted to stay in Nador, it would be difficult to rent a house from a local – and there would be constant police harassment. “In Nador, we’re not Arabs, we’re Amazigh [Berbers],” says Arroud. “For historical reasons, we’re reserved, and not too open to foreigners.”

Biggy is scornful of the idea of regularising and staying in Morocco – his goal is Europe and a chance to make money for his family. “Everything on this route is shit; Morocco will turn you [upside down],” he tells me. “But from here, we can see the lights [of Melilla] and the planning goes on.”

It is late afternoon, and a group of Igbo men are gathered together preparing their evening meal: rice and a simple tomato stew. Slugs of cheap vodka are poured into the sawn-off bottom of plastic water bottles serving as cups.

The men are adamant there is nothing for them in Nigeria; the new government voted in this year – led by Muhammadu Buhari – will be exactly the same as the old; and migration is a right – “after all the Europeans taught it to us [by coming to Africa],” one man says.


They are ready to do the most menial jobs as long as they are paid in Euros – when you change that into Nigerian Naira “it’s big money”. And they are unconcerned about racism and the rise of right-wing parties in Europe.

All Africans tend to be lumped together in the popular Moroccan imagination “as diseased criminals, and women as sex workers”, says Arroud of ASTICUDE.

The November 2012 cover of the weekly newspaper Maroc Hebdo was infamously headlined “the black peril”.

Although there seems to be a growing state-led attempt to promote integration, “social interactions among migrants and Moroccans remain limited,” notes Katherina Natter of Oxford University’s International Migration Institute.

Earlier this month, one migrant died and another was seriously injured when police evicted non-nationals from the Boukhalef district of the port city of Tangier. Those rounded up were forced on to buses south to Rabat and Taroudant.

GADEM condemned the “discriminatory” evictions and “hateful” online articles that appeared a few weeks before the police operation, attacking migrants. Its statement said it was concerned by the “increasingly intolerant climate in Morocco, as well as by the hatred directed towards black non-nationals”.

Moroccan authorities “seem to assume that all black residents of Boukhalef are squatting, while some are legal leaseholders or at least have informal agreements with their landlords”, the statement added.

Last year, a Senegalese student was murdered in Tangier in tensions between local communities and migrants.

Regularisation is a step in the right direction, but a more critical issue is the lack of human rights standards applied to migrants – which Spain and the EU also have a duty to uphold.

The Spanish human rights worker points to the illegality under international law of Spain’s “hot return” of migrants to Morocco; the “absolutely disproportionate” use of violence by the security forces on both sides of the border; and the bussing of those detained in Morocco to south-western cities regardless of whether they have refugee status or asylum claims.

“Regularisation can’t be used to hide the lack of human rights,” he tells me. “The constant pressure from Spain and Europe conditions the political response from Morocco towards migrants.”

There is a contradiction in the liberalism of the reforms announced by the king and the raid on migrant camps in Mount Gourougou, the official language of “cleaning” the northern border, and the ever-tightening security protocols with Spain, notes Natter.

The government announced in February that all Carte de Séjour will automatically be extended when they expire. But Arroud doesn't believe the government will allow another regularisation round for new applicants, or revisit the cases rejected last year by the opaque vetting tribunals.

“I think it’s done – if the king makes a general amnesty, that’s the only way forward,” he tells me. “This Islamic government introduced the criteria for regularisation. The government is racist, and it thinks all migrants are Christians and is afraid of them.”

But migration is also a domestic political issue, and the reforms and new language of “integration” came out of the blue, in a country in which migrants had previously been portrayed as a threat.

Two important new laws, on migration - which should integrate the policy approaches - and asylum, are yet to be tabled in parliament.

Natter argues the confusion on the way ahead reflects the “characteristic ambiguity of Moroccan migration policies, which seek to simultaneously satisfy European, African and domestic policy interests”.

The frustration of the almost endless waiting, the anxiety generated by poverty and circumstances, are common burdens for migrants to contend with, says Vaquero, the psychologist.

“I’m really surprised how [mentally] strong they are. When they leave their countries they believe they have to do what they have to do [to reach their destination]. They won’t take a step back until they have no more strength left. And they are not fighting for an impossible dream…

“It’s important to give them hope,” she adds, “because crashing here [with only limited mental health services] is completely different from crashing in Italy.”

Beneath the bravado of the men on Selouane – the “no surrender”, “only the strong survive” – is a realisation of the wasted years. Those conversations usually begin with “If I had known …”, and after a litany of tribulations, the conclusion is invariably, resignedly, that the journey was not worth the pain.

But also that there can be no turning back.

“I won’t say that I made a mistake, because this is school,” says Arnold. “We have a belief that we will get to Europe, and if we don’t fulfill it, we’ll never have rest.”

There is solidarity among the migrants, eager for anyone among them to make it to Europe. “It’s good for the morale,” says Lamine. “If you spend one or two months and nobody crosses, you see everybody depressed. But if you hear that someone you were with yesterday is in Europe, it tells you that you can make it as well.”