The Crossing


by Isabella Alexander published at

Anthropologist, Writer, Filmmaker. Check out photos from behind the scenes of my latest documentary at

The EU is ignoring international laws it helped found as it tries to turn Morocco into a ‘final destination’ for African migrants.

“In the Congo, you grow up thinking about escape. When I was little, no one asked me what I wanted to become. They asked me where I wanted to go.”

Sub-Saharan African refugees and migrants attempt to cross the razor-wire fences that separate Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. (Jose Palazon/GlobalPost)
Editor’s note: Names in this story have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Beni is 14 years old. He sleeps on a blanket in the forest, he eats what he can scavenge from trash cans in the town at the base of the mountain, and he is not alone. He is one of thousands of young men and boys who camp at the southernmost border to Europe, awaiting their chance at “The Crossing.”
Morocco, curving around the northwest corner of Africa, is less than eight miles from southern Spain. It is also still home to the colonial-era Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. This makes the country one of the primary crossing points for all African migrants and refugees — hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children — who dream of escape every year. As the only African nation to share land borders with Europe, Morocco brings this dream within reach. From the forest camp where I spent weeks sleeping alongside Beni and his “brothers” this summer, there are only a series of fences separating those desperately fleeing war and poverty from the promise of a second chance at life in an internally borderless European Union.

Beni, 14, sits on a rock on the outskirts of his forest camp in Morocco. The Spanish enclave of Melilla is in the distance. (Isabella Alexander/GlobalPost)
Beni’s camp is all but impossible to find without a guide, and he wants it that way. They change location every few weeks, pushing further and further into the woods, further and further from the town below. “The longer we have to walk past the last road, the longer the police have to run after us,” he said, explaining how the weekly raids on their camp, which always result in bruised and bloodied bodies, drive their movement. “The police don’t like to run this far.” It is a tireless attempt to evade the Spanish-funded Moroccan forces who are stationed around the mountain.
As I had witnessed in my previous visits — and as bandaged men and boys scattered around me were evidence of — raiding officers target the hands, feet, arms and legs of those they capture.
“You can’t climb without your limbs,” Beni explained.
The police know that these forest camps are home to migrants and refugees preparing for The Crossing, and like Beni, they also know that crossing requires strength, agility, and the use of one’s feet. “We used to sleep under tents, but tents make us easier to find, so now we don’t bother building them.”
While staying in the encampments across the valley on Mount Gourougou in 2014, I had seen migrants and refugees construct these “tents” — pieces of repurposed plastic bags secured over bent tree limbs with “rope” made from torn-up old T-shirts. I had also seen how routinely their tents were burned to the ground in weekly police raids. I had countless photographs of blue plastic melting over the few possessions that boys like Beni had to their name — a blanket, a tattered pair of pants, and if they hadn’t already been burned, a photograph or two of their parents or younger siblings left back home.
The mountainside is dotted with hidden camps, visible only when you catch a hint of sunlight reflecting off of blue plastic or see the flickering of small bonfires between the shadows of trees at night. Each “brotherhood,” as they call them, is formed along lines of nationality — the Senegalese in one camp, the Malians, the Cote D’Ivoirians, the Nigerians, and the Congolese in others.
The chief of Beni’s camp, a man named Dikembe, has a generous nature and a soft voice. He explained how he chose to stop building tents after their last move further up the mountainside. “Now, more than half of us in the Congolese camp are children — boys only 13 or 14 years old, like Bambino,” he said, nodding his head affectionately toward Beni. “I have to make a greater effort to protect them.” At 25, Dikembe is an elder among his brotherhood, and he gained his status of chief through his age, his resourcefulness, and the knowledge he acquired in his impressive number of attempted crossings. “Every time you cross, you learn something new. You test your will.”

Dikembe, 25, lies in his tent. He is the leader of the camp comprised of migrants and refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Among his many responsibilities, training for “the crossing” weighs on him the heaviest. (Isabella Alexander/GlobalPost)
The rhythm of life in each camp centers around survival — food, water, warmth, and a sleeping place hidden from those below. Although the small communities are transient, with new members arriving every week and groups regularly breaking off for attempted crossings, each chief maintains a structure within the boundaries of his camp. Under Dikembe, everyone is assigned a duty that keeps their camp running — “food duty,” which entails scavenging through trash cans and occasionally begging for money with outstretched hands on street corners, or “water duty,” which entails trekking several miles with plastic jugs to be filled at the creek on the other side of the mountain, or when the creek runs dry, at the spigot behind an unsuspecting town person’s home.
Any job that brings one into contact with the public is dangerous, as beatings at the hands of townspeople threaten just like those from police officers. “We have to live in the forest like animals,” Beni said, “because the Moroccans don’t want us living beside them. They don’t want to see us in their towns, and when they do, they throw rocks at us and shout ‘Azzi!’” Azzi is a racial slur sometimes hurled at sub-Saharan Africans.
Back at camp, Dikembe busies himself with preparing their one daily meal, combining the previous day’s scavenging in a large cast iron pot over an open fire that he brings to life with the friction of two rocks. “One summer back home, I cooked in a restaurant,” he says with a glint of pride in his eyes, looking through the bag of ingredients that he has to work with for the night. “I can make dinner out of almost anything.” The half-rotten onion and dozen bruised tomatoes he finds will be combined with what remains in the sack of rice beside the fire-pit — a couple of half-eaten loaves of bread on the side. He tells me that salt and sugar are among their most prized possessions. “But, this week, we have none.” Police make an effort to pour any bags of salt, rice, or other food supplies out in the dirt when they raid camps.
When not cooking, Dikembe’s other primary responsibility is preparing his brothers for their crossings. This task, no chief takes lightly.
Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees use Morocco as a passageway into Europe in one of four ways. The few among them with financial resources at hand carry false passports across international borders by land, sea, or air. Many others less fortunate pile into small wooden fishing boats captained by smugglers from Tangiers across the Strait of Gibraltar, or into even smaller inflatable rafts that they self-captain from Ceuta or Melilla to the nearest European coast. Yet, even this option requires some financial investment. Those who have been scared away by the images of capsized boats and small lifeless bodies washed ashore attempt to stow away in the trunks, engines, or specially constructed underbelly cages of cars and trucks crossing into European territory. This, too, requires having some money to pay the smuggler behind the wheel, and it has gotten increasingly difficult in recent years, as it is now routine procedure for the Spanish officials working both sides of the northern Moroccan borders to attach sonic devices to the hoods of every passing vehicle, checking for the number of heartbeats inside.
Because scaling the fences around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla requires no smuggling fees, no purchasing of false documents, no life jackets or iron cages, it is the route taken by the most desperate. And because, in the forest camps of northern Morocco, the most desperate are the majority, it is the route taken by nearly all.
Want more? Help fund the documentary about the migrant crisis in Morocco: “The Burning: An Untold Story from the Other Side of the Migrant Crisis.”
The Crossing, as it is called, is planned and trained for like a military mission, and the chief of each camp stands as the officer in charge. “It is a great responsibility,” Dikembe said. “I go into each crossing knowing that I may lose some of my brothers, and in the hours before we leave, I always question — Did I do enough to prepare them? Did we build our ladders strong enough? Will the guards be out in force tonight?” Boys like Beni camp in the forest for months on end, awaiting their chance. As the time passes, each sprawling camp grows in numbers, making it more and more difficult to evade the police that threaten to burn their last belongings and decimate their food and water supplies, after beating them or deporting those who are captured to the Algerian border. But Beni knows that they need numbers to succeed.
“If 500 of us start out, maybe fifty of us will reach the top of the first fence, maybe five the second, and maybe one of us will make it all the way across,” Dikembe said. Despite these discouraging odds, he works to build morale among his younger brothers, telling them that without banding together, none of them will stand a fighting chance. And so they train, constructing ladders from tree limbs and rope, running test missions at nightfall, and subsisting on what little they have. “We all know that the longer it takes for a group to band together, the weaker our bodies will grow,” said one recent arrival to the camp. It takes both practice and strength to master the physically grueling feat of crossing, and as Dikembe believes, “it takes God on your side.”
Spain has now invested in multiple rings of razor-wire fences around Melilla. Yet, the camps are crawling with stories of success. On the small cracked screen of a cell phone, the boys pull up photograph after photograph of “heroes” for me to see. They show me brothers who have made it to the receiving camp on the other side that is run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, feet bleeding and clothes torn. And they show me brothers who have passed through the receiving process for asylum seekers and are now thriving in their new lives in mainland Europe. One wears the uniform of his “good job,” where he works as a prep cook in an overcrowded kitchen. Another is standing beside a cement mixer on a dusty construction site. “They are living our dream,” I hear one boy say over my shoulder. As the sun sinks lower in the sky and the fire begins crackling, I look toward Beni — small, but strong. He is young and tired and hungry and hopeful. In training, I have seen him run quickly, his eyes always fixed on the path in front of him. He runs without fear. Dikembe tells me, “Bambino has God on his side.”

A pair of flip flops, left behind by a refugee, lies on the ground in the Sahara Desert near the border of Algeria and Libya. Many sub-Saharan Africans who are caught crossing into one of the Spanish enclaves in Morocco are driven to the Sahara Desert near Morocco’s border with Algeria and dropped there without food or water. This is an illegal form of repatriation under international law. (Reuters)
Beni left home two years before he finally reached Morocco. By the age of 12, he had lost both of his parents and had no way of taking care of his younger siblings at home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — a nation ripped apart by decades of bloody civil war and political corruption and now struggling under the heavy weight of poverty. “My father was killed in the fighting when I was a boy, but for a while after, my mother and I took care of our family.” His mother worked the small patch of land beside their home, and they sold what little excess they had in the marketplace — just enough to supplement their diet of yams and cassava with some sugar and goat’s milk. “On special occasions, like if someone in the village got married, we ate some goat’s meat, too,” he remembered. Their home was constructed of mud bricks and a thatched roof, but it wasn’t set in a scenic landscape dotted with traditional huts. Instead, Beni describes a village overcrowded with homes, homes overcrowded with people, and struggling crops squeezed in the narrow alleyways between them. The crumbling infrastructure of his community led to failing irrigation and sewage systems. Spoiled harvests and sick residents soon followed. “We had no money for the hospital, no money for doctors or medicine, so we had to watch my mother die at home,” he said one early morning as we walked down the rocky path with empty water jugs in hand. “I tried to busy my little brother and sister with chores outside of the house, so they wouldn’t have to see her suffering.” Tears filled his eyes as he described his mother’s final days. After his mother died, Beni — just 12 years old — struggled to keep his younger siblings alive.
“I had no choice. I could stay at home and watch my little brother and sister starve to death, or I could leave my home and try to find work. First, I traveled to the bigger cities, but I couldn’t find any work, not even in Kinshasa. So, I traveled past my country’s borders. I had never left my village before, and suddenly, I was alone in a foreign country. I walked for days, and I hitched rides on passing trucks. I slept on the streets, and I begged for change. Sometimes, people would leave scraps of food for me, and I would find them at my feet when I woke up. I met many other boys on the streets who had also left their homes to find work. It seemed like no countries had any work to give us, so we kept traveling north. Now we are here at the final border. We have traveled so far, and if you ask any of us, we will tell you the same thing. We will make it to Europe or we will die trying. There is no other way home for us now.­”
In many ways, Beni’s story is a familiar one among African migrants and refugees situated along the southern borders to the European Union. He grew up in a small town, where families had once made their way on subsistence farming. As this way of life became increasingly difficult, women took their staple crops to the local markets to sell or trade, and men began venturing farther beyond the boundaries of their rural communities to seek labor in larger cities.
“When I was young,” explained one migrant from Mali, “mine was a small town full of families. Today, I hear it is a strange town full of women and children. The men have all left to find work.”
Dikembe came from a larger city in the DRC, and he explained how it is not only poverty, but also civil war that has devastated the surrounding villages like the one where Beni was born. For Dikembe, the choice to leave was the only way to avoid forced military inscription. At 18, he couldn’t envision himself becoming a soldier for the army that had killed his father and, as he sees it, ruined his country for future generations.
“The civil war broke out after one leader won the presidency in the Congo’s first democratic election. The former president took his position back, and the people split, some supporting the old leader and some the new. When there is civil war in a country, the citizens all start to take advantage of one another. There was looting everywhere. There were soldiers everywhere in the streets. The good people were terrorized by them every day. The state’s military was formed through forced service, because the government was too poor to pay the soldiers, and no man would choose to join. The army was young and inexperienced. They were children. Education was the only way out. If you had a good job, then you were left free to work, and if you had a high school diploma, then you were made an officer. I would have been a simple foot soldier. My mother always wanted better for me, but I couldn’t leave her alone in such a dangerous place. I decided to leave after she grew sick and died. I had no one left at home to protect.”
Thinking about the brother and sister he left behind, Beni grows serious. “I worry a lot about what has become of them.” He left them with a distant cousin, promising as so many departing migrants do that he would repay his cousin richly once he reached European shores. “I will get a good job, and I will send all of my money home to them. Then, my cousin will be happy.”
However, Beni knows that his cousin’s house already had too many hungry children to feed before he added to his burden. And he knows that every day, his siblings are a heavier burden to carry. Standing at a lanky 5 feet 6 inches tall, Beni keeps his black hair closely cropped with Dikembe’s razor blade. His face is round and full, his skin a smooth, deep ebony, his eyes amber and wide in the light. He looks at least two years younger than his 14 years and better suited for beginning middle school in the fall than crossing international borders on his own. Yet, I know from all of my time spent listening to the stories of other migrants who traveled before him that Beni has been aged by his last two years. Extortion and abuse always accompany long journeys like the one he took — paying smugglers to help him cross into Mali or Mauritania, then making the treacherous passage across the Sahara Desert and into Morocco by way of Algeria, where gangs armed with dogs and machetes hide out waiting to attack those who enter.
“Once I have a good job in Europe,” he continued, “I will buy my brother and sister plane tickets, so they won’t have to do the crossing like me. Someday, I will tell them my stories, and they won’t believe them all, but they will be so thankful for me.”
When you have sacrificed everything you have to get to where you are standing, when you have no place to return to, and when the people who you call home are depending on your success for their very survival, the stakes are high. At 14 and 25, Beni and Dikembe speak about their lives like a game of chance. Their pasts toughened them. Their present tortures them. And they hide their fierce determination for a future beneath faces that give way a little too easily to a smile. “We have suffered great things,” Beni said. “But we know that someday the suffering will end.” Standing at the northern look-out point of their camp, his eyes are focused on the waters of the Mediterranean just below. Mainland Spain is a glimmering shore in the distance, and the Spanish enclave of Melilla is a lush green pasture almost reachable past the razor-wire.

A group of sub-Saharan Africans attempt to cross the razor-wire fences that separate Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. (Jose Palazon/GlobalPost)
They wait until the darkest hours of night to storm the fences. It is a daunting ring of three 20-foot-high, razor-wire fences, every inch under video surveillance by the Guardia Civil, Spain’s oldest law enforcement agency. As a national military force carrying out police duties, the Guardia Civil operating in Spanish Morocco is tasked primarily with patrolling the borders and controlling the flow of migrants and refugees from Africa. But Beni has trained for this moment. Their ladders have been stashed in the bushes nearby. Their order has been selected. They have practiced it again and again. “It is an honor to be in the first round of stormers,” Dikembe said. “It means that you are one of the strongest, the fastest — but it is also a sacrifice.” The older, more experienced brothers are expected to go first. And they accept this position, knowing that there will be no one in front of them guaranteeing their safety, even if they succeed in crossing all three fences. Touching foot to Spanish soil no longer grants an individual any rights.

An officer from the Guardia Civil patrols the fences along the border with Morocco. The Guardia Civil is a Spanish national military force performing police duties. Their actions against refugees and migrants crossing the border, at the direction of the Spanish government, are often illegal and abusive. (Isabella Alexander/GlobalPost)
I have seen it before — the first round of men and boys run in unison at the first fence, throwing their ladders up so the metal hooks they have constructed on the tops of each ladder will catch on the crest of the fence. With their shoes removed to have greater dexterity gripping the chain link, they clamber, all fingers and toes, up the fence and grasp for the hanging ladders above them. Once they have reached the top of the first fence, they wait, positioned to help the second round of stormers following behind them. They toss their ladders down to the dusty patch of land between the first two fences only after the third and final group of stormers has reached the top and then they repeat the exercise — again hooking their ladders and clambering up the second and third fences. They are expected to pull up and ease down those who grow weak or tired behind them. But it is after they have reached the top of the final fence, their hands and feet now open wounds, their clothing shredded by the wires, that the real sacrifice begins. Leaving their ladders suspended on the other side of the third fence, the first round of stormers make a perilous jump to the ground — and often, into the arms of the Guardia Civil waiting below. “If we are lucky,” Dikembe said, “there may only be one guard for every five of us. But if we aren’t lucky, then there will be five guards for every one of us.”
“Don’t let your body feel the pain. Pain will slow you down. Hold the ladder steady for the one behind you. Don’t drop it until you are certain that everyone has reached the top. When you reach the other side, RUN.”
Ceuta and Melilla represent the front lines of the European Union’s fight against undocumented migration. Inside of these Spanish enclaves, sub-Saharan bodies carry little value. They are routinely beaten and occasionally killed at the hands of Spanish authorities, with little to no media attention given to the ensuing cases. Those who make it over the border first are expected to serve as a diversion when officers are waiting below, occupying their rubber bullets and wooden batons, as the second and third round of brothers storm down the final fence behind them. Beni will be placed toward the back of the pack. “I think I am strong enough to run in the front,” he tells me, “but the younger boys always get placed behind the others.”
The camp falls quiet as Dikembe starts to speak, giving last minute instructions and reassuring them with the knowledge he has gained in his attempts. “I have crossed six times now,” he said, with humility. “So the boys will listen to me.” There is mounting excitement as dusk falls and the group prepares for their trek down the backside of the mountain, where they will stage themselves in the bush alongside their hidden ladders until the moment is right. I hear Dikembe in fragmented whispers. “Don’t let your body feel the pain. Pain will slow you down. Hold the ladder steady for the one behind you. Don’t drop it until you are certain that everyone has reached the top.” And most importantly, “When you reach the other side, RUN.”

Dikembe sits on the outskirts of his camp. (Isabella Alexander/GlobalPost)
He instructs his brothers to put one bloodied foot in front of the other and run as quickly and directly as they can toward the low cement structure that serves as a UNHCR-associated receiving camp and the place that they have all been taught to recognize as “Europe.” In fact, any migrant or refugee touching foot in Melilla is firmly planted within the borders of the European Union — a union that has been foundational to our current international human rights conventions. Yet, within the confines of Spanish Morocco, legal conventions have been twisted in the name of “enforcing borders,” and even unaccompanied minors with legal claims to protection are routinely pushed back across the border into the hell that they have just risked their lives trying to escape. The rare ones among them who reach the safety of the receiving center are granted a review of their case — meaning that asylum status is granted to those who are found to be legal refugees, giving them the freedom to move on to mainland Europe. Migrants who fail to meet the criteria of refugees — whose homes are deemed safe and who are found to have reasonable means of survival there — should in theory be repatriated to their countries of origin. “In all of my attempts,” Dikembe said, once we were alone, “my journey ended in the hands of the Guardia Civil. If you are lucky, then they beat you, open the door in the fence, and push you back onto the other side. If you aren’t lucky, then they deport you to the desert and you must start again at zero.” As chief, Dikembe lives in constant fear of his brothers being illegally “repatriated” to the desolate stretch of the Sahara that runs along the Algerian-Moroccan border, where he knows all too well that chances of survival can be slim.
But he has a good feeling about this crossing.

Beni and two other boys in his camp look at photographs of the lucky few who have successfully made the crossing to Europe. (Isabella Alexander/GlobalPost)
Beni is wearing his one pair of tattered jeans and one of two T-shirts. It is his favorite one, the one with “Lacoste” printed in large letters across the back. “I like the alligator,” he tells me, as he takes his shoes off by loosening the tape holding them in place and stashes them beside a tree. “It brings me strength.” Nervously, he plays with the bracelet he has strung together from dried flower stems. He has a habit of humming to himself. The watchman goes down to get a count of the guards, taking caution to walk quietly. He places his feet on rocky patches to avoid crunching leaves underfoot. When he returns to whisper his findings, Dikembe can’t hide his disappointment. The guards are on both sides of the border tonight. They will have to carry their ladders to the other end of the fence — a greater distance from the receiving center — and Dikembe decides at the last minute to split the group. Pulling Beni and some others with him, the rest are instructed to return to the camp. “We can’t risk losing everyone.”

African migrants and refugees gesture for help after reaching the top of one of the border fences separating Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. (Reuters)
In the past months, global media have turned our attention to a migrant and refugee crisis unfolding in Europe, and the numbers are powerful. According to the United Nations, nearly 1.3 million arrived seeking refuge on European shores in 2015. More than 25 percent of them were under the age of 18. Thousands of unnamed others lost their lives in attempted crossings. Yet the lesser-told stories heard in the makeshift camps from migrants and refugees still on the other side of the European border reveal a crisis of equally grave proportions. While headline attention has gone elsewhere, the European Union has been molding Morocco into a final destination country for migrants and refugees attempting to make their way north, and there is indication that they are striving to do the same to Turkey, as record numbers flee political instability in Syria and across the Middle East.
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all citizens of the world are guaranteed the right to seek asylum in other countries. These laws were originally created by the UN General Assembly so that every individual, whether fleeing the war-torn landscapes of Beni’s home country or the poverty-stricken cities that he encountered in his journey across western Africa, would have the chance to seek a safer tomorrow. However, the conditions under which a country should be declared unsafe and an individual should be granted asylum have been contested by the signing nations since the declaration’s conception — often in response to a country’s own needs to bolster a struggling economy with cheap sources of labor.
European nations are now overwhelmed with the numbers fleeing war and poverty, and as a result, they have started pushing back. As the stories of Beni, Dikembe, and so many others like them reveal, the Guardia Civil now routinely pushes migrants and refugees back across the border into Morocco before they have a chance to apply for asylum. Spanish officials, operating on Moroccan soil, are then free to carry out abuses that would be punishable under the European Union — improperly repatriating, beating, and even killing those who dare to make a second attempt at crossing. The categories of “refugee” and “migrant” were first established to serve the political motivations of post-World War II Europe, and as Europe stands in the midst of a new migrant and refugee crisis today, they continue to be a reflection of political ambitions. Yet the personal stories of those trapped on the other side of the border show just how easily the defining factors of those fleeing a homeland and those seeking economic mobility in a new one can be muddled.

The Guardia Civil office in the Spanish enclave of Melilla. (Isabella Alexander/GlobalPost)
In reality, all of those setting out on journeys like Beni’s are migrants until their cases have been reviewed and an international legal body has officially granted them the status of “refugee.” According to Spain’s own Law on the Right to Asylum and Refugee Status, every individual arriving on Spanish shores has the right to apply for asylum. Once their application is filed, they have the right to interpreters, legal counsel, medical assistance, and state-sponsored accommodation until their case has been reviewed. Yet, the popular argument for “punishing” the journeys of “illegal immigrants” never speaks to the illegality of push-backs at the Moroccan border. In the spring of 2015, the president of the Melilla government, Juan Jose Imbroda Ortiz, reiterated earlier remarks to international media when he announced that the aim of returning Africans to Morocco — in place of hearing their cases or properly repatriating them to their countries of origin — was to “eliminate the prize” of letting them stay in Spain for a review of their applications after having entered “illegally.”
Ortiz’s original comments had marked an important shift — a moment in which, for the first time, Spanish officials publicly acknowledged their practice of “pushing-back.” The following day, Spain’s cabinet quietly approved a $3.3 million “aid package,” to be divided between Melilla and Ceuta, which have a combined population of less than 150,000 Spanish residents. According to a press release from Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, the president was hopeful that this package would “compensate the efforts of both cities to address illegal immigration before it reaches our shores.” While Ortiz failed to field questions from reporters about the six sub-Saharan migrants fatally shot by Moroccan security forces the weekend before, he did note that along with structural improvements to the borders, security forces would be outfitted with new weapons, and numbers on the Moroccan side would be strengthened by the addition of more Spanish border control teams.
This all came on the heels of reports issued by Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders, which detailed pervasive police brutality on both sides of the Moroccan-Spanish border, and the alleged failure of Moroccan and Spanish forces to uphold international laws in their illicit deportation practices. In the winter of 2013, the international community was shocked by the discovery of 92 sub-Saharan migrant bodies. Among them were 32 women and 48 children. According to local authorities, “We found bodies scattered over a large area. Some were lying under trees, others exposed to the sun. Sometimes we found a mother huddled over her children. Sometimes we found children alone.” The few who survived long enough to make it to the nearest town on foot claimed that the others had died of thirst and exposure after their smuggler’s truck had broken down. “It is here,” claimed a Doctors Without Borders representative, “without food or water, that officials are instructed to deport migrants and refugees who are captured at the European borders.” Following the publication of their report, which named Morocco’s migrant crisis as one of the most critical global humanitarian crises and also named Spain as a key player in it, Doctors Without Borders was asked to leave the country. This means that for the migrants and refugees routinely beaten back to their forest camps or deported farther south to the unforgiving desert, there is no longer any outside organization present to provide them with basic medical services.

One of the boys living in the camp sits outside his tent, where he awaits his chance to attempt the crossing. (Isabella Alexander/GlobalPost)
If European authorities now consider Morocco the final destination, the migrants and refugees living there consider it something very different. Before reaching the forest, Beni spent several months in the sprawling urban slums that are home to the majority of Morocco’s sub-Saharan travelers — most of the men, women, and children either scraping together enough money to attempt The Crossing, or having recently been deported from the Spanish border to the desert and trying to make their way back to the forest again. The stories that Beni and his brotherhood share make clear how even beyond their camp, the routine exploitation and abuse at the hands of Moroccan police, landlords, and employers make it impossible for them to amass enough money to leave. “Even if one of us grows tired of this cycle and decides that we would be better off returning home,” Dikembe said, “it takes money to leave.” Morocco has become a kind of purgatory for those trapped here.
With local racism rising as quickly as Morocco’s migrant population, landlords throughout the country commonly refuse to rent to sub-Saharan tenants. Those who do charge higher rents, require multiple months of payment as a security deposit, and are known for taking money without providing housing or evicting migrants after one month without returning their deposits. Countless times, I heard similar accounts from migrants who took jobs from Moroccans and were left with no course of action when their employers failed to pay them. As one Congolese man said, “I can’t go to the police when I’m cheated or attacked. If I present a problem, then I am the problem.” Migrants tell stories of “apartment searches,” which routinely result in goods being stolen by their landlords, and I frequently witnessed what they call “pat-downs” by police officers, in which the officers pick their pockets.
Like apartment searches, routine pat-downs make it impossible for migrants to accumulate any money. They cannot leave money in their homes, and they cannot carry it on their bodies. Even those who creatively cut open their shoes to store coins under their soles were eventually found out. I saw migrants approached by uniformed Moroccan officers while awaiting buses on crowded street corners, hawking goods in the marketplace, or walking down the street with their children in hand. The officers searched their bodies and dumped all of their belongings out onto the street before taking anything of value that was found. Many times, the response to this theft — “Please, brother, no!” — was met with violent assault. Police leave migrants bloodied, bruised, and sprawled out on the street like their belongings, as people casually walk by.

African migrants and refugees often live in desperate conditions in Morocco’s towns and cities. (Isabella Alexander/GlobalPost)
Migration has always been a part of the human condition, but an individual’s right to mobility is strictly defined by the political constraints of that individual’s birthright. I was born in the United States to parents who were both full citizens and was thus gifted the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — including the right to move with little restriction to 100 percent of the 162 nations that were independently recognized in the year that I was born (1984). Mohammed, a friend of mine also pursuing a Ph.D. in the social sciences during my early research in Morocco, was born in the same year, in a small town outside of Rabat to parents of Moroccan nationality. His birthright included the right to move to 35 of the world’s recognized nations. Most of these nations were located in Africa, and together they represented a selection of some of the poorest economies in the world. Even so, with the exception of a few neighboring countries like Mali or Senegal, Mohammed’s visas would be limited to between three and 90 days, and applying for them would require showing upwards of $20,000 in his personal bank account. But Mohammed’s options seem generous compared to those of Najia, a woman who I became good friends with over the course of my time in Morocco. Najia was born to Nigerian parents in Lagos in 1988. She was born without the right to move anywhere outside the African continent, with the exceptions of Barbados, Dominica, Haiti, or Fiji. Only 10 percent of the world’s borders were open to her, according to statistics published by her foreign ministry.
Correlation between opportunities for social and economic mobility within one’s own country, and the opportunity for mobility to more economically prosperous countries, is found across the globe. Born in the United States, I am statistically among the least likely to migrate in search of economic opportunities and am among the small population of global citizens for whom the world’s borders are open. Born in a country that continues to suffer from a history of colonial exploitation, political instability, and economic depression, Najia dreamed of escape. She remembers being motivated by the dream of getting a college education and finding a good job.
“I worked harder than all of the other students combined,” she said.
Until she realized that the vast majority of the world’s borders were closed to people like her.
“It was hard for me, realizing that the only way I would ever escape would be by breaking the law. I was always the best student. I was always a good daughter. I never dreamed of becoming a criminal.”
The experiences of Beni and Dikembe, Mohammed and Najia, reflect global shifts in migration that are unfolding at Morocco’s borders and beyond. In their lifetimes the countries that have long promised the possibility of a second chance to migrants and refugees — countries like Spain, France, and the United States — have reached new saturation points and begun pushing their border controls further and further south. Morocco is among the first to be impacted by this practice of pushing back. But other countries on the periphery of the European Union — much like Mexico, which is situated just south of “The American Dream” — will also be impacted by changing migration flows and new populations of “migrants-in-waiting” in the coming years.

The remnants of an attempted crossing. (Jose Palazon/GlobalPost)
As the first light touches the sky, Dikembe walks up the path to camp. He has a young boy thrown over his shoulder. The boy’s clothing is wet with blood, his eyes beaten shut. Dikembe eases him down on the ground, and we all gather to see a broken femur bone piercing through the boy’s skin. He is the most critically injured in the group, but he is not the only one. Those who skirted beatings by the guards show the ravages of razor-wire on flesh. Beni, who was placed in the third round of stormers, was only mid-way up the second fence when they received orders to turn back. The guards were too many, they were too few, and it was clear that none of them would be able to run to safety that night. The first of the watchmen had been handcuffed and forced to board a bus that would “deport” him. Dikembe, not wanting to lose all of his brothers in one mission, instructed the others to throw their ladders in the opposite direction and run. They were running back up into the forest, where they would patch their wounds and wait. Morale was surprisingly high among the brotherhood — a group well accustomed to disappointment. “Any crossing that we all escape alive,” Dikembe said, “is a small success.”
“Hrig,” the Moroccan Arabic term for “illegal immigration,” translates to “burning.” It signifies the literal burning of one’s identification papers in order to evade repatriation if arrested by European authorities, but it also signifies the symbolic burning of one’s past in hopes of a better future abroad. Morocco is now overflowing with “harragas,” African migrants and refugees who have burned their pasts, but who have little chance of ever crossing toward a safer tomorrow. Lacking the resources to turn around and beaten at every European border, they camp, they wait, they train, still dreaming of escape. “You could call this place purgatory,” Beni says, as he presses a small bundle of burning leaves on his friend’s leg to quiet the bleeding. “But we call it hell. We’re all trapped here waiting in hell.”





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