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Hundreds of Migrants Seek Refuge in Church After Moroccan Police Raid

The migrants have been left with nowhere to go after being evicted from the Tangier neighborhood of Boukhalef during a police raid last week.

by Pierre-Louis Caron
Jul 6 2015, 9:55pm

Image of the belfry of the Del Espiritu Santo church in Tangier via the Tangier archdiocese

One week after a massive police raid against migrants in the northern Moroccan city of Tangier, some 600 migrants from Subsaharan Africa have reportedly sought refuge in and around the Iglesia del Espiritu Santo (Church of the Holy Ghost).

According to Brother Antonio Alcade Contreras, the church caretaker, there are "nearly 40 people inside the church today," mostly women and children. Preference has been given to single and pregnant women, he explained, while the men have had to seek shelter in the streets surrounding the church.

Contreras told VICE News that migrants were forced to live in extremely precarious living conditions and lacked access to the most basic of resources. Food and water are both in short supply, as temperatures in Tangier soared to 95 degrees on Monday.

The church, he added, has called on the archdiocese of Morocco's capital Rabat for help in finding a solution to the crisis "as quickly as possible." According to some migrants, there was only "one shower for 600 migrants" over the weekend.

Contreras said that it was hard to estimate the exact number of migrants in need of assistance, as many of them are dispersed throughout the city, which is located 30 miles west of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Tangier is a magnet for many migrants seeking to reach Europe via the Mediterranean sea, rather than attempting to climb the border fence in Ceuta.

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Some news outlets have reported sightings of the migrants near Ibn Batouta airport, half a mile from Boukhalef, the neighborhood that police raided last week and evicted hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants starting on June 29.  The police continued the raids on Friday with evictions in the neighborhood of al-Irfane, to the west of the city.

On June 29, Morocco's interior ministry gave "subsaharan nationals" a 24-hour ultimatum to evacuate all illegally occupied apartments in Tangier. The next day, Moroccan police evicted migrants from 85 apartments, and claimed to have recovered "inflatable dinghies, motors and paddles used in illegal emigration operations."

Two men from the Ivory Coast died during the operation, which mobilized 2,000 police officers. According to reports, one of the deaths was caused by "a sharp object." Speaking to VICE News Monday, the Tangier-Tétouan governorate confirmed it had launched an internal investigation into the man's death. Local authorities, however, declined to comment on the second victim, who allegedly fell to his death.

In a statement released on July 2, Morocco's interior ministry described the evacuations as "humane" and said that the operation had been carried out under "normal" conditions.

In a conflicting statement, Moroccan migrant advocacy group GADEM, which is based in Morocco's capital Rabat, called the operation "hateful" and said that evictions had been carried out at the behest of local residents. GADEM also noted a rising "climate of intolerance and racial hatred" in the country.

Tensions between locals and migrants have been escalating over the last few weeks in the Moroccan coastal town, and Spanish daily El Mundo has referred to the "almost impossible" coexistence between migrants and Moroccan nationals.

On June 21, residents of Boukhalef ransacked apartments inhabited by migrants. On Saturday, residents staged a new protest, calling on officials to "hunt blacks from the neighborhood." Some of the migrants targeted in these raids had reportedly signed leases.

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The Church of the Holy Ghost has been trying for months to raise awareness among locals about the plight of migrants, organizing concerts and exhibitions around the theme of migration.

Tangier's Archbishop Santiago Agrela Martinez has publicly condemned the migrant "tragedies" of Ceuta. On February 6, 14 African migrants drowned off the coast of Ceuta after Spanish police fired rubber bullets at them as they tried to swim to shore.

As part of its Association Agreement with Morocco, the EU has been negotiating a re-admission agreement with the kingdom for the return of illegal migrants. Morocco has also pledged to invest in the dismantling of migrant smuggling networks. In exchange for its migration-related efforts, Morocco receives 180 million euros a year in development funds from the EU.

Since the summer of 2014, the Spanish coast guard has faced a major influx of migrants, consisting of those desperate enough to attempt the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean onboard flimsy and overcrowded "carretas del mar" (sea carts).

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter : @pierrelouis_c

Image of the belfry of the Del Espiritu Santo church in Tangier via the Tangier archdiocese

Watch the VICE News documentary, "Migrant Prisons of Libya: Europe or Die."