Rabat, Morocco – Sitting on the pavement outside an NGO’s office in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, 18-year-old Juliet (not her real name) stared at the cars speeding past.
Juliet had a look of despair and hopelessness on her face. Her hair was tangled, jeans torn and stained and her toenails broken. The blank expression, sans any movement of the head to look the other way, had a story of gloom and unhappiness.
Juliet has not spoken to her family in Nigeria since December. She gave a reason for that, a terrible one.
“My father sold me as a sex slave last year,” she mumbled as her eyes welled up before she turned her face away.
“I wanted to leave home and go to Europe. I was talking to a man who said he will help me get there. Next thing I know, he tells me my father sold me to him. He then raped and abused me many times before a woman turned up one day and told me I was being taken to Morocco.”
Juliet is one of the thousands of sub-Saharan migrants lured to Morocco by its proximity to Europe – Spain’s southern tip is just 14km from Morocco’s northern coast – as well as the North African country’s policy on immigration and asylum.
From January to June this year, more than 18,000 migrants reached Spain by land or sea route, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Almost 10 percent of those arrivals were women.
A bigger number, however, still resides in Morocco, hoping to save up enough money to pay the traffickers for a spot on a boat that will take them across the Mediterranean.
Majority of these female migrants come from Nigeria and Cameroon, according to a report which adds that some are also from Mali, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Many of those are living a life they did not imagine when they left home on a risky and perilous journey towards Europe. The journey to Morocco, which a majority see as a country of transit, was full of violence and abuse.
“Women suffer more than men. When they cross over 6,000km, imagine every single border they have to cross,” said Mohamed Khachani, president of the Moroccan Association for Studies and Research on Migration.
His research revealed that one-third of the female migrants residing in Morocco were abused on their way there.
“They suffer countless violations of numerous types.”
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said most female migrants in Morocco travelled to the North African country without family members.
It adds that more than half of them are single mothers, the majority of them became pregnant on their way to Morocco.
Avva is a 35-year-old Senegalese, flashing posters of African hairstyles outside a Casablanca market.
She worked as a hairdresser in Senegal but her dream of working in Europe saw her apply twice, though unsuccessfully, for a Spanish visa. That is when she decided to fly into Morocco and try her luck via people smugglers.
“The only option is the Mediterranean now,” said Avva as she looked around for customers. “I just need to save up enough money to pay a trafficker. I’ve already tried once but was arrested even before I could get on the boat.”
“Thankfully, I have not been raped or harassed but I have been lucky. A lot of women I know suffered not only on their journey to Morocco but also here.”
According to Juliet, many female migrants are also lured into prostitution as they seek any source of income they could find to fund their next journey.
Most of them, she added, were young girls who had run away from home in search of a better life.
“Our group comprised seven girls in Casablanca. They are aged between 17 and 22. They were all sold as sex slaves in Nigeria,” said Juliet.
“We all wanted to go to Europe but now we’re stuck here. Sometimes, these girls sell things at traffic lights and men come there and take them home for sex.”
In order to improve conditions for the migrants, Morocco launched a migrant regularisation programme in 2013 through which it granted residency permits to more than 50,000 people.
The move was designed to change Morocco’s image from that of a transit country to a host nation, hoping to stop them from going to Spain.
Authorities said the residency permit allows access to jobs, healthcare, training and education. But that programme, and the permit, do not guarantee a job, leaving thousands of migrants still clinging on to hopes of reaching Europe.
According to Said Tbel, of the Moroccan Human Rights Association, the migrant situation in the country is “terrible”.
“We see so many migrants, even those with residency permits, arrested and forced to the south. They have no rights of movement, they are not getting the promised healthcare,” said Tbel. “Morocco is using these migrants as a pressure card in negotiations with the European Union.”
Despite all the issues, some female migrants have benefitted from their journey to Morocco, ensuring they not only live a better life but also make enough money to make the journey worth it.
Karima, for example, is a 25-year-old from Ivory Coast. She has been in Morocco for two years and is a hairdresser. In the summer, she said she earns around 500 dirhams ($53) a day, enough money to “support my family and guarantee a good life in Morocco”.
Karima came with the dream of crossing into Spain, but a friend’s death in the Mediterranean earlier this year forced her to put that idea to rest.
For others, despite the risk and uncertainty, Spain is the only option. After having endured so much on the way to Europe, they do not want to give up being “so close”.
“I couldn’t take that life at home anymore that’s why I wanted to run away,” mumbled Juliet, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I have no money. I have no food. I’m begging on the streets, just about managing to eat once a day. I just want to have a better life and that’s something I won’t find here in Morocco.”