Moroccan crackdown strands African migrants

From left, Antonio, 29, of Ghana; Armstrong, 31, of Cameroon; and Omar, 25, of the Central African Republic, wait for food rations.
From left, Antonio, 29, of Ghana; Armstrong, 31, of Cameroon; and Omar, 25, of the Central African Republic, wait for food rations. Hannah Allam / MCT

OUJDA, Morocco — Antonio, 29, left Ghana eight months ago after his mother died and his father begged him to help support his three siblings.

Armstrong, 31, couldn't make ends meet as a carpenter in his native Cameroon, so he set off a year and a half ago after promising his young daughter he'd return with new toys.

Omar, 25, lost track of his family after rebels raided his village in the tumultuous Central African Republic. He fled his country last year with a handful of cash and the clothes on his back.

Lured by tales of opportunity, all three men set out to reach Europe through a smugglers' network that runs from central Africa through Morocco. Now they're stuck in this dusty, cactus-speckled hub on the Algerian border, caught by a crackdown on illegal immigrants that's outraged human rights groups but has won praise and economic incentives for Morocco from Spanish officials.

Geography has placed Morocco in the middle of Europe's immigration debate, which is just as heated and politically charged as the one in the United States. From southern Morocco, illegal immigrants can access the Canary Islands, a Spanish dependency in the Atlantic Ocean. To the north, immigrants sneak into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, or cross the straits to Spain. A third route takes immigrants to Tunisia or Libya, from which they risk their lives on flimsy boats destined for Italy, Sicily and Malta.

This summer, Moroccan police razed a makeshift camp here that had housed thousands of illegal African immigrants, including Armstrong, Antonio and Omar. Since then, they've been living in the forests around Oujda, so frightened of deportation that they'll give only their first names.

Each man bears scars from several attempts to hop the forbidding walls that surround Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco, yet the beatings and barbed wire haven't deterred them from trying again.

"When they catch us, they treat us badly, but I don't really blame them," Armstrong said. "They told us, 'You know why we don't accept you? Because if you get to Europe, you'll call your brother and say, "Come on," and then he'll call his friend and say, "Come on."' Of course, they're right. But we also have families to think about."

In Oujda, the immigrants arrive by creeping across the porous Algerian border at dawn in groups of about 10, immigrants and aid workers said. The "chairmen," or leaders, of Oujda's ramshackle immigrant camps get phone calls to alert them when new groups are coming.

Only a fraction make it into Spain these days; by one estimate, the number of Africans crossing into Spain is down by 60 percent from recent years. More often, aid workers said, Moroccan authorities round them up and dump them in a deserted stretch of the border with no water or provisions. Human rights groups call the heavy-handed tactics brutal, racist and in violation of international law.

"The Africans arrive misinformed. They think they can just hop over the border. In reality, there is a very sophisticated system of control now," said Hicham Baraka, the president of the Beni Znassen Association for Culture, Development and Solidarity, a Oujda-based group that cares for up to 1,000 immigrants at a time.

The Moroccan Interior Ministry says security forces have foiled more than 4,000 emigration attempts and dismantled 130 trafficking networks since the beginning of the year. With European assistance, Morocco has strengthened its border force, heightened the barriers around the Spanish enclaves and introduced expensive motion-detection technology. A recent Interior Ministry statement vowed to fight illegal migration "without ceasing."

As the government steps up its campaign against the immigrants, however, local human rights groups have grown more vocal about the violence and harsh conditions that accompany the crackdown. The issue is especially sensitive for Morocco, where job opportunities are scarce and seemingly every family has a relative who made a similar journey to the West, creating a reservoir of popular support that's missing in other transit points.

"This is a European problem, but they want Morocco and Algeria to play the part of the gendarmes. We control the migration problem for them," said Jelloul Araj, a prominent Moroccan human rights advocate. "Morocco finds itself trapped. It's hard to control the whole border; it's huge. And then, morally, it's a difficult issue. Morocco is an African country, so how can we stop Africans from emigrating?"

Moroccan immigration advocates say they've forged links with their Mexican counterparts in the United States, where human rights groups have staged massive demonstrations to draw attention to the plight of Mexican and other illegal aliens. Several Moroccan groups distribute food, medical care and tents to stranded Africans, just as U.S. groups work to assist undocumented workers who cross desert areas of the American Southwest.

Their goal is to encourage asylum applications, which would protect the immigrants from deportation under international law and allow them to integrate into Moroccan society if they don't make it to Europe. Activists accuse the Moroccan government of trying to turn public opinion by spreading rumors that the immigrants are ushering in a crime wave or linking up with terrorist cells.

In July, Moroccan authorities stepped up their campaign by dismantling a large camp on the grounds of a university in Oujda. The campus had been an oasis for the immigrants, who survived off handouts from sympathetic students and regular visits from aid workers.

After the raid, the Africans scattered to nearby forests, where they sleep on the earth and fend off snakes and wild animals at night. They emerge during the day to panhandle in markets, where vendors slip them surplus fruits and vegetables.

Aid groups have identified doctors who'll treat sick immigrants and sneak them out the back door before hospital security guards alert the authorities. At least two African immigrants have died as a result of their conditions, according to the Beni Znassen group, and advocates expect to find corpses in the woods when temperatures drop this winter.

"We used to deal with fixed locations, and now we're dealing with mobile communities," Baraka said. "We're dealing with the entire length of the border instead of just a couple of camps. Our work is two or three times more difficult than last year."

Instead of discouraging them from trying to make it to Europe, the untenable conditions in Morocco have made them more desperate and reckless in their attempts to scale the walls, said Antonio, Armstrong and Omar, who were interviewed in the offices of a humanitarian group that gives them food.

The group also distributes phone cards so immigrants can call home. Omar has lost contact with his relatives; the other two gloss over their circumstances when they reach loved ones by phone.

"I tell my mother I'm struggling, but I don't tell her details because I'm not willing to go back," Armstrong said. "We have some Africans here who have gone mad. They've been in Morocco too long and they think too much, but I believe in destiny. If I'm in Morocco, if I have to suffer, that's my destiny. I believe in God and I won't give up."

Antonio nodded as his friend spoke, then buried his face in his hands.

"I don't tell my family I live in the forest," he said quietly.

"I live in the forest," he repeated, sounding incredulous. "You lay your blanket down and you cover. There is nothing like life, nothing you could call life. Everybody is just fighting for his survival."