Moroccan migrants risk all for new life

Immigrant trafficking gangs are getting rich by helping poor Africans sail to Spain from Morocco in the hope of a new life despite reports that more than 1,000 people have died making the journey this year.

    Boats arrive daily in the Canaries with illegal immigrants

    Fishing boats crowded with people from sub-Saharan Africa travel across the Atlantic to the Canary Islands each day.

    Forty-eight would-be immigrants were arrested on Sunday after their boat was intercepted off the coast of Tenerife.

    The boats are often organised by gangs whose high fees impoverish many of the families they transport. According to figures from the Red Cross, up to one in five of their clients die during the journey.

    But for poor Moroccans desperate for a new start in life, the gangs are akin to modern-day Robin Hood, risking jail to smuggle their clients into fortress Europe.

    Belgacem Abdelhilal was supporting his widowed mother by selling sunglasses in his home town of Khouribga when an acquaintance offered him a trip to Spain.

    "I thought if so many illiterate people can make a go of it in Europe, why shouldn't I? I was the only man in the family - it was my duty."

    Unfulfilled dream

    His mother sold her jewellery and borrowed from relatives to pay the trafficker.

    Abdelhilal was holed up for 15 days in a low-budget hotel in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta before he was told the ferry that was supposed to take him and his companions to the mainland was no more than a five-metre wooden boat.

    Thrown around by the waves, the boat came within sight of the Spanish coastline before it began to rain, and the vessel filled with water and sank.

    Abdelhilal was pulled from the water by a Spanish coastguard and was returned to Morocco shortly afterwards.

    New laws have made it harder for
    immigrants to enter Europe

    Khalil Jemmah, who works with Abdelhilal at Moroccan illegal immigrant family support group AFVIC in Khouribga, says, "The people who take these pateras (boats) are the immigrant proletariat.

    "Many have never seen the sea and have no idea of the danger."

    Tightened surveillance and reinforced coastal patrols have made it harder than before for African migrants to reach Europe.


    Their desperation means more money for the gangs in control of the remaining migrant routes, who can charge huge sums while paying little regard to safety and offering no guarantee of success.

    It costs almost $3,800 for a seat in a boat, says Abdelhilal, in a country where the annual minimum wage is about $3,000.

    For a fake passport, the fee is around $7,600, and those who can afford it can buy a forged European work contract for up to $11,500.

    According to the AFVIC, two-thirds of the illegal Moroccan migrants arrested by Spanish authorities in recent years come from the farming and phosphate mining region south of Khouribga, 120km southeast of Casablanca.

    The government has opened a regional investment centre in Khouribga and is extending roads, electricity lines and running water.

    But some residents say that expats fritter away the funds they receive from relatives abroad instead of investing in local initiatives and job-creating enterprises.

    Local impact

    Twenty-year-old Sammadi Najat's husband walked out one day and never came back. Weeks later, while watching television, she discovered he had drowned trying to cross from Tunisia to Italy.

    "Many have never seen the sea and have no idea of the danger"

    Khalil Jemmah, immigrant family support group

    Left to look after a rented flock of sheep and goats, a baby daughter and an ageing mother, Najat is under pressure from relatives to return the money her husband borrowed to pay his trafficker.

    In all, six of Najat's relatives have died trying to reach Europe. In her commune of Fokra, near Khouribga, 65 were lost in one night when their boat capsized. The case led to rare prosecutions for three traffickers, who received jail sentences totalling 44 years.

    Most continue to ply their trade unperturbed, partly by offering migrants who are caught a second or even a third chance at no charge if they keep silent.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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