Reportage. Violence, theft, racially motivated arrests by the police. In the 15 camps near Ceuta and Melilla, migrants heading to Spain are increasingly exposed to the blackmail of traffickers and to the security policies that guarantee EU money pouring into Rabat.

For those seeking Europe, it’s the law of the forest

In the early hours of the morning, the border crossing between Beni Ensar and Melilla is crowded with day laborers lining up to enter the Spanish enclave and earn a few dirhams more than they would get in Morocco. They are joined by hundreds of women who are going to European territory to stock up on beauty products, which they will resell at a markup in the local shops. These are all inhabitants of the province of Nador, the only Moroccan citizens—along with those in Tetouan—who are allowed to travel to the neighboring Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta without a passport. For all the other Moroccans and migrants from third countries, there are only two alternatives: climbing over the four layers of fencing at the border, or crossing the Alboran Sea to reach Europe.

The militarization of the border—which now features barbed wire, security cameras and Moroccan guard posts alternating with Spanish watchtowers every 50 meters—has made the passage by land increasingly difficult, which has led to an exponential growth in the number of departures by sea, and in the number of deaths among those who attempt the crossing, as well as in the number of acts of theft and violence against migrants.

The Association Marocaine des Droits de l’Homme (AMDH) in Nador has denounced this situation in its most recent annual report. For many years, the AMDH has taken up the task of finding and stopping the violence in the 15 forest camps that stretch around the border town, providing refuge to around 3,000 people in transit.

“Since 2015, the year when the fourth barbed wire fence was installed on the Moroccan side of the border, the attempts at crossing by land—which were taking place in a self-organized and spontaneous manner—have been drastically reduced, in favor of those by sea, nearly all organized by traffickers who are asking migrants for sums of up to €5,000,” says Omar Naji, president of the organization. “This change has attracted a lot of criminality in the forest, because now migrants are no longer viewed as having nothing, but as an easy target for theft and extortion.”

He said there has been a surge in violent attacks aimed at migrants in recent years: the number has gone from 40 in 2015, to 90 in 2016, to 92 in 2017 and all the way up to 340 in 2018.

According to the AMDH, the new policies “have led to a shift to paid migration, allowing the growth of a network of traffickers who are benefiting from this new market, turning the right to free movement into a commodity that can be bought.” This is why, Naji says, the AMDH has “repeatedly denounced these organizations, giving the authorities the photos, names and phone numbers of traffickers operating in the region, contributing to a number of arrests but not managing to affect the criminal organizations in the slightest, which are directing their trafficking from Rabat, Casablanca and Tangier undisturbed.”

What’s more, migrants are at the same time falling victim to repeated incursions into their camps by the auxiliary forces and the gendarmerie royale, and are being targeted in repeated incidents of racial profiling, i.e. arrests on the basis of skin color alone. The latest such episode has been denounced by the Droit et Justice NGO on June 20, when one NGO member of Guinean origin was arrested despite being in possession of a valid residence permit.

According to the AMDH, such arbitrary arrests are not the only type of abuse committed by the law enforcement agencies: those who are subject to a deportation order are never duly notified, violating the provisions of Article 23 of Law 02-03, according to which whoever is the subject of an expulsion order has the right to appeal against it within 48 hours of being notified. Thus, the authorities are illegally preventing people targeted by such measures from lawfully fighting the decision. The situation is even more serious when the targets are minors or pregnant women, who are also regular targets of arrest and deportation to the border, notwithstanding the provisions of Article 28 of the same law, which expressly forbids the expulsion of pregnant women and minors.

However, the news that manages to reach Europe does not include these facts. For the EU, Morocco remains a reliable partner in managing the migration issue.

The proof supposedly lies in the annual figures that the Kingdom is sending to Brussels to justify the European funds invested in the so-called prevention of irregular migration. 

It matters little that the data doesn’t seem to match up with reality. Out of the 89,000 arrests reported by Rabat for 2018, 9,000 (including 700 expulsions) were supposedly carried out in Nador alone. However, there are only 3,000 migrants in the province.

The mystery behind the inflated numbers was quickly revealed: many people are arrested and deported up to six times per year, only to enter the country again from the north, waiting for an opportunity to make an attempt at a sea crossing. 

“What is the use of such expulsions?” Naji asks, concluding that these are “window dressing measures that serve to inflate the numbers in order to justify the huge amounts paid annually from EU funding,” a clear illustration of how the situation is allowing Morocco to continue to play the role of the loyal guardian who is successfully protecting the security of the EU’s southwestern border. And, as always, those who bear the consequences of the deception are the migrants.

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