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Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco

Ivan Briscoe
26 May 2004

Abubakr Khamlachi’s six years in Morocco’s most unsavoury prisons failed to prepare him for the hardships outside. The veteran dissident, lapsed revolutionary and social activist sits in a café in Bir Chifa, one of Tangiers’ poorest suburbs, and examines his surroundings. Around forty men, almost all of working age, spend the weekday morning in their typical pursuits – drinking tea, puffing on hashish pipes, gazing at Egyptian pop videos. Outside, a group of schoolchildren play on the sludge track that serves the suburb. “Everyone here wants one thing,” Khamlachi observes. “To migrate.”

When the light is good the promised land glitters from the town centre and the kasbah walls of this northern Moroccan port city. Only fourteen kilometres away, Spain rises out of the Strait of Gibraltar. Satellite dishes – now more common on the city’s rooftops than beaten carpets or drying laundry – pick up its signals. The ferry that commutes across the waters conveys one message from a multitude of billboards: deux rives, un rêve (two shores, one dream).

The complex of feeling that gives rise to these longings, however, also breeds violent revolt. The bomb attacks of 11 March 2004 brought Islamic fundamentalism to Spain with a distinctly Moroccan flavour. Eighteen of the twenty-six men identified by police as participants in the attacks are Moroccan, most from Tangiers and its neighbour, the former Spanish colonial outpost of Tetouan.

This combination of geographical and emotional proximity makes the Morocco-Spain relationship – as Nelcya Delanoe has emphasised on openDemocracy – an unavoidably “special” one. No wonder that Morocco is the first foreign destination of any new Spanish prime minister. But for José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, elected three days after the Madrid attacks, the trip to Rabat in April was work, not formality: the twin challenges of terror and “people flow” from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa – no less than the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq – define the early stages of his socialist administration.

Nelcya Delanoe writes two articles on Moroccan themes in openDemocracy:

At the heart of Zapatero’s concerns is the legacy of that horrific sequence of events in recent months – from the Atocha atrocity itself, to the explosion in the suburb of Leganés when seven terrorist suspects of Maghrebi origin blew themselves up, to the grotesque violation of the tomb of a murdered police guardsman. Together, these events have abruptly focused attention on the constant movement of peoples between the two countries, not due to any simple linkage between migration and terrorism, but because the encounter between the two nations is structured by immense inequality and poverty, fuels political frustration, and provides space for extremist doctrines to flourish.

An insatiable hunger

“People flow” northwards across the Strait is driven by a vast disparity in wealth – average income in Spain, at around $15,000, is thirteen times that of Morocco – and currently seems unstoppable. One effect has been to complete Spain’s transition from place of exodus to migratory magnet. The country’s foreign population, now 2.6 million (in a total of 40 million), has quintupled since 1996; it includes around 600,000 Moroccans. Many of the latter are illegal immigrants surviving in the black economy amidst a society wary of their presence and religion even before “11-M”.

Yet Abubakr Khamlachi continues to see the attractions of exit: for poor Moroccans, “you’re considered more illegal in your own country than in any other. You have no work, no healthcare, no welfare. At least over there you have some protection – all you have to do is get work and you’re saved.”

José María Aznar, the Popular Party leader who led Spain for eight years until his astonishing defeat by Zapatero on 14 March 2004, had few doubts over the best strategy to contain the migratory pressure. The problem was illegal immigration driven by economic motives and organised by people-traffickers. His foreigners’ law (ley de extranjería) was reformed three times in an attempt to close almost every route for an illegal migrant to acquire residency papers.

Ivan Briscoe’s article “A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida” written from Madrid (18 March 2004) was influential and widely-read – not least as part of openDemocracy’s post-Madrid debate

Yet for those who insisted on making the crossing anyway, more direct methods of dissuasion were applied: political pressure on the Moroccan authorities, backed by deportation of unwanted arrivals.

The Aznar government, whose relations with Morocco soured to the point of an absurd conflict over the islet of Perejíl in 2002, had long pushed the authorities in Rabat to act decisively against clandestine immigration. King Mohammed VI’s ministers finally pledged full cooperation in December 2003. The immediate pretext for the agreement was the gruesome death in October of thirty-seven Moroccans, whose flimsy wooden patera (boat) sank a few hundred metres from the Andalusian shore. For days, Spanish newspapers resounded with thunderous attacks on Moroccan indifference to its people-traffickers amid nauseating images of fish-pecked and bloated corpses.

In the groundbreaking agreement, Morocco resolved to act against the migrants and cooperate with Spanish sea patrols in return for $390 million of aid and other, unrevealed favours. For Spain, it was a temporary remission (one day after the Leganés suicides, for example, 200 bedraggled migrants were washed up on its shores). For Morocco, meanwhile, a new responsibility was discharged on an even more vulnerable target than the king’s subjects: migrants in transit from much further south in Africa.

The pull of the north

It is a steep climb from the nearest Tangiers neighbourhood to Missnana forest, and a further hour’s walk to reach the encampment. Before the local police began spot arrests in the city and weekly raids in the wood, around 3,000 West Africans were housed here in makeshift tents made of plastic and branches, tucked into the thickest copses. When it rains, the tents become freezing mud baths. Food is occasional, pregnant women dehydrate, fevers propagate, and the little money going round is hoarded for that final voyage across the Strait.

“I was told my brother lived here and would help me get to Spain,” explains David, a dandy 25-year-old Nigerian wearing a tattered sailor’s cap and long yellow scarf. He has spent eight months meandering through Missnana’s pine groves. “One day I went to a bar in the city to take coffee. They robbed my passport and money and stabbed my arm. If I stayed in town they could catch me. So I came to the bush.”

Such places are found throughout Morocco: in Bel Jounes, close to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta; in a slum district of the capital, Rabat; and near Layooune, on the edge of the Sahara where boats head to Gran Canaria. These settlements of Africans in transit were long tolerated, at a price of silence: one aid worker in Tangiers reports that the charity Médecins Sans Frontières was threatened with expulsion from Morocco if it continued to tend to the migrants’ needs.

Now, attitudes are hardening. Around 1,500 migrants were deported to Lagos – not all Nigerians – on five flights between November 2003 and January 2004. Other migrants were reportedly herded into an army barracks close to the Algerian frontier, then released without means of survival. Since the M-11 attacks, border controls at Spain’s enclaves have tightened yet further.

Yet to the inhabitants of a bush hideout in Missnana, on a cliff overlooking the Strait, Spain’s pull remains indestructible. Paul, a Nigerian friend of David, has a degree in economics, but lacks the contacts to get any sort of job. His savings at home totalled only $15, but richer friends invited him on the long trek north due to his language skills. “Our country is not a place to dwell in,” he says. “You cannot feed or clothe yourself in Nigeria. We are going to Europe to uplift our families.” When asked about the risks involved in the crossing, David turns his face haughtily away and wags his finger. “I had a little boy with a 17-year-old woman and I will not go home empty-handed.”

Morocco’s own migrants, 60% of the total arrested in 2003 after beaching in Spain, also refuse to heed the dangers of the crossing. Moroccan civil society organisations report that 504 people died in 2003 making the attempt; many more may have gone uncounted. But this does not deter desperate young people. The area around Khouribga, site of the country’s largest phosphate mines on the cusp of the High Atlas mountains, has been particularly afflicted. The victims of October’s shipwreck almost all came from the region. Twelve were natives of the same village – Hansala, where a farm labourer in the 1,000 people population earns a pittance and has no other prospects.

“Everybody knows the risks,” explains Khalil Jemmah, head of a group defending clandestine immigrants (Afvic). “But they say that to die once is better than dying ten times in the face of your parents’ pity.” The boat owners, he says, employ recruiters who haunt the region’s bars, extol Europe’s wonders, and present themselves as “Robin Hoods, social saviours – with a 20% commission on all sales.”

What happens to young Moroccans when they migrate to Europe? In Belgium, Dyab Abou Jahjah’s Arab European League offers them one form of political mobilisation. See his openDemocracy interview and profile

The recruiters invoke all the main tropes of migrant myth, created over decades by a 2-million-strong Moroccan diaspora: the steady job, the presents for the family, the summer holidays spent showing off the car and the girlfriend, the absence of worry. “They invented a dream for themselves, with luminous and radiant memories. This embellished image had to protect them from an unhappy fate” wrote Tahar Ben Jelloun of the early emigrants to Europe in his novel, L’ecrivain public (1983). For women, the choice to flee is simpler. “In this region, a woman is either a prostitute or a slave,” states Jemmah.

The patera networks boom in the shadows of prohibition. The Missnana fugitives report an organisation of “secretaries” – men who led them through cash-in-hand Sahara checkpoints and even now exert control over their destines. Their powers of influence also extend deep into Morocco’s security forces. When the police raided immigrant sites in Tangiers, Nigerian mafia bosses appeared at their side to handpick candidates for deportation. Police officers from most forces also act as “godfathers” to boats leaving Layooune for the Canaries, earning 100 euro for each untroubled farewell.

This criminalisation pushes Africans further into a stateless, defenceless and violent enclosure. In Missnana, the daily risk is not so much police as attacks by savage bandits, who inflict horrific wounds in search of the migrants’ savings. Ken, from Sierra Leone, displays a nearly-severed thumb and fresh knife wounds on his knees; David was sliced viciously in the belly.

Once at sea, Africans and Moroccans alike face the heightened dangers of riding storms for over twelve hours in eight-metre long boats – all to avoid the patrols and radars and other gizmos of migration control.

In the shadow of “people flow”

The web of corruption and kickbacks is now so thick that it shares the hallmarks of a narcotics trade: authorities are suborned, goods shifted, and vast illicit profits made. It is this descent into a clandestine, flourishing business that marks a key dynamic of modern migration – and which is set to be intensified by a European policy that prefers criminalisation and neglect to hands-on intervention.

A survey by a migration prevention group in the port city of Larache serves to underline this analogy. From interviews with 400 locals from the Rif mountain range, it was discovered that only one section of society did not share the desire to join the migratory exodus – the kif (cannabis) farmers. It has since emerged that the Madrid bombings were financed almost entirely by sales of their drug (according to police, the traffickers are highly sympathetic to the Islamists).

What role does the Moroccan state play in these processes? It may have signed up to the Spanish initiative, but its interest in addressing the root causes of migration remains minimal. After inheriting power in 1999 from his father King Hassan II, the youthful Mohammed VI’s tepid reform agenda has eased overt persecution of dissidents, but not underlying control.

In a context of oligarchic rule (the King’s holding group now owns an estimated 60% of all shares on the Moroccan stock market), high urban unemployment, and unmet expectations, the regular departure of thousands of young, ambitious citizens diminishes social discontent and subdues political pressure. Moreover, the state’s banks crave the cashflow of remittances from illegal workers in Europe.

Migration, in short, works as a safety-valve that helps to forestall any prospect of major change in this key Arab nation. “The result of so much migration is that people stop thinking of any collective alternative. People only think about how to escape individually, while others simply do not care what happens to them,” asserts Abdelhamid Beyuki, who fled to Spain in 1984 after being condemned to thirty years in jail for political activity. King Hassan’s demise tempted him to return and found his own progressive party, which now has a foothold in the north, albeit without the requisite “state approval”.

Beyuki recalls that his Spanish years, when he founded a major association of Moroccan workers, greatly impressed voters. “People came and said they’d vote for me if I helped them get to Spain.” The same lack of collective hope, he says, is to be found in fundamentalist circles, which “offer people death, not life.”

openDemocracy’s collaborative debate with the Dutch specialist Theo Veenkamp and the think-tank Demos on “People Flow” – how migration to Europe is transforming the continent – has gathered experiences, arguments and perspectives from across the globe

The flurry of police action and official communiqués in recent months cannot in any way conceal a lack of real commitment in Morocco to fighting migration. Instead, the displays of goodwill point to the country’s quest for European Union largesse and leverage in those issues dividing it from Spain – fishing, farm trade and Western Sahara, to name but three.

The regular police harassment of Jemmah’s association suggests that a cosmetic battle against migration could even be a pretext to flush out opposition and justify politically expedient crackdowns. The bomb attacks in Casablanca in May 2003 led to the arrest of an extraordinary number of suspected Islamic fundamentalists – a total of 6,000 according to official figures – but this did not stop the Madrid atrocity, as more rigorous, focused police work on both sides might well have done.

From across the Strait, the danger for Spain and Europe is that their policies are not adjusted to the reality of Morocco’s semi-dictatorship, where respect for human rights is far less entrenched, security is a cloak for control, and long-term development planning is a mirage. Without radical social change, Morocco will continue to export its young people – over a third of whom are under 18, compared with under a fifth of Spain’s – and offer transit to others; but seeking a solution of force will prevent this very change from happening, nurture crime and poison relations with established Muslim communities in Spain.

How can Spain rebuild its links with Morocco, prevent any repetition of 11 March, and assuage domestic fears of uncontrolled migration from the south? This is the dimension of the challenge now facing José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. For the moment, his response has involved pledges of gentler migration control, close cooperation to spur development in Morocco and a crackdown on unlicensed, Saudi-financed mosques: a policy, in short, aimed at trimming extremism without alienating the bulk of Moroccans, either in their home country or in Spain. The summer season of mass patera arrivals will quite possibly determine if this mix of policies can hold.

Ivan Briscoe also writes and researches extensively on Latin America; see his two fine openDemocracy articles:

As for Morocco, “we need a more modest approach,” says Abubakr Khamlachi as he watches Bir Chifa’s café-dwellers, “a model adapted to our capacities, instead of one that stretches us out, so that some get a lot and others nothing. That is why people want to emigrate.”

The lesson of a visit to places like Missnana, Khouribga and Bir Chifa is that regulating and containing the flow of people north from Morocco in ways that serve the interests of everyone involved will be a shared, long-term endeavour. The glitter of Spain will not soon fade. Only when Moroccans have more of a stake in their own society – and a reason to stay and improve their lives there rather than risk all across the Straits – will the relationship between these intimate neighbours be transformed from dilemma into opportunity.

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