Unable to find a job at home, the 29-year-old political scientist says he knew full-well the dangers and risks en route before setting off on the journey to reach Spain.
After making it to Morocco via Mali and Algeria, Hadj headed to Tangier, a tourist city on the country’s northwestern tip, just 14km from Spain’s southern border via the Mediterranean.
“From the beach in Tangier, I could see Europe. I was closer to my dream than ever before,” Hadj told Al Jazeera after reluctantly agreeing to talk in a forest on the city’s outskirts where he has taken shelter with around 20 other people from various sub-Saharan African countries.
“Standing there, I thought about my family and how I got here. It gave me the strength to cross this final hurdle. My family is counting on me. I can’t let them down.”
Hadj is one of the thousands of people from sub-Saharan African countries who have fled the hardships of home – from unemployment and poverty to conflict and persecution – in recent years to reach Morocco with the hope of crossing into Europe.
Entry into Spain is either by paying human traffickers anywhere from 150 to 3,000 euros ($171 to $3,419) for a boat journey through the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean or by jumping over the metal fence and barbed wire into Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish enclaves that form the European Union’s only land borders with Africa.
With increased patrolling on both sides, the land option is the unfavourable one, despite the sea route being more expensive and potentially deadly.
Almost 50,000 of the 54,922 arrivals into Spain this year have been by sea, according to the International Organization for Migration. More than 2,000 people have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach the European country, with over 550 of them having departed from Morocco.
The numbers would have been far greater if Morocco had not prevented nearly 70,000 attempts to cross into Spain this year, authorities in the North African country say.
“Since 2004, we’ve aborted 500,000 attempts to cross into Europe, mainly via sea, and dismantled around 3,000 networks. We have around 13,000 guards in the north covering around 1,100km. That patrolling is costing Morocco over 200m euros ($228m) annually,” Khalid Zerouali, Morocco’s border control chief, said.
These “preventive measures” include routine police raids to move migrants from the country’s north to the south.
But migrants and rights groups told Al Jazeera that authorities were using force and committing human rights violations during these operations.
“I have been taken to the south 10 times,” a migrant from Ivory Coast, who did not wish to be identified, said at a camp by the main bus station in the port city of Casablanca.
“I was arrested and put in a police car with dogs. From the police station, I was put on a bus with other migrants and taken near the Algerian border. I then had to beg on the streets to make enough money for a bus ride back up.”
Inside the camp, rows of rooms are covered with plastic sheets which serve as roofs and walls. The pillars are made up of wooden slabs. The sheets are tightly knitted but the rainwater has managed to find its way through.
On the tarmac in the middle of the camp, some residents are chasing a football around as music plays in the background. Others wait on the side, hoping their friends will bring back lunch – often, their only meal of the day.
Near to the camp’s entrance, a big hole in the ground is filled with rainwater and sewerage. This spot also serves as the toilet for the camp’s inhabitants after they were barred from using the bus station’s facilities by the security guards.
Around 340km to the north, a similar tale of despair, misery, and resilience, unfolds in the forest in Tangier.
A recent storm makes it hard to walk up the steep and slippery slopes.
Here, the migrants have collected discarded mattresses to make their stay slightly more comfortable. But with winter approaching, sleeping under the trees can get challenging.
Firewood serves as fuel to cook meals, often a broth of tomatoes and potatoes, while metal cans are used to collect rainwater, which is used to wash clothes.
A man from Ghana points to what remained of the burned belongings of a previous group of migrants, blaming a police raid the previous week that managed to evict almost all the inhabitants.
According to Amnesty International, at least 5,000 people have been “swept up in the raids” around Morocco, “piled on to buses and abandoned in remote areas close to the Algerian border or in the south”.
The UK-based rights group has termed the “large-scale crackdown” as “cruel and unlawful”.
Zerouali denies these claims, adding that the raids are targeting networks that are exploiting migrants who have been “brainwashed by Europe’s pull factor”.
“There have been no violations by the authorities. What we’re doing is according to our laws. We encourage migrants to settle down in Morocco but can’t allow behaviour that is against our laws and act before a crime [illegal migration into Europe] is committed.”
In 2013, Morocco launched a migrant regularisation programme through which it has granted residency permits to more than 50,000 migrants, in a move designed to change Morocco’s image from that of a transit country to a host nation.
Authorities say the permit allows access to jobs, healthcare, training and education.
But for Said Tbel, of the Moroccan Human Rights Association, the situation 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.
“Morocco is using these migrants as a pressure card in negotiations with the European Union. It takes them to the border cities to put pressure on Europe. When they get what they want, these migrants are moved back south.”
With little or no money left, the migrants are forced to sleep on the streets, under bridges or in makeshift shelters until they can collect enough money – often by begging at traffic lights and earning the equivalent of two dollars a day – to make their way back up north.
They then need to save up enough for a spot on the boat destined for Spain.
Dei, 46, arrived in Morocco from the Democratic Republic of Congo 15 years ago. He lives in Tangier with his wife and their three children, as well as his sister-in-law.
Even though he obtained the residency permit four years ago, he says he has been unable to find a regular job and is constantly harassed by police. He wants to save up enough to take his family to Spain on a boat.
“If we had proper jobs and were treated well, we would’ve stayed in Morocco. But that’s not happening,” Dei says inside his small one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Tangier. He says the area was full of other migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, but constant police raids and inability to find jobs drove those people away.
“We are mistreated by the authorities. We get told to go back to Rabat. My wife had a horrible time giving birth here in Morocco all three times. It’s very difficult for us. There’s no way we can go back to DRC. We want to go to Europe.”
Back at the Tangier forest, the sentiment is the same
“I believe that what doesn’t kill you only make you stronger. I can’t go back,” said Hadj.
“Everything I’ve been through has made me more motivated to get to Europe. This is our path to Europe. I will keep trying and trying because I know one day my luck will smile at me.”
(A week after the interview, Hadj managed to reach Spain via the sea route).
Translation and additional reporting by Aziz Allilou