Morocco border clampdown thwarts Europe-bound migrants
"We're going to cross this barrier," he told journalists, in defiance of increasing pressure on migrants from Moroccan authorities, supported by Europe.
A few months ago, migrants like Mustapha were a common sight on roadsides or in camps near urban centres. Today, those aiming to reach Europe from Morocco prefer to stay hidden, fearing the waves of arrests that have elicited condemnation from NGOs.
Two years after leaving Guinea, Mustapha, now 18, lives in abject poverty in a hideout in the Belyounech forest, a few kilometres from Ceuta on Morocco's northern coast. Cautiously, he ventures out to beg at the side of a road for a few coins, water or food, but it is rare that passing cars pay him any attention.
"My dream is to go live in Norway and be a DJ," said the young man, wearing worn-out shoes and a black beanie, a colourful school satchel over his shoulder. "I dropped out of high school for this trip."
Travelling with two companions from the same neighbourhood back home, Ahmed and Omar, both 17, Mustapha took a perilous journey from Conakry, traversing Mali and Algeria, before crossing the closed border to enter Morocco. "That part was not easy," he said.
To reach Ceuta, the trio needs to cross the barbed wire barrier which, along with the fence around the other Spanish enclave of Melilla, mark the only land borders between Africa and Europe. The fence cuts across fields and forests, and Moroccan auxiliary force vehicles are posted along the border.
Like Mustapha, many migrants live in precarious encampments deep within forests, keeping out of sight. Local aid groups are no longer authorised to meet with them, according to testimony gathered by journalists.
In Nador, a town bordering Melilla, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights has condemned "serious and repeated violations", with migrants "illegally detained in very difficult conditions" and "deportations" to regions far from transit routes.
"The authorities come into the forest looking for us and, if they find us, they send us back," Mustapha said.
"They are looking for us today even," said his companion Omar, but added he was ready to seize "the right opportunity to get across" the fence.
A day later, Moroccan authorities announced they had blocked 400 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa from entering the Spanish enclave in an operation that resulted in injuries to both migrants and security forces.
Migrants who are detained by authorities are sent to southern Morocco by bus or returned by air to their country of origin, according to testimony collected by journalists.
Khalid Zerouali, who is in charge of migration and border monitoring at the interior ministry, told journalists that measures Morocco put in place in 2019 after sustained pressure to tackle "irregular migration" were aimed at trafficking networks. "Our security measures do not target migrants because, in our view, they are the victims," he said.
Morocco has led two "regularisation" campaigns since 2014, offering residency permits to 50,000 illegal migrants.
According to the European Union border security agency, Frontex, Guineans in recent years have been among the largest groups trying to reach Europe via Morocco.
"We decided to leave for a better future. We found nothing to do in Guinea," Omar said.
Ahmed dreams of being a "professional footballer in Europe".
"I play midfield. I want to go to Germany, if they let me in," he said, a striped scarf around his neck to ward off the cold.
Tortured and sold: Refugees in Libyan captivity
Slave auctions, mass rapes, torture and hunger: Libyan security forces are said to take brutal action against refugees who want to enter Europe. In Libya they have landed in hell.
Major outcry: recent televised images of alleged human trafficking and slave markets featuring African refugees caused worldwide horror. After the pictures circulated on the Internet, demonstrations were staged in several African countries against the conditions in Libyan refugee camps. In Morocco, young people protested outside the Libyan embassy demanding humane conditions and an end to the alleged slave trade in the Maghreb
Demands for an investigation: following the revelations, the internationally endorsed Libyan unity government announced that it would set up a commission of inquiry. It also pointed out that the country has been descending into chaos ever since the fall of ruler Gaddafi and is not the source but the victim of illegal migration
Fears for survival: en route to Europe, many migrants are exposed to the horrors of torture and human trafficking in Libya. The United Nations has finally woken up to the situation. Last year, the UN, the EU and some African states announced their intention to return 15,000 refugees to their countries by the end of 2017, for example to Nigeria, Gambia and Guinea
Inhuman conditions: refugees in Libyan reception camps, crammed together in confined spaces and under catastrophic hygiene conditions. It is estimated that between 400,000 and one million migrants are stuck in the most appalling conditions in the violence-torn North African country, hoping for a passage to Europe. According to Libyan sources, there are currently around 20,000 people in the camps
Prisons turned refugee camps: the internationally endorsed Libyan unity government has signed an agreement with the EU to prevent refugees with the help of the Libyan coast guard from coming to Europe via the Mediterranean. To this end, illegal migrants are to be cared for in future in "adequate reception facilities" in Libya, such as this one at Misrata. It was previously a prison
The dream of a decent life and work in Europe: this young man is stuck in a prison camp 50 km from the coastal town of Misrata. Many migrants come to Libya in order to work, others intend to take the life-threatening route to Europe via the Mediterranean from there. Despite the slim chance of success, thousands of Africans are still willing to risk the dangerous journey to Europe
To the coast and no further: time and again young Africans are picked up by the Libyan coast guard and prevented from crossing to Europe. These illegal migrants are taken to a camp 45 kilometres from the coastal city of Tripoli. The EU-Libya agreement, which aims to close the so-called central Mediterranean route, has been heavily criticised by human rights organisations
Despite the challenges, the boys say they still prefer Morocco to the Libyan route.
"There is violence there. My friends tried to get through and told me it was hard," Ahmed said.
Like many young people seeking a better future, the trio cling to a romanticised image of life in Europe, though they seem to know little about it.
While they are just a few of the many that try to get through the barriers around Ceuta and Melilla, others attempt to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean in makeshift boats.
"I can't afford to go by sea, it's too expensive," Ahmed said.
In recent months, Moroccan authorities have stemmed the flow of migrants into Europe. According to the Spanish interior ministry, nearly 32,500 migrants entered Spain in 2019 by land and sea routes, down by nearly half from 2018.
But the number of migrant drownings in the western Mediterranean remains high: 325 deaths were recorded in the first 10 months of 2019, compared to 678 for the same period in 2018.
Zerouali said last year, "around 74,000 attempts to immigrate irregularly to Spain were blocked by Moroccan law enforcement," compared to 89,000 in 2018.
In 2019, the European Union allocated 140 million euros ($155.3 million) to support Morocco's efforts against irregular migration, with Spain also providing additional aid to its southern neighbour.
But even as Morocco works to tackle migration via its territory, it says it will not act as Europe's police force. (AFP)