African migrants brave new route to Europe via Morocco
She had heard of African migrants being enslaved and imprisoned in war-riven Libya as they tried to escape to a better life in Europe. So Fanta Soumahoro decided to travel through Morocco instead. It would be a safer route, she thought.
But as the 21-year-old Ivorian was preparing to board a boat to slip across the Mediterranean, she recalled, the smugglers ordered her group at knifepoint to hand over their money and possessions. She believes they would have raped her if not for a passing car.
Over the past year, efforts by European governments to stem the flow of Africans passing through Libya, for instance by funding its coast guard, have helped reduce the number of migrants reaching Italy by nearly 80 per cent, according to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration. Many are also afraid of being detained by local militias in Libya or otherwise caught up in the chaos of its civil war.
Now, there is a spike in those passing through Morocco bound instead for Spain, with more than 8250 arriving there by sea during the first five months of the year. That is nearly double over the same period last year and close to 60 per cent of the number that has reached Italy so far this year, long a favoured destination.
“They are seeing that Libya is dangerous,” said Anna Fonseca, the head of the IOM for Morocco. “Migration is like water. You cannot stop it. You close one part, and another route will open.”
But the route through Morocco is proving to be perilous, too. At least 240 people have died at sea so far this year trying to cross to Spain, an increase of more than 400 per cent from the same period last year, according to the IOM.
Moroccan police and security forces, meanwhile, have repeatedly raided the migrants’ camps, beating them and removing them to southern Morocco, according to witnesses, aid workers and human rights activists. Families have been divided, and migrants say they have been sexually harassed, even raped, by security forces.
In the northern town of Nador, which borders the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the rim of North Africa, Moroccan authorities are working with the Spanish government to keep the migrants from reaching European territory.
“They cannot step out of the forests,” said Omar Naji, the head of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights in Nador. “The moment they do they will get arrested. They are not allowed to rent apartments, to live with dignity.”
The office of the commander of the auxiliary forces attached to Morocco’s Interior Ministry, which carried out the raids and removals, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
On that November night when Soumahoro’s would-be saviour shook down her travelling party, she recalled that a friend had tried to hide her mobile phone, tucking it inside her bra. One of the smugglers frisked her and found it. Gripping his weapon, he took the petrified woman behind a bush.
“She was crying,” recounted Soumahoro. “I heard her say: ‘Please sir, don’t kill me. I’ll take off my pants. Just don’t kill me.’ ”
At that moment, a car passed and flashed its lights. Most of the smugglers scattered, as did the migrants, leaving the other woman behind with her assailant.
“The following morning our sister came back,” said Soumahoro. “She’d been raped.”
When Soumahoro was 8, her mother died. By then, her father had already abandoned the family in the Ivory Coast. It eventually fell upon her to care for her three siblings and pay the rent. She dropped out of school and began to sell her body.
“With the money I saved from prostitution, I paid for my journey,” said Soumahoro.
She had initially considered travelling to Libya and on to Italy. But she changed her mind after reading Facebook warnings from other migrants and speaking with friends. “I was told that things are much worse there,” she said. “They would enslave Africans and force women to have sex with them in exchange for nothing.”
In October, she travelled by bus to Mali and Mauritania, and then in a smuggler’s caravan through the Algerian desert and on to Morocco. “The Arabs would treat Africans, especially the women, like slaves,” Soumahoro said.
But at least, she said, the smugglers held up their end of the transaction.
She made her way to Nador, a sprawling city with a boardwalk facing the Mediterranean Sea. The city stretches to the edges of Melilla, which is encircled by four fences, one topped with razors, to prevent migrants from entering the Spanish territory.
On the streets of Nador and in its markets, the African migrants would stand out, and the possibility of arrest or removal was high. So Soumahoro went to the Gourougou forest outside the city and joined several thousand other African migrants.
Under the canopy of trees, there was never a peaceful night of sleep.
The migrants lived in tents made of bed sheets or plastic bags, as many as six people crammed into each dwelling. They slept on the bare ground and drank rainwater.
“It would rain heavily, the wind was strong,” said Ousama Diallo, who had arrived from Guinea. “We didn’t have any blankets to shelter us from the cold.”
“We were always afraid in the forest,” said Amidou Salam, 25, who was from Burkina Faso. “Wild animals would attack us.”
The migrants pooled their money to buy food, with volunteers going to a nearby village to buy supplies. They never left the forest after 6pm – unless it was time to attempt the crossing to Spain.
Two or three times a week, the migrants said, Moroccan police and other security forces would raid the camp early in the morning, rounding up and abusing the Africans.
“There were some who broke our arms, and others our legs,” said Abdakar Bara, 18, from Burkina Faso.
“If you run and try to escape them, they would beat you,” Diallo said. “If you don’t, they’d put you in a bus and send you very far away to discourage us from coming back again.”
Naji and other aid workers in Nador corroborated the migrants’ accounts. Migrants, some even with residency permits, have been bused more than 300 kilometres away to the south of Morocco.
“These arrests are abusive,” said Naji, adding that he has investigated reports of security officers assaulting and trying to rape African women.
Helena Maleno, a Spanish human rights activist, said rapes by both the military and police are common, as well as by fellow migrants. “There are many pregnant women in the forests,” she said.
With no assistance from police, doctors or psychologists, many migrant women have internalised and accepted the sexual violence, she said. “They see it as the price to pay for going as a migrant to Europe,” Malena said.
To reach Spain, Soumahoro had several options. She could try hopping the fences into Melilla or get smuggled into the enclave in the trunk of a car for $US1200 to $US1800. Or she could try to take a boat to southern Spain, about 30 kilometres away from some parts of Morocco, for about $US2400.
Soumahoro tried the latter and nearly died.
The boat she took in mid-December capsized in Spanish waters with 37 people on board. The survivors were brought to Melilla. Soumahoro woke up in a hospital to learn that several of her companions had drowned.
For the fortunate migrants who make it to Spanish territory, there are more steps to take.
On a recent day in Melilla, a group of migrants was meeting at a church-sponsored program to help them adjust to living in Spain, discussing job opportunities and Spanish culture. Some were there to learn Spanish.
But even on this day was a reminder of the precariousness of their quest. The mood was sombre. They had learnt that 12 migrants had died a day earlier when yet another crowded boat had capsized.
Today, Soumahoro lives in a migrant centre run by the Spanish government, along with Diallo, Salam and Bara. She is seeking asylum, and hopes to receive her residency card soon.