Lopes really wants to go to Europe. Since he left his home in West Africa two years ago, he’s made five unsuccessful attempts. Some of the results: time spent in a Libyan prison; being beaten, robbed, and arrested by the Moroccan police; and getting deported and dumped, penniless and hungry, in a no-man’s-land on the Algerian border. Each time, he made his way back to the northern coast of Morocco to have another go at smuggling himself into Spain.
He is one of hundreds of sub-Saharan African migrants currently living in the forests of northern Morocco. The only African country to share a land border with the European Union, Morocco is a popular transit route for those trying to reach Europe in search of work or asylum. According to the Moroccan Ministry of Interior, there are now between 10,000 and 20,000 irregular migrants living in the country.
Before he left his home in Guinea, Lopes played soccer for a second-division team. Under pressure to support his family, and seeing no hope of earning a decent wage at home, he withdrew his meager savings in 2012 and headed north.
He reached Libya, which was in chaos after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, and planned to take a boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa before he was arrested by the Libyan authorities. "The Libyans don’t like blacks," Lopes told VICE News. "They put me in prison for more than three weeks, until a friend paid to get me released. So I came to Morocco to try my luck."
He hasn’t had much of it. So far he’s tried four times to sneak into Melilla, one of two tiny Spanish enclaves perched on this hilly strip of North African coastline. Those who make it over are taken to a purpose-built hostel, the Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes (CETI). They're housed and fed, and they can stay up to one year while the authorities decide what to do with them. They can't be sent back to Morocco — not legally, at least — because, despite a decade of pressure from the EU, the country has not signed a re-admission treaty.
On February 6, seven migrants drowned while trying another route into Spain from Morocco, and the Spanish Interior Ministry said that about 250 people tried to force their way into Ceuta, the other Spanish enclave on Morocco's coastline. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights allege that Spanish border guards fired tear gas at the migrants before Moroccan security forces dispersed them with truncheons.
Stories of thwarted border crossing attempts like this are not uncommon. And Lopes, unable to climb the razor wire fence or evade the Spanish coast guard and slip in by boat, has been living in a small camp in northern Morocco's Gourougou forest for a year and a half. He sleeps in a tent made of a tarp and some blankets draped over a couple of sticks.
Frontex, the European border agency, estimated that 6,400 people made it into Spain illegally in 2012, including those who set out from Algeria. The European Union would of course like that figure cut to zero. France, Italy, and Spain in particular put enormous pressure on Morocco to keep the border secure.
Whether indirectly or not, the political pressure often results in police violence. In 2005, the police shot dead at least five migrants during a mass attempt to scale the barrier separating Nador and the Spanish territory of Melilla. Late last year, Abdulalli Kebe, a 34-year-old painter and floorer from Mali, broke both of his legs when he fell down a slope while trying to escape a police raid on the forest encampment.
"They were crazy — they threw stones at us," he said when we met him at a Nador hospital. "Who attacks at three o’clock in the morning? It’s not necessary."
Saleh, a 28-year-old from Mali, was lying in the bed next to Kebe. He was caught by the cops about a month ago as he tried to sneak from Algeria into Morocco. "I was with a group of people trying to cross the border," he said. "It was about six o’clock on a Friday morning. We were 10 people, Malians. The others ran away, but I got caught and beaten by six police officers. They took all my money and my phone."
Last March, Doctors Without Borders interviewed 190 migrants in the northern part of the Morocco. Almost two thirds said they’d been victims of violence, mostly at the hands of the Moroccan police, some by the Spanish. Many were also attacked and robbed by local gangs, or subject to racism, common complaints among the migrants we met.
That same month, a Cameroonian migrant named Clement was arrested as he tried to get over the fence into Melilla. Badly beaten by the police, he was transferred to a hospital, discharged, and sent back to the camp in the forest. The next morning, Moroccan forces raided the camp again. Still in shock and too weak to run away, Clement watched as they burned his tent and belongings. He died shortly afterwards.
Clement’s death helped raise the profile of the migrants in Gourougou forest. It was the central theme of a film by Italian journalist Sara Creta and a campaign by local human rights organizations denouncing the "daily and systematic repression of migrants by Moroccan authorities and the implication of Spanish authorities in the crimes perpetrated against migrants at the borders of Melilla."
By the Autumn, even the government-linked National Council of Human Rights (CNDH) was criticizing Morocco's migration policy. King Mohammad VI, the ultimate arbiter of Moroccan politics, endorsed the CNDH report and instructed his government to lay out "a new vision for a national migration policy that is humanist in its philosophy, responsible in its approach, and pioneering at a regional level."
Other human rights groups — and the migrants themselves — have cautiously welcomed the new policy. While all the migrants I spoke to here said they’d suffered violence by the police in the past, they reported that the near-daily raids on the forest encampments, the random arrests, and the beatings came to a sudden halt in the final weeks of 2013. Only Saleh had been beaten in the last two months.
Moreover, the government is planning to set up a proper asylum system while allowing certain categories of migrant to "regularize" their residency in Morocco, meaning they can search for legitimate work. But the criteria for regularization are narrow, and the new policy doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, according to Chakib Al Khayari, president of the Human Rights Association of the Rif region.
"Today, Morocco is guarding Europe’s borders in exchange for economic and political benefits," he said. "The European parliament says Morocco carries out abuses, but doesn’t recognize that the EU is the source of the problem. The violations that Morocco carries out are with the support and sponsorship of the European Union."
It remains to be seen how things will change for the migrants here. For now, most of them aren’t going anywhere. They’re stuck between the near-impossibility of making it into Europe and the equally costly — and often dangerous — option of giving up and going home. Some have been living here for years, begging or working for slave-like wages to survive.
"I know lots of people who got into England, into Germany," Lopes tells us. "But also lots who went back to their countries. Here, to earn money and eat, it’s not easy. You don’t sleep well, you become mad, sick. Your spirit gets upset."