Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Morocco traffickers get rich peddling European dream

They get rich luring the young with tales of a promised land, they impoverish families with huge fees and up to a fifth of their clients end up dead.

But for poor Moroccans desperate for a new start in life, immigrant trafficking gangs are modern-day Robin Hoods who risk jail to spirit their clients into fortress Europe.

Belgacem Abdelilah was looking after himself and his widowed mother by hawking sunglasses in his home town of Khouribga when an acquaintance offered him a trip to Spain.

"I thought 'If so many illiterate people can make a go of it in Europe, why shouldn't I?' I was the only man in the family -- it was my duty."

His mother sold her jewellery and borrowed from relatives to pay the trafficker.

Abdelilah was holed up for 15 days in a seedy hotel in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta before he was told the ferry supposed to take him and his companions to the mainland was no more than a flimsy, five-metre (16 ft) wooden boat.

"I went down on my knees and said the prayer you normally give for someone already dead," he says. "It was as if we already knew our fate."

Thrown around by the waves, the boat crawled within sight of the lights of Spain before it began to rain. The vessel filled with water and sank. Abdelhilal was pulled from the water by a Spanish coastguard, whose name -- Paco -- he adopted in gratitude.

He was returned to Morocco shortly afterwards.


According to the Red Cross, more than 1,000 people have died this year trying to reach Spain's Canary Islands across the Atlantic. Fishing boats packed with people from sub-Saharan Africa arrive in the Canaries each day.

"The people who take these pateras (boats) are the immigrant proletariat," says Khalil Jemmah, who works with Abdelilah at Moroccan illegal immigrant family support group AFVIC in Khouribga.

"Many have never seen the sea and have no idea of the danger."

Tightened surveillance and reinforced coastal patrols have made it harder than ever for African migrants to reach Europe.

Their desperation means more money for the gangs in control of the remaining migrant routes, who can charge huge sums while paying little regard to safety and offering no guarantee of success.

It costs almost 3,000 euros ($3,829) for a seat in a patera, says Abdelilah, in a country where the annual minimum wage is about 2,400 euros.

For a fake passport, the fee is around 6,000 euros while those who can afford it can buy a non-existent European work contract for up to 9,000 euros.

A cheaper option is a brief marriage to a Moroccan living in Europe.

"You wouldn't believe how many weddings there are here in August when the expats come home, and how many divorces in October and November," says Abdelilah.

According to AFVIC, two-thirds of the illegal Moroccan migrants arrested by Spanish authorities in recent years come from the farming and phosphate mining region south of Khouribga, 120 km (75 miles) southeast of the economic capital Casablanca.

Generations have left here to seek work in the factories of France, Spain and Italy but with the end of the era of mass labour in Europe, the doors slammed shut.


Over 1 million Moroccans still escape poverty thanks to money sent or brought home by relatives abroad, according to Mohammed Khachani, president of the Moroccan Migration Study and Research Association.

The government has opened a regional investment centre in Khouribga and is gradually extending roads, electricity lines and running water.

But some locals complain that expats fritter away the funds they repatriate on big houses, cars and consumer goods instead of investing in local initiatives and job-creating enterprises.

Meanwhile, youngsters are driven to distraction by images of western success and by the wealth flaunted by the expats.

"Some people live for 11 months of the year in difficult conditions in Europe but spend their one month back home showing off," says Khachani.

Twenty-year-old Samadi Najat's husband walked out one day and never came back. Weeks later, while watching television, she discovered he had drowned trying to cross from Tunisia to Italy.

Left to tend a rented flock of sheep and goats, a baby daughter and an ageing mother in a small, run-down farmhouse, Najat is under pressure from relatives to return the money her husband borrowed to pay his trafficker.

"My husband's mother still can't believe he is dead," says Najat. "And I'm still waiting for the death certificate. Without it I can't sell up here and start a new life."

Six of Najat's relatives have died trying to reach Europe. In her commune of Fokra, near Khouribga, 65 were lost in one night when their boat capsized. The case led to rare prosecutions for three traffickers, who received jail sentences totaling 44 years.

But most continue to ply their trade unperturbed, partly by offering migrants who are caught a second or even a third chance at no charge if they keep silent.

And the risk of prison makes illegal migrants think twice before pointing the finger at their trafficker.

"Victims risk six to 12 months in prison if they come clean. We need a change to the law to remove this protection for the traffickers," says Khalil Jemmah.


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