Moroccans are increasingly joining other Africans in the dangerous sea crossing to Spain, driven by what they see as deteriorating social conditions and a crackdown on political dissent.
Morocco’s government has recently accepted $160 million from the EU to act as its regional “gendarme,” curbing a growing flow of Europe-bound migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. But its own citizens now are piling onto boats pulling up at its windswept beaches for the illegal journey across the Mediterranean.
The government does not provide figures on the number of Moroccans leaving illegally. But navy patrols intercepting migrant-laden boats plying the narrow Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain report they are finding them filled with Moroccans at a growing rate.
According to the Madrid government, 13,000 Moroccan migrants reached Spain in August, an “unprecedented” number, according to Mohammed Ali, a human rights activist and consultant to the regional council of Tetouan from where most migrant boats set sail.
“People are being forced to migrate for the same social and economic reasons they are revolting inside Morocco,” said Ahmed El Goatib, a Socialist Party militant who served jail time for offending King Mohammed VI. “The government might even be encouraging migration as a social escape valve and as a way to pressure Europe for money,” Ali said.
Moroccan navy sailors killed a 19-year-old Moroccan law student, Hayat Bellcacem, and seriously wounded a teenage boy when they fired machine guns to halt migrant boats in separate incidents last month, touching off large protests in the victims’ home towns of Tetouan and Agadir.
Supporters of Tetouan’s Moghreb Athletic soccer team marched to the city stadium chanting, “With our soul and with our heart we will avenge Hayat.”
A similar stadium protest in Agadir centered on demands for freedom to emigrate. The crowd hissed when the national anthem was played and shouts were heard rejecting Moroccan nationality. Someone in the crowd unfurled a Spanish flag.
Tetouan and Agadir were part of a Spanish protectorate in Morocco until they were ceded back to Morocco in 1958.
Popular revolts in Morocco tend to be short-lived. The soccer protesters and Hayat’s mother — who vociferously denounced the government following her daughter's death — had stopped talking to the press by last week.
Local journalists say the family had been visited by the all-pervasive royal secret police, or DGST, and that some protest leaders in Tetouan had been jailed.
The EU may be relying on Morocco’s extensive police powers to control waves of migrants moving toward the Mediterranean from neighboring Algeria and Mauritania.
When hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans broke through border fences surrounding the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in July, Moroccan police rounded up hundreds more migrants gathering in the hills and forests around Ceuta and deported them back to the border with Algeria.
But political unrest within Morocco may in some cases feed the migration. Hundreds of people fled to the beaches of Tetouan from the Riff mountain region of Alucemas following a government crackdown on a local rebellion last year, according to activists. The protests were sparked by delays in the construction of a hospital.
“At the fourth day of the declaration of martial law, 150 people from the Riff were gathering at beaches in Tetouan to board boats to Spain,” said a Socialist militant in the coastal region.
He said it is in the EU’s interest to pressure the Moroccan government to respect human rights and social needs to avoid a social explosion that would drive even more people to attempt the crossing to Spain.