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When spring comes, smugglers are in the news

Migrants in Morocco often attempt to cross the Mediterranean only after years of exploitation and exclusion. Their vulnerability is a product of EU policy and its preoccupation with ‘transit migration’.

Spring has come. The weather is fine in the Mediterranean, and the sea is calm. Like every year, this is the time when media reports on large numbers of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean begin to multiply. In spring, we hear from government officials and journalists about the crisis engendered by a seemingly uncontrollable flood of migrants massing at the North African coast ready to cross to Europe. We hear how these migrants fall victim to ruthless smugglers who put their lives in danger, how they have gone through hell ‘transiting’ through many countries, again often smuggled across borders without valid papers.

This vision drives calls to intensify actions against ‘trafficking rings’ in the Mediterranean while at the same time save money on rescuing operations like mare nostrum, the Italian search and rescue operation that ran for much of last year. If ‘smugglers’ and ‘traffickers’ (the terms are employed interchangeably in this context) are caught and punished, we are told, migrants will cease to suffer at their hands. This may appear to make some sort of intuitive sense, especially because it is repeated to us ad nauseam in the press and by politicians, but that story is incomplete.

Libya is currently at the forefront of the news as the starting point for the deadly journey to Italy. However, it is worth considering the situation of migrants at other parts the northern African coast, particularly in those countries that have not been torn by civil conflict. These migrants’ experiences have primarily been shaped by recent changes to both European and domestic migration policies. In Morocco, for example, migrants waiting to move to Europe are mostly from Sub-Saharan African countries and have often spent five to ten years in the country. Some have unsuccessfully tried to cross several times, while others have never even attempted it because the price is high and the employment opportunities in Morocco are extremely limited.

  Many Sub-Saharan African migrants in Morocco have been there for a long time but have no formal immigration status. Morocco instituted exceptional legalisation measures in September 2013, but a large undocumented population remains because many either do not meet the necessary criteria or arrived after the application deadline in December 2014. Those who were regularised furthermore only receive a one-year residence permit. This leaves them with few possibilities to find work, to train for a job or to receive education. Though many of the migrants arrived through irregular channels, some entered Morocco legally on tourist or student visas. They gradually slipped into a situation of irregularity when their visas ran out and a change of status became difficult.

Missing too from most media narratives is the fact that Sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco did not all travel there in order to get to Europe. They do not immediately seek out ‘smugglers’ to take them over the Mediterranean. Many actively try to make a life in Morocco or to study there, however current immigration laws make it virtually impossible to stay legally for an extended period of time. This was not always the case. Until the beginning of the millennium, penalties against those who stayed in the country without authorisation were only rarely applied. Indeed, the topic of irregular migrants rarely became an issue of domestic political importance.

This only changed when restricting and controlling migration—especially the phenomenon dubbed ‘transit migration’—became a pressing policy issue for the European Union. With its encouragement, Morocco set in place new immigration legislation that included clearly defined sanctions against trafficking, smuggling and irregular stay. It also began to enforce these rules with increasing vigour. It was only after mobility became criminalised that irregular migrants in Morocco began to live lives of ‘forced immobility’—the opposite of being ‘in transit’.

The long duration of their stay and their undocumented status combine to facilitate situations of extreme exploitation in the labour market. Construction, domestic work, begging, and wage labour in the informal sector—often in slave-like conditions—are virtually the only earning opportunities in the current economic system. Sub-Saharan migrants also face racial discrimination along with social, economic, political and cultural marginalisation. This leaves many migrants to exist in a state of limbo, unable either to move further or to return back home.

In European reporting, the Mediterranean crossing constitutes the last and most perilous leg of a linear journey. Sub-Saharan migrants were driven into this undertaking by false promises of riches and the deceptive reassurances of wicked ‘smugglers’ or ‘traffickers’. This is very rarely, if ever, the truth. The decision to board a boat for an extremely dangerous trip is often taken only after long years suspended in an indeterminate condition, suffering abuse, exploitation, and rightlessness.

For some, their criminalisation as ‘illegal migrants’ so severely restricts their employment options that they simultaneously attempt to leave Morocco and make money by organising boat trips for others. This transforms them, in the eyes of the European Union, into the ‘smugglers’ and ‘traffickers’ we hear so much about. Their fellow migrants, however, rarely perceive them as ‘monsters’. On the contrary, they are often greatly esteemed because they offer the hope of escape from forced immobility.

Every year in spring, when the sea is calm, irregular migrants in Morocco attempt to fulfil the dream of escaping the futureless limbo in which they are stuck. This limbo, and the exploitation and abuse with which it is associated, is the product of Morocco’s current migration policy. This policy was developed in direct collaboration with the European Union as part of its ‘Global Approach to Migration’, a framework that the EU has promoted with greater or lesser success in many African countries. Unfortunately, this part of the story is rarely in the news. Hand-wringing in Europe over the problem of forced migration and the death of migrants at sea aside, it is clear that the fate of those forced into immobility largely remains a matter of policy and moral indifference.

About the author

Inka Stock received her PhD at Nottingham University in 2013 and is now teaching sociology at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. Prior to that, she has worked as a human rights and development activist for several NGOs in Africa and South America.


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