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Dying to reach Europe

Author and journalist Paulo Moura on the situation of African refugees in Morocco. An interview with Christa Hager.

Ceuta and Melilla belong to Spain. But they are located in Morocco. Tiny enclaves surrounded by refugees from around the world who have only one goal: Europe. Portuguese journalist Paulo Moura has concerned himself with the fate of these people for over three years. One of his reportages was nominated for the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage in 2004. Starting from a forest near Tangier in the north of Morocco where migrant men and women have hidden for years, he described their numerous strategies to leave Africa behind them. And he investigated the motivations of traffickers who deal in human life. (Excerpt in German here.) In an interview with Christa Hager, Moura describes the changing conditions for the refugees, their desperate plight, the situation of women and the hierarchies among the migrants themselves.

Der Standard: In recent years, the EU has let it be known it has plans to create outposts for African refugees in North Africa. Haven't these outposts existed for a long time now?

mmmmPaolo Moura. Courtesy Christa Hager
Paulo Moura: Yes, as informal camps. In general, the refugees see it as their right to solve the problem as they see fit. What is certain is that they want to come to Europe, and there is nothing that can change their minds. They live to reach Europe. So it wouldn't be a good idea to set up such camps. The last time I was in one of these "underground camps" in a forest near Ceuta, a refugee leader said that the official outposts wouldn't change the refugees' condition one bit. The money would be used for the local people of the country in question. "Official" camps only serve to give Europeans a clear conscience.

Morocco receives financial aid from the EU. What impact does this have? Are institutions in place that supervise this money flow?

The country receives money to solve problems where they occur. But the way this is done is unacceptable. Prison conditions are miserable, and the jails are filled to overflowing. Thousands of people continue to live and die in the forests and deserts, and nothing is done to stop it. And the system of corruption in Morocco pervades every level – from the government to the police to the military. So it's impossible to exercise control.

The refugees' situation hasn't changed for the past three years?

That's right. But the migrants have changed their locations and tactics, and continue to do so. The first time I went to Missnana forest, there were 3,000 refugees living there. Now they've all left and found new hiding places. It was too dangerous there because the police kept coming in and killing people. One of the new hiding places is near Ceuta. Many also flee to the south, as far as the West Sahara, and try to make it from there to Fuerteventura, although the ocean is even more dangerous there.

How many migrants manage to make it to Europe?

The numbers are vague. We know that every year several thousand people make it to Spain, and that several thousand die each year. There's a fifty-fifty chance of making it to Europe alive.

Are there no relief organisations there to help them?

By and large the people get no help at all. People die there on a daily basis. Many are very sick, especially in winter. They have no tents and no warm clothes. But the last time I was near Ceuta I saw that there were some doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres there to help. The problem is that organisations need authorisation from the Moroccan government to work there. And they don't get it because the government doesn't acknowledge that there are refugees in the forests. So as a rule they don't permit relief organisations. For the organisations this is a very difficult situation: if they want to stay, they have to negotiate with the government. And if they do that, they're hardly in a position to apply pressure.

How does the Moroccan population get along with the black African refugees?

On the one hand, some help the refugees with money or food. But on the other hand, many take advantage of their situation. At first some Moroccans saw the refugees as a means of getting rich, and rented out their houses and rooms. Then when things got worse in Tangiers with police controls and the danger of deportation, the refugees went to hide in the forest. There they were increasingly attacked by bandits who murdered them, raped their wives, stole their cell phones and the money they'd saved up for the journey. Life in the forest is very dangerous for the refugees, not just because of the police. There's also a lot of distrust. The black Africans are often chained hand and foot on the boats to make sure no one moves – for fear they could rock it. If the boat sinks, they go down with it. Moroccans by contrast can move around freely.

Can the violence of the police and other elements be explained by the migrants' illegal status, or does racism also play a role?

The relationship of the police to the Moroccans has changed. Now informal crimes like drug trafficking and human smuggling are attacked with greater vigilance. This creates racism among the people, because the migrants are blamed for the situation. The police and the authorities also accuse the black Africans of harming Morocco's image. They aren't wanted, they say, and the police has to be informed when a black person is seen on the street. This is also one reason why the refugees hide in the forests.

Despite many failed attempts, most refugees keep on trying to get to Europe. How do they hold out?

Some live for five years or more in hideouts, many of them are deported after being arrested by the police. Some go to the desert, a no-man's land near Algeria, then go hundreds of kilometres on foot to the coast. Or once they get to Europe, they're deported back to their country of origin and then the whole process starts all over again. Religion plays a major role in all this, and helps them put up with it. Their pastors have a big influence, especially from the Protestant "Pentecostal Church". They give the refugees practical tips and offer them their help. The pastors also encourage people to emigrate to Europe. Their religion is heavily based on the promise of well-being and the will of God that humans should actively pursue riches in the here-and-now.

Isn't there something else behind the religious "motive"?

Most of the migrants are from Nigeria. In countries like that there's no hope, not only because of poverty. Nigeria is a very rich country, but there's no way to rise in the social hierarchy, to find work or earn enough money. The only way out is escape. The people who try to come to Europe are not the poorest. They have some money, in contrast to the very poor, those who stay put. Some families sell their houses to pay the Mafia to bring one of their children to Europe. Women are especially prone to signing the sort of agreement which guarantees their arrival in Europe. In exchange, they have to pay back 40,000 dollars, which means they are for all intents and purposes slaves. Voodoo rituals and threats against these families make sure that most of them, for the most part very young women, don't renege on these contracts. They're not told they'll have to work as prostitutes. They think they can earn the money as waitresses or hairdressers, or go to university. Another strategy of the Mafia is to get the girls pregnant. If the child is born in Spain, they can remain there for six months. Many Catholic priests in Spain know about this and help by providing the girls with a place to stay, and by looking after the children. They want to help, but they're part of the system.

What do these contracts mean for the girls who are still in Morocco?

Life in the forest is hierarchically structured, and there's a fully developed power structure. There are leaders who either receive or steal money, food and clothing from the others. The powerful ones often also have contacts with the Moroccan Mafia or police. All the women live within this system, and are taken care of by the men. Each girl has a "husband" who looks after her. Some of these are rewarded by the Mafia and get to come to Europe. Women are the biggest profit makers for the Mafia, especially the pretty ones. The ugly ones get left behind. Many of them end up having babies, spend their time waiting and waiting and never make it out of the forest.

Is human tragedy a fitting subject for art? Your reportages and stories make powerful use of aesthetic means. What are you trying to accomplish, especially as far as the reality is concerned?

So much information is available, but in fact people know so little. Most of it they couldn't care less about. How information is transmitted in the media today doesn't change the way people react to it. "30 die in Irak" – and then you go back to work as if nothing had happened. Information often serves to appease people's consciences: "I'm informed. But I've got nothing to do with these people." Journalism should change the way things are. To do that, I've chosen the literary route, to present things in a deeper way and prevent a black and white paint job of reality, which is not so simple. It's at least as profound and complex as a novel.


The interview originally appeared in German in Der Standard on October 6, 2005.

Christa Hager is a journalist with Der Standard.

Translation: jab.

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