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Stuck in Morocco, African migrants face a life of hardship

Posted on 25 May, 2008 | IANS

By Sinikka Tarvainen and Mohsin el-Hassouni, Rabat (Morocco) May 25 (DPA) When Guyguy, 18, left his home in the Democratic Republic of Congo four years ago with only $20 in his pocket, he was determined to reach a better life in Europe.

During his journey of more than a year through Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger and Algeria, the teenager survived by begging and doing odd jobs, finally reaching Morocco.

From there, he intended to climb over the fence surrounding the Spanish enclave of Melilla, which would act as his gateway to Europe. But things did not go as planned.

Europe had toughened its immigration policy with Moroccan help, and on hearing that 14 migrants had died from Moroccan police bullets or in accidents when trying to storm Melilla in the autumn of 2005, Guyguy no longer dared to risk it.

"It has also become almost impossible to enter (the Spanish enclave of) Ceuta or to take a boat to mainland Spain," the young man says.

Unable to continue his journey towards Europe, but ashamed to return home after failing to make money and help his family, Guyguy is stuck in Morocco, where life is gloomy for the likes of him.

Not only do the increasing numbers of black Africans living in the country have few chances of finding jobs, they come under constant police harassment, Guyguy and three other Africans complained in the capital, Rabat.

"Some of us have a refugee status granted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but police keep picking us up just for being black, and beat us in the police van if we resist," Guyguy said.

Detainees who are in the country illegally or do not carry their residence permits - including university students - are put on overnight buses and taken to Oujda near the Algerian border, the four explained.

"In Oujda, once night falls, they take us by lorry to the neutral zone between the two countries and tell us to go home."

"Algerian frontier guards, however, always turn us back," said Mariano, another African migrant here. He accused the guards of taking migrants' cell phones and money.

Unable to enter Algeria, migrants have to make a difficult clandestine crossing back into Morocco. "We know of several people who died while crossing over," Guyguy said. "Some had been weakened by lack of food, while others had diseases."

Migrants also claim that local villagers attack them to rob them or to rape the women among them.

"I have been deported to Oujda more times than I can count," said Guyguy's fellow countryman Mariano, who always made it back to Rabat.

During the 2005 incidents in Melilla, Morocco made headlines by taking some 1,000 migrants without food or water to the Sahara desert, where some of them died.

Senior immigration official Khalid Zerouali, however, denies that migrants are now being deported to the Algerian border.

"On the contrary, we have programmes with several African countries to repatriate their citizens by air," Zerouali said, explaining that some 3,600 undocumented immigrants arrested in northern Morocco have been flown home for the cost of about 100 million euros ($150 million).

However, the information given by Guyguy and his companions was backed by Khadija Ryadi, president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), Mourad el-Kalkha, president of the lawyers' association ADDI, which defends immigrants, and Louis d'Or Ngalamulume, president of the association Refugees Without Frontiers.

"People keep being deported to Oujda in groups comprising dozens of them," Ryadi said.

"Morocco's 2003 law on immigration is constantly violated," el-Kalkha explains.

"When a migrant is arrested, he should for instance be informed about the charges against him and be given the chance to seek legal advice within 48 hours, but often that does not happen," the lawyer said.

At least 8,000 non-Moroccan black Africans now live in the country, including more than 2,000, who have been granted or have applied for political asylum, d'Or Ngalamulume estimates.

Some of them marry local women and set up small businesses, but such integration is rare, he explained.

Racism and unemployment make it difficult for the migrants to find work. Men and even women with babies can be seen begging in the streets of Rabat. Women may resort to prostitution.

"We survive by sharing whatever little we have," said Guyguy, who shares a room with half a dozen other migrants. Others live in shacks, or camp in forests.

"Morocco has become the guardian of Europe's frontiers," d'Or Ngalamulume observes, urging the country to take urgent action to integrate its growing black population.

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