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African Migrants in Morocco Are Trapped in a Cycle of Violence

I met some guys living in a forest who are recovering from having their legs broken by police.

The illegal migrant camp in Gourougou forest outside of Melilla

Lopes really wants to go to Europe. Since he left his home in West Africa two years ago, he’s given it five attempts. In doing so, he's spent time in a Libyan prison, been beaten, robbed and arrested by the Moroccan police, and deported – or, rather, dumped – penniless and hungry in no man’s land on the Algerian border. Each time he’s walked back to the northern coast of Morocco to have another go at smuggling himself into Spain.

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Before he left his home in Guinea, he was a footballer – a centre-forward for a second division team. But under pressure to support his family, and seeing no hope of earning a decent wage at home, he withdrew his meagre savings in 2012 and headed north.

He reached Libya, a country in chaos after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, and tried to get a boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Soon after, he was arrested by the Libyan authorities. "The Libyans don’t like blacks," he said. "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."

Unfortunately for Lopes, he hasn’t had much of that. The place he's been trying to sneak into is Melilla, a tiny enclave of Spain 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), where they're housed, fed and 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 EU pressure over the last decade, the Kingdom hasn't signed a re-admission treaty.

Last week, seven migrants drowned while trying another route into Spain from Morocco. The Spanish Interior Ministry said that some 250 people tried to force their way into Ceuta, the second 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.

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Stories of thwarted border crossing attempts like this are not uncommon. And Lopes, also unable to climb the razor wire fence at Melilla or evade the Spanish coastguard and slip in by boat at Ceuta, has been living in a little camp in northern Morocco's Gourougou forest for the year and a half that he's been trying. He sleeps in a tent made of a tarpaulin and some blankets draped over a couple of sticks.

Lopes and his makeshift sleeping space

Lopes is one of hundreds of sub-Saharan African migrants living rough in northern Morocco. The only African country to share a land border with the EU, the Kingdom is an obvious transit route for those trying to reach Europe in search of work or asylum. In fact, according to the Moroccan Ministry of Interior, there are now around 10,000 to 20,000 irregular migrants (those who lack legal status to be there) living in the country.

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 like that figure cut to zero (France, Italy and Spain, in particular, put enormous pressure on Morocco to keep the border shut).

Depressingly, but unsurprisingly, this translates into police violence – something that has a long pedigree in this field. Back 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. And not much has changed; late last year, Abdulalli Kebe, a 34-year-old painter and floorer from Mali, broke both his legs when he fell down a slope while trying to escape a police raid on the forest encampment.

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"They were crazy – they threw stones at us," he said when I met him at Nador hospital. "Who attacks at 3 o’clock in the morning? It’s not necessary."

Saleh, a 28-year-old from Mali, was in the bed next to him, also unable to walk. 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 6 o’clock on a Friday morning. We were ten people, Malians. The others ran away, but I got caught and beaten by six police officers. One hit me on my back, another on my leg. They took all my money and my phone."

Last March, Doctors Without Borders interviewed 190 migrants in the northern part of the country. Almost two thirds said they’d been victims of violence, mostly by the Moroccan police and some by the Spanish. Many were also attacked and robbed by local gangs or subjected to racist abuse, common complaints among the migrants I met.

That same month, a Cameroonian migrant known as Clement was arrested as he tried to get over the fence into Melilla. Badly beaten by the police, he was transferred to 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 saw them burning his tent and belongings. He died from his wounds shortly afterwards.

Clement’s death was tragic, but seems to have helped raise the profile of the migrants in Gourougou forest. It was the central theme of this film by Italian journalist Sara Creta and this campaign by local human rights organisations, 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".

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Hundreds of migrants scale the border fence at Melilla in September last year

By autumn of last year, even the government-linked CNDH (National Council of Human Rights) was heavily criticising the country’s migration policy. At last, 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 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. Out of everyone I met, only Saleh had been beaten in the last two months.

Moreover, the government is planning to set up a proper asylum system, as well as allowing certain categories of migrant to "regularise" their residency in Morocco, meaning they can search for legitimate work. But the criteria for regularisation are narrow, and the new policy doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, according to Chakib Al Khayari, a local journalist and president of the Human Rights Association of the Rif region.

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"Today, Morocco is guarding Europe’s borders in exchange for economic and political benefits," he says. "The European parliament says Morocco carries out abuses, but doesn’t recognise 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. Racism persists in Moroccan society – consider, for example, the title "Black Peril" (a story about sub-Saharan migrants) on the recent cover of news magazine Maroc Hebdo. But regardless of how unpopular they are, most sub-Saharan migrants aren’t going anywhere. They’re stuck between the near-impossibility of making it into Fortress Europe and the equally costly – and often shameful or dangerous – option of giving up and going home. Some have been living here for years, begging or working for slave-like wages to survive. Transit has become their permanent reality, Morocco their reluctant host.

"I know lots of people who got into England, into Germany," says Lopes, "but lots also who went back to their countries. They’re too tired. Here, it’s not easy. To earn money and eat, it’s not easy. You don’t sleep well – you become mad, sick. Your spirit gets upset."

Follow Paul on Twitter: @Paul_A_Raymond

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