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On the border

by Floreana Miesen

In depth

Again and again, migrants try to climb over the border fence of Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in North Africa.

Again and again, migrants try to climb over the border fence of Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in North Africa.

Morocco is one big waiting room for people from Guinea, Liberia, Senegal, Cameroon and other countries. They all hope to make it to what they feel is their “promised land” in Europe. In Tangier, our author met a young Senegalese man who already made several unsuccessful attempts to travel to the EU by boat.

A café in the Medina, the historical city centre of Tangier, is a popular meeting place for transnational travellers. It serves Moroccan tea with mint and lots of sugar. Most of the people who come here are migrants from West Africa.

The café is where Bouba spends his days. For two years, the tall Senegalese man with short dreadlocks and an ear stud has been living in Tangier. He is 40 years old and used to be a professional basketball player. He even played in Morocco and Tunisia for a while. He dropped out of school to pursue his sports career. Now, he is too old to get a formal education and has nothing to fall back on. Unlike his friends in Senegal, he has neither wife nor children. “They have families and are happy,” he says, “they have no reason to migrate.”

Bouba wants to go to Europe. Like many sub-Saharan migrants, he has set his heart on a bordeaux-coloured European passport, which, in his eyes, is the certificate of freedom and infinite opportunity. He would like to head north, preferably to Denmark, Sweden or Norway. He has been told that the sun rises in Scandinavia at three in the morning, and his dream is to see that happen. He has never met anyone from the countries concerned, and hopes that people there are particularly friendly. He cannot say that of the citizens of other European nations he has met.  

Because of its location, Tangier has a long tradition of being a gateway between Europe and Africa. On clear days, one sees the mountains on the Spanish mainland from the town’s sloping streets. They seem within reach. At the narrowest point, the Straits of Gibraltar that separate Morocco from Europe are only around 14 kilometres wide. Every day, thousands of tourists make the crossing from Spain on day trips to Africa. The fastest ferry takes 35 minutes; Europeans can get a ticket for € 21.

Not everyone is granted easy entry into the EU however, so migrants like Bouba take the risk of travelling there in small boats at night. Bouba has tried to get to Spain three times. “It is easy for you,” he says, ”but for us Africans it is like a game; you have to keep trying.”

Ridiculously short distance

Considering the thousands of kilometres that many migrants travel to get to Tangier, the distance left to cross between the two continents seems ridiculously short. However, the boat ride across the sea often proves the greatest challenge of the entire journey. Many transit migrants like Bouba are stuck in Morocco for years.

The night-time crossings are organised by people smugglers and are very expensive. A place on board will cost from € 200 to more than € 1,000. Those who cannot afford such prices try to cross the Straights by paddling rubber dinghies, but they have to pay people smugglers too. They are taken to the coast at night – often near Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in Africa – and the dinghy is swiftly inflated and pushed into the water in the dark. Many migrants cannot swim.

The crossing is tough and tiring. The first challenge is to reach international waters between the two sovereign territories. “That is where we take a short rest,” Bouba says, “after having covered more than half the distance. But it is dark and we must not lose our sense of direction. A small boat can fast be swept out into the Atlantic by the strong current.” Neither Africa nor Spain can be seen from the international waters at night.

Many migrants have mobile phones. They call a friend as soon as they make it safely to the other side. Far too many, however, never ring a friend. Bouba says that a rubber boat with 15 African migrants went out to sea recently and was never heard of again. In the past 20 years, more than 23,000 people are estimated to have died on the EU’s external borders.

In 2011, the EU granted legal entry to some 1.7 million migrants from countries outside Europe. A far greater number attempted to get in, however, so the EU border control agency Frontex registered around 141,000 illegal border crossings.

What drives migrants like Bouba to cross the border illegally? They say they hope to find decent jobs with good pay. And they mention grim political, legal and economic realities back home.

Migrants often get “help” from intermediaries, people smugglers and all kinds of “travel organisers”, among whom are border officials and members of the armed forces. All helpers profit from the lucrative business of facilitating illegal entry to the EU. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI), an independent think tank, warns that the criminal industry of people smuggling is growing at an alarming rate. Recent reports of crewless boats drifting in the Mediterranean reaffirm such assessment.

Bouba’s attempts to cross the Straights have all ended in failure so far. He does not want to discuss any details. He says he has decided to speak English and claim to be from Sierra Leone if he manages to set foot on Spanish soil because Senegalese citizens are deported immediately. Spain and Senegal have a repatriation agreement. Once he is in Spain, friends will send him his Senegalese passport by mail. He has another plan, a “Plan B”, but he is keeping that one to himself.

Until his big day, he’ll have to earn some money and kill time in Tangier. Small jobs in private households allow him to make ends meet – sort of. He lives on around 600 dirhams (not quite the equivalent of € 60) a month, which is barely enough. When times get particularly hard, he asks wealthy Moroccans for help. Many migrants in Tangier live near the airport in Boukhalef. Many others live in the old city centre. Bouba spends a lot of time with other migrants in the café in the Medina. It’s a place to share experiences, he says, and a place to hang out together.

Next door, Amadou Kebe runs a restaurant with traditional Senegalese food. The room only has eight square metres. A full meal costs the equivalent of a mere two euros. This restaurant is a remarkable expression of intercultural solidarity. It caters to migrants from all over sub-Saharan Africa, who congregate here, as well as Moroccans. All customers are invited to pay a „plat en attente“, thus providing a meal to the next visitor who could otherwise not afford one.

Bouba sleeps in one of the budget hotels in the city centre. Most migrants share rooms, which cost 30 to 40 dirhams a night, but Bouba prefers to sleep alone. Migrants are often in sad and aggressive moods, he says. It would depress him even more if he shared a room with them. On particularly bad days, Bouba withdraws to this hotel and sits alone on the roof terrace, thinking and smoking. He never drinks alcohol, he says.

He misses his family, his parents and siblings, but going home is not an option. “Si j’avance, ma famille avance aussi,” he says – if he gets ahead, so will his family. He has no intention of returning to Senegal, since he does not see how he would ever be able to earn enough money.

“Why do borders exist?” Bouba asks again and again. “Why can Europeans come here without any obstacles while the border stays closed for us Africans?” In his eyes, this state of affairs is rooted in a lack of respect for human beings. He does not understand the EU’s fear of being overrun should it open its borders. Ultimately, EU policy is causing the “tides of migrants” that many Europeans feel to be such a “menace”.

Human-rights ­organisations

Amnesty International (AI) and other organisations have repeatedly expressed scathing criticism of the EU border-control system and asylum procedures. According to AI, human rights are frequently violated, especially when refugees and migrants are intercepted at sea. Only a tiny minority are not immediately deported after they arrive. This is not what Bouba calls “encounters at eye level”.

Even in Morocco he regularly experiences disrespect and racism. According to Human Rights Watch, assaults by Moroccan police on sub Saharan migrants are common, especially in coastal towns and border areas. “Clandestine people are third-class citizens,” Bouba says, “tourists come first, then the Moroccans, then us.” He adds: “C’est la vie” – that’s life. But then he considers for a moment and says: “No, it’s not life. It’s the system.”

Floreana Miesen is a student of Geography at the University of Bonn and a freelance writer.
[email protected]


Amnesty International, 2013
: Ohne Chance auf Asyl. Flüchtlinge an den EU-Außengrenzen.
Human Rights Watch, 2014: Abused and expelled. Ill-Treatment of sub-Saharan African migrants in Morocco.
Shelley, L., 2014: Human smuggling and trafficking into Europe: a comparative perspective. Migration Policy Institute.

Solidarity with the restaurant Chez Kebe:


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