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Story Publication logo October 16, 2018

African Migrants Now Departing From Morocco to Europe


Image by PBS NewsHour. 2018.

As economic migrants and refugees continue their march towards Europe, Spain has replaced Italy as...

Image by Malcolm Brabant from PBS Newshour. Morocco, 2018.
Image by Malcolm Brabant from PBS Newshour. Morocco, 2018.

Read the Full Transcript Below

Judy Woodruff:

Over the past few months, Libya has cracked down on African migrants seeking to flee to Europe. Italy has also clamped down on migrants who make it to their shores.

As a result, Morocco has become the new jumping-off point from the African continent for those who want to go to Europe.

One flash point is Ceuta. It's a Spanish enclave at the northern tip of the country.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant recently traveled there and has this report, which was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

Malcolm Brabant:

This is Tangier, a bustling port city in Northwestern Morocco. The country, ruled by a king with considerable power, is the latest springboard for African migrants trying to make it across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Its importance has grown recently since Italy began closing its ports to migrants rescued at sea. The north Moroccan coast is less than 10 miles from Spanish holiday beaches.

In recent days, there have been protests after a smuggler's vessel heading for Spain was shot up by the Moroccan military and a 19-year-old Moroccan student called Hayat was killed.

Ahmed Benchemsi:

Up until today, the only official comment on this tragic incident mentioned the suspicious behavior of the skipper as the reason why coast guards opened fire. They didn't mention any weapons. They didn't mention any imminent threat coming from the boat. And that would have been the only legal justification for shooting at the boat.

Malcolm Brabant:

Ahmed Benchemsi is a Moroccan journalist and advocacy and communications director for Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division.

Ahmed Benchemsi:

Moroccan authorities pledged to investigate. Well, we really hope they do, and quick. And we really hope they publicize the results as well. That's what we call them to do. And also we hope they hold of all those responsible accountable for the tragic death of that young lady.

Malcolm Brabant:

Moroccan anger has been fueled by this video on social media, which suggested it was shot on board the Moroccan military vessel.

But all is not what it seems. This wasn't the Moroccan attack. The footage was taken from a YouTube compilation of American and Russian operations against pirates operating off the coast of Somalia earlier this decade.

We wanted to get more accurate details about the story and drove towards the town of Tetouan, not far from where the attack took place, and doing our best to remain incognito.

I'm having to be extremely discreet about filming here because Morocco is an authoritarian state. It doesn't welcome outside scrutiny, and there are police checkpoints all the way along this road in Northern Morocco.

In Tetouan, we found someone who knew where the victim was from, and we headed up into a hilly district. But we didn't stay long.

We came here to try to interview the family of the young girl who was on the boat that was going to Spain when it was attacked by the Moroccan marines and they killed her. And we were hoping we would get the family's story. But there was a police guard on the home. We were advised that there were secret policemen around there, and we were told to leave for our own security. So, we have done that. And we hope we can get back to Tangier with our film intact.

What happened in these waters remains murky. The Moroccan government says the navy was targeting the captain of the smugglers boat, and not the migrants on board. It says people be angry at mafia gangs operating in the Straits of Gibraltar, not the government.

Morocco is under pressure from the European Union to restrict the numbers of migrants heading across the Mediterranean. This geographical anomaly is a flash point. It's the town of Ceuta, which is a Spanish territory on a peninsula of the North African coast.

If migrants can get beyond the fortifications surrounding Ceuta, they have a foothold in the European Union. And in late July, some 600 Africans did just that, breaching the border en masse.

The tactic of the migrants has been to gather in sufficient numbers so they can overwhelm the Spanish guards. Normally, in the past, scores of sub-Saharan Africans could be seen along the road between Tangier and Ceuta making their way to and from camps deep in the forests near Ceuta, waiting for an opportune moment to enter the Spanish enclave.

But now it's different. We are trying to find African migrants who are hiding out as they attempt to find a way through to get to Europe. But the locals we have spoken to so far say that the Africans have disappeared.

Back in the old town in Tangier, we found some lying low in a cheap hotel, where they face constant eviction. We met a 29-year-old man from Senegal who didn't want to be identified. He said he feared being murdered.

He was sharing a room with two fellow nationals and had just made his way back to Tangier after twice being arrested by police and bused to the south of the country.

Man (through translator):

They wanted to take us, to put us somewhere a long way from here. They wanted to take us to Dakhla. They took us to Tiznit, I think the Algerian border, et cetera.

Ahmed Benchemsi:

Well, of course, Europe wants Morocco to keep people. And the way Morocco does, it is not really of concern to European nations, specifically Spain. And there were reports of ill treatment and harassment and raids on informal camps of migrants by security forces in Morocco. There were also reports of racial profiling, people being arrested and moved to a place far away to the south just because they were black.

Malcolm Brabant:

But the Moroccan government insists that operations transferring migrants to other cities are legitimate attempts to combat illegal migration. Such operations, however, don't deter the high school-educated commercial agent from Senegal.

Man (through translator):

I came here simply to go to Europe. That is my objective. That's what I want. I need to stay here to earn a little money to cross the sea, but, actually, to cross the sea is difficult. You need to pass without getting caught or thrown out.

Question (through translator):

Are you afraid of the sea?

Man (through translator):

No, I'm not frightened of the sea. I have no hope in this country. It's death or a new life. That's it.

Malcolm Brabant:

At dusk, just as prayers were beginning, we ran into some more sub-Saharan Africans, some of whom were not afraid of speaking out publicly.

But we only had the briefest of conversations because, once again, we were starting to attract unwanted attention. Siafa Ekolamu is 25 and comes from Guinea in West Africa.

Siafa Ekolamu:

I tried to go to Spain two times on the sea. And we just saw the navy come, the Moroccan navy came around and catch all of us and take our boat and shove the knife inside and spoil the boat.

Malcolm Brabant:

Earlier, before we were forced to leave Tetouan, we met a young man called Abdoulaye Doumbia, who also asked us to protect his identity. He too came from Guinea and had been walking across Africa for more than a year. He first tried to reach Europe by taking the route from Libya to Italy.

We went high up into the old town by the tannery to find a quiet place to talk. And, as he explained, as so often happens, everything went sour in Libya.

Abdoulaye Doumbia (through translator): Me, I wanted to cross as well. We left Libya by sea, but the police, the coast guard caught us there. They put us in prison for three months. Then they freed us. I tried to go to Tunisia, but I saw there was nothing there. And so I came here to Morocco.

Malcolm Brabant:

Despite the police crackdowns and the dangers at sea, Doumbia is not turning back.

Abdoulaye Doumbia (through translator): The only reason I am here is to go to Europe or Spain. That's all. That's all. It's my dream.

Malcolm Brabant:

Like so many migrants, Doumbia was oblivious to the notion that much of Europe doesn't want him or his fellow travelers, and that hardship and prejudice may await him should he make it across the water.

Nations may place obstacles in their way, but dreamers believe any barrier is surmountable.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Morocco.


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