“Fuck Africa,” snarls the young Moroccan kid as he pushes past the café table, spitting on the ground and sticking his middle finger up at my Senegalese translator, Babs. My first taster of racism in Tangier happens within five minutes of us sitting down, but 34-year-old Babs appears utterly unphased.
I arrived in Tangier during a tense period in Moroccan politics. Since January of 2014, the government has been trialling a process to grant illegal immigrants resident status in Morocco. However, although this seems to be a positive step, tensions are brewing in Tangier due to many of the city’s illegal immigrants refusing to take part in the scheme and settle in a country that sees them routinely abused by Moroccans and the Moroccan authorities.
“This type of thing happens every day,” shrugs Babs. I ask if he’s ever seen abuse move from verbal to violent, and he nods, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a deep scar across his wrist, caused by an attempted stabbing one night in the medina quarter. A Moroccan teenager tried to stab him in the stomach as he walked home to his hotel; Babs deflected with his hand before managing to run and hide in the warren of back alleys and boardwalks that make up the old town.
Idris, 25 was stabbed repeatedly in the arms and legs by three Moroccan gang members
“They [the Moroccans] do everything [to us] like it’s no problem. And sometimes when you go to police to tell them things, you know what they tell you? They tell you ‘So? Go and buy a knife.’ They don’t care.”
He also recounts the three times he’s been arrested on Tangier beach by Moroccan police as he and other migrants tried to smuggle themselves across to mainland Spain by inflatable boat, and how on each occasion police have stolen his money and phone after detaining him. The more I listen, the more evident it becomes that the migrants gathered in Tangier—most of whom are trying to reach Europe illegally—are trapped in a brutal limbo of violence and victimization. And all of this despite the government’s reforms.
As a port city on the African frontier, Tangier’s always been a cultural crossroads of African, Middle Eastern and European sensibilities, but recently the spatial politics of the city have become heavily geared towards obscuring black African migrants from visibility, and feeding a violent engine of isolation and abuse against them. The most obvious example of this was the building of the city’s new port at Tanger-Med in 2007, which sits 40 km (~25 miles) east of Tangier.
Before Tanger-Med, the old town’s port area and car parks were littered with Moroccans and sub-Saharan migrants trying to smuggle themselves across to Europe by hooking themselves under trucks. But now, with all trucks diverted to Tanger-Med—as well as the increased security around the old town’s ferry port—illegal immigrants aren't such a common sight.
“Tangier has a huge tourist economy, and one of the reasons for building the cargo port at Tanger-Med was to separate the tourist ferries and the cargo to help disassociate the city’s image with illegal immigrants. The city doesn’t want the tourists coming off the ferry to see all that,” said a US post-grad researcher and port specialist I interviewed, who asked to remain anonymous.
Senegalese immigrants squat the vacant buildings in Boukhaelf
Today, Tangier’s migrant population exist on the ragged edges of society, living mostly in the Boukhalef neighborhood, 15 km (~9 miles) out from the city center, where they squat the area’s empty high rises. Boukhalef is now the city’s primary flashpoint for violence and racist attacks, so Babs and I flagged a taxi and headed up there.
Despite King Mohammed VI’s 2013 decree to reform government policy and address widespread humans rights violations and the poor treatment of black African migrants in Morocco, there were several standout cases of police violence around December of 2013 that pushed Boukhalef to boiling point. These were the deaths of Cameroonian Cedric and 19-year-old Senegalese immigrant Moussa Seck, a friend of Babs. On both occasions the police cited the deaths as accidental, a result of routine operations to combat drug trafficking in Boukhalef, prompting widespread fear and anger among the migrant community living there.
In recent months, police activity in Boukhalef has dropped dramatically, according to its residents. But those from sub-Saharan Africa living there have seen a daily increase in violence perpetrated by Moroccan gangs. This has led to heavy speculation that they are being paid by the police as a clandestine approach to flushing out Boukhalef’s migrants without attracting criticism from the EU.
We arrived there just after midday, the neighborhood a mass of half-built tower blocks, wide, dusty roads and scrappy little cafes.
“Before, police they come, they enter, they shoot. We wake up 4 AM at night and we go sleep [in the] bush—we leave our houses because we know at 7 PM they come here and they fuck up every black boy [in Boukhalef].”
Ibrahim, 24, was stabbed in the stomach
Tension here between the Moroccans and black migrants are evident immediately. And as I sit with a group of Senegalese men under the shade of a high-rise entrance, Moroccans shove past, shoo-ing them away or shouting at them from across the street. I ask the five-strong group if any of them have ever been assaulted here. People immediately roll up shirts, trousers or brush their hair back to show deep bottle-scars in their heads. I talk to a young man called Idris, 25, his legs and arms covered in stab wounds from an attack three months ago.
“One night, this boy, eight Moroccans take him with a knife,” says Babs.
“Here, here, here, here,” he motions, plunging an imaginary blade into Idris. Next to Idris sits 24-year-old Ibrahim, who lifts his shirt to show me a small circular knife-scar under his ribs as we talk.
“They try to kill,” he says, pointing at the scar. Ibrahim then recounts a story about his friend DuCorais, who was stabbed repeatedly on this very corner. When Ibrahim finally managed to get him to a local hospital after being refused a taxi on account of the blood, DuCorais was refused treatment for his injuries by Moroccan doctors and the pair were both ejected.
“Here, every time we see problems with Moroccan gangs,” mutters Ibrahim. “If you want people to talk—one person, two person, three, four, five, they all talk the same.”
“The problem is now in Boukhalef [that] the Moroccan people don’t want to see the black people,” he continues in broken English. “But police can’t enter. Instead they pay some person—but that person they are junkies and they pay them to fight [us].”
Back in the old town I talk to local outreach worker and activist Kebe, owner of Chez Kebe, a Senegalese café and informal drop-in center for sub-Saharan immigrants in Tangier. I ask him if he’s ever heard of Moroccan gangs being paid by police to attack people and he nods gravely, telling me that it’s common among the huge population of heroin and solvent abusers Tangier is home to.
“They’re looking for migrants who have telephones, passports, stuff like that… the kids, the sniffers, these are totally messed up kids anyway and they’re looking for cash, they’re looking for things to sell. So they’re aggressing the migrants. And they’re also getting paid by the police," says Kebe. "In the last three years there’s been a lot of aggression and violence towards the migrants and it’s become the Europeans that are really upset at what’s happening so that’s where the pressure’s coming from. The sub-Saharans, they understand the racism. It’s a city of passage. They don’t want to stay here. It’s not a choice, it’s just the geography."
Everywhere I went and everyone I talked to in Tangier painted the same picture: it’s hell for sub-Saharan immigrants here, and many of them face brutal choices: try to make it across the Straight of Gibraltar and into mainland Europe at the risk of drowning; storm the fences into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and risk death or serious injury from Moroccan or Spanish security forces; or stay and try to make a home for themselves in a city where they're unable to find work and are subjected daily to violence, abuse and institutional racism.
As I leave to catch the ferry, I bump into Babs again near his hotel. He’s a little jittery and waves his hands around wildly as he speaks to me about what happened last night.
“When you leave Boukhalef there was [a] big fight between Moroccan people and Cameroon. People run from their houses and everything is set on fire. Maybe 30 bandits… and we see the police just looking, watching.”
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