FNIDEQ, MOROCCO – Desperate teenagers and unemployed men from Morocco’s coastal towns, its mountainous east or even beyond converged on the border town of Fnideq this week, as part of an extraordinary mass effort to swim or climb barbed wire to enter Spain for a chance at a new life.
More than 8,000 migrants arrived in the city of Ceuta, an enclave in North Africa separated from the rest of Spain by the Mediterranean – but for most of them it was a short-lived success.
The extraordinary influx of migrants from Morocco to Spain came amid the chaos of a diplomatic row between the two countries.
Spanish troops have forced more than half of them to return to Fnideq, putting additional pressure on the Moroccan city, whose limited resources are being overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We will keep trying. We will find one way or another, even if the ocean turns to ice!” said Badreddine, 27.
He and his Moroccan compatriots – Salah, 22, and Hosam, 24 – all have degrees but no jobs. Like most people seeking to enter Spain, they spoke on the condition that their last name not be released for fear of their safety as they risk illegal migration.
Being stuck in Morocco “is like being dead, so why not risk your life anyway? We are currently living on the streets, sleeping in the cold. Our parents know we are there, they are praying for us. They are praying for us. told us, “Come on, gold help you,” said Salah.
Sleep outside, eat gifts
They and others sleep in Fnideq parks, on benches and outside mosques. Some hang out near hotels and restaurants, begging for food and whatever else people can spare. Volunteers distribute bread and sandwiches.
Some have fled the poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa, but most are from Morocco, widely regarded as one of the continent’s economic engines which has made strides in reducing poverty in recent years.
Yet inequality is rife, the pandemic has worsened unemployment, and average incomes are only a small fraction of that in Europe, which is surprisingly close – just across the Fnideq-Ceuta fence.
Against a backdrop of increased security by Spain in recent years, some potential migrants have given up on the effort, but others are determined to find a way around security checkpoints or tackle bad weather at sea. .
“We want to leave [Morocco] because there is nothing left for us in the country, nothing to do, no future. We go to school but we don’t want to stay here, âsaid Khalid, 15.
This week, many of them saw an opportunity as word quickly spread in Morocco about the tensions with Spain.
When the government in Madrid gave medical treatment to a Western Sahara independence activist whom Morocco considers a terrorist, the decision led to chaos in Ceuta. The port city has always attracted those looking to cross into Europe, but thousands have been seen flocking to Fnideq on highways and through forests and hills.
“Spain, here we are!” a group of Moroccans cried as they walked, singing football songs and cursing their homeland. In central Fnideq, thousands of people lined up the ledge that looks towards Ceuta, and they ended up swimming or taking small boats around the breakwaters separating the countries.
While Moroccan security forces are normally spread across the beach and nearby hills patrolling a wide area, there appear to be fewer guards at the start of the week. As large groups of young people climbed the fence and wrapped clothes over their hands to pass the barbed wire, Associated Press reporters saw border police stand idly by.
Although Morocco has said little about the easing of border controls, it was widely seen as retaliation for Madrid for allowing militant leader Brahim Ghali to receive medical treatment in Spain. Two Moroccan officials made the link in comments on Wednesday.
Spain eventually sent military forces and pushed most of the migrants back to Morocco. According to the Red Cross, a young man has died and dozens of hypothermia.
Khalid, 15, and Amin, 16, came to Fnideq on Sunday in a bus with around 40 other people from Temara, a coastal town outside the capital, Rabat. They said they had entered Spain three times, but were pushed back. The last time they were forced to return along the shore to Morocco.
Back in service
Moroccan border guards appeared to be back at their posts on Thursday, but hundreds of young people remained, and Fnideq’s men and boys did not give up hope of crossing.
“I am the oldest of my brothers. My mother sells vegetables at the market” and does not have the means to maintain them, said Ayoub, in her twenties, arrived Thursday from the inner city of Meknes. “I had to try to help my mother.”
While the Moroccan government has focused on Western Sahara in its limited public statements this week, it has failed to address the poverty and desperation that drives so many to want to leave the country.
Fnideq, for its part, suffers from the sudden influx of potential migrants.
The city depended heavily on trade with Ceuta before the pandemic, but the strict closure of the Moroccan border since March 2020 has deprived residents of their livelihoods and access to Spain. Protests erupted earlier this year by residents demanding government assistance or an open border.
Human rights groups and opposition lawmakers accused the Moroccan government of using migrants as pawns instead of solving their problems. The opposition party Istiqlal advocated “an economic alternative guaranteeing the population their constitutional right to the necessities of a decent life”.
Despite scenes of tear gas and troops on the border this week, the dream of getting out of Morocco remains strong for many struggling young people, even in the relatively prosperous capital.
“If you ask someone in Rabat … that person will tell you that they want to go to Europe,” said street vendor Mohammed Ouhaddou. “… Politicians don’t do anything. They sleep and no one listens to us.”