When the Boat Comes In...

In Morocco, which is about to become part of the European Free Trade Association, people-smuggling is now a more lucrative business than drug-dealing. Lennart Lehmann reports from Tangiers

photo: AP
Europe - so near and yet so far: a luxury liner in the Straits of Gibraltar.

​​"So you want to go to Spain…?" The bearded man with the green hippy headgear eyes me suspiciously. He says his name is Mohamed - a fine name, and also so common that it guarantees anonymity. Normally, people who look like Europeans tend to ask him, shiftily, if he can supply some hashish or recommend a brothel. "Don't you have a passport?" he asks me.

Conversations of this kind usually take place in the "Zocco Chico", a small square in the Old Town of Tangiers. Here, writers like Bowles, Burroughs and Choukri drank their coffee (and smoked their hash). Neighbours meet at the Café Central to watch football or pass comment on the slightly nervous tourists who frequent the area. Children run yelling from the narrow alleyways; hawkers ply their trade with cigarettes, chickpeas and watches; tough youths on mopeds weave through the milling pedestrians at high speed, skimming past a black African mother with a baby on her back.

The baby as passport

These days, one hardly sees a black woman in Tangiers without a baby. "That's her passport to Europe", explains Mohamed. "If they've got a kid, they can't be deported. First they have a child, then they come here and wait for the boat."

photo: AP
A refugee vessel on the Spanish coast.

​​The boats -"patera" they call them here – have powerful outboard motors and usually bear the trademark "Zodiac". "The Zodiac will get you there quickly and cheaply", says Mohamed. He charges 10,000 dirham for the crossing to Europe - that's about 1,000 euros - and he demands 2,500 dirham up front. "We can go to the boss now. That's where you register for the trip."

Mohamed explains the system: "When 20 passengers have been found, the trip is on. Until then, you have to wait here every evening until someone comes to fetch you. When you board the boat, you pay the balance remaining after your down payment. It's essential that you bring a second set of clothing; you will change into these clothes when you reach the Spanish coast. The road runs behind the beach. Hitch a lift to the next town and take the bus from there to Madrid or Barcelona… then you're free!"

For those who can afford it: a "luxury berth" on a container ship

Mohamed's eyes glitter as he conjures up this vision of liberty - and he even offers an alternative deal: "For 20,000, we'll smuggle you over in a container on a ferry. That's safer. If you have a passport, we'll get you a visa - looks like the real thing. It's all a question of money."

However reliable the deals on offer, people-smuggling is booming in Morocco: it's now more lucrative than the drug trade. The statistics are confusing. Since the Treaty of Schengen, up to 5,000 people are said to have drowned while trying to reach the coast of Spain illegally. In the year 2002 alone, 13,500 "Boat People" were taken into custody by Spanish coastguards. According to Moroccan reports, more than 6,000 minors made it to Spain; and, in total, there are allegedly 300,000 Moroccans already living there.

photo: AP
Arrival: refugees from Morocco near Tarifa in Spain.

​​Every night, several hundred people in small boats leave the coast of North Africa and head for Spain. Sometimes, these tiny vessels take two days to cross the capricious waters. The points of departure are various places along the Mediterranean coastline, which the emigrants from sub-Saharan Africa can reach easily via Algeria; there's very little likelihood of their being challenged on the way. The border town of Maghnia alone plays host to 3,000 "transients" every day; there, they wait for someone to tell them how to reach a boat. This, too, is business.

The allure of Europe

As for Morocco itself: it's young people, above all, who are leaving their home country in droves – and this despite the fact that there's no civil war or famine there, and although the latest economic data look promising in comparison to those from Egypt, Tunisia or Jordan. To young Moroccans, Europe is a kind of Eldorado.

Many report fabulous success stories from friends or relatives who have dared to take the leap. According to a study carried out in France, between 50% and 70% of all Moroccan students dream of a career in Europe, the USA or Canada. They invest hundreds of euros in advanced training courses designed to prepare them for a course of studies abroad. Of those who leave Morocco, only half will return.

Day in, day out, the Moroccan media describe attempts to reach Europe that have ended in death, Your Opinion
How do you think should Europe in general and Spain in particular react towards the growing number of illegal refugees? Write to us!and they denounce those young men who have threatened their parents in order to raise the money for the trip. Not a word is spoken about the root causes of this exodus. The newspaper "Maroc Hebdo" says the nation has a "schizophrenic" attitude to its own identity - or, alternatively, that Morocco is plagued by an "every man for himself" mind-set.

One thing is very clear: many young Moroccans feel their country has little left to offer them but high unemployment, no prospect of ever making any real money, and a life spent in cramped accommodation with their own family. Self-expression is actively repressed here: last spring, 14 youngsters were sentenced to prison terms for "practising Satanism" because they had dared to listen to hard rock music. And every year, Moroccans witness hordes of hedonistic tourists enjoying the pleasures of Morocco, while knowing they will never have the opportunity to visit Europe in return.

So their eyes turn to the Spanish coastline… and many of them feel it's worth risking the perilous crossing just for the chance of scraping a living as a waiter. An unemployed academic from Casablanca describes the prevailing mood: "No one can convince me that illegal emigration means a journey to death. Leaving the country can also be a way of preserving your self-respect."

Give us money or we'll give you refugees!

If all goes according to plan, Morocco will soon join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). In the course of this development, it's also planned to build a tunnel to Spain, in order to facilitate the passage of goods. But the flood of immigrants washing up on the coast of Spain has also spurred the growth of xenophobia there. Right now, relations between Madrid and Rabat are strained.

photo: AP
Sealed off: the border between the Moroccan mainland and the Spanish free trade enclave of Ceuta.

​​Certainly, the two countries' national security bodies are cooperating in policing the Straits of Gibraltar: in December, Spain and Morocco worked out a deal on the repatriation of under-age illegal immigrants; and from January 2004 onwards, joint patrols will hunt for refugee boats. Morocco's King Mohamed VI has announced tougher action against organised people-smuggling in his own country. At the same time, however, he has demanded more financial and logistical support in securing his country's borders. Some Spaniards feel they are being held to ransom by Rabat.

Meanwhile, back at Zocco Chico, Mohamed has no desire to leave his own country. "I now have a nice little house in the mountains", he says. "Why should I bother going to Europe?" When asked what's likely to happen when the Spanish-Moroccan tunnel is built, Mohamed replies with a mischievous grin: "If you really feel like it, you can hang around till the tunnel is finished. But you'll spend a fortune on tea while you're waiting."

Lennart Lehmann, © Qantara.de 2003
Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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