In an attempt to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe, Moroccan authorities have rounded up hundreds of sub-Saharan African migrants living in northern Morocco and displaced them to the south of the country. Several of these migrants shared their stories with FRANCE 24.

Since early August 2018, Moroccan authorities have been forcibly displacing migrants to keep them from crossing from Tangier to Spain. According to authorities, more than 1,700 people have been displaced to the south of the country.

In 2014, Morocco launched a campaign to regularise undocumented migrants within the country. However, since June 2018, the number of people attempting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar has increased. As Italy has taken a tougher stance on migration across the Mediterranean, more people have been attempting to reach Europe by crossing from Morocco to Spain.

Some 23,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean and landed in Spain between January and August 2018, according to the last report by the UN’s migration agency, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

In addition to that, several hundred migrants have managed to enter the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla over the past few weeks.

According to both the NGOs on the ground and the migrants who shared their stories with us, the Moroccan authorities make no distinction between undocumented migrants and those with legal residency when they forcibly displace people to the south of the country.

“We fled to avoid being trapped”

Omar Y. (not his real name) is from Mali. He’s lived in Morocco for the past three years. For the past two years, he’s had a residency permit, which allows him to work legally on construction sites. However, at 5am on August 12, he was sleeping in his apartment in Tangier when the police knocked at his door.

"When they knocked at my door, the auxiliary forces [Editor’s note: military forces that offer support to the Moroccan police] said that it was nothing more than a routine verification of our documents.

Even so, my roommates and I didn’t open the door because we were terrified. However, the security forces kept banging on the door until it gave way.

Convoys belonging to the Moroccan auxiliary forces drive in the region of Nador on August 17, 2018. (Photos from AMDH-Nador association).

Once they were in the apartment, they took everything from us – our residency permits, our money, even our televisions!

When we got to the police station, the officers emptied our pockets, took our fingerprints and then took us away in convoys along with other migrants who had been arrested in other neighbourhoods. There were about 20 of us in each bus.”

According to the Moroccan authorities, the aim of these operations is to “fight against human trafficking” and to “send migrants to towns where the [living] conditions are better”. However, according to the witnesses who spoke to FRANCE 24, during these arrests, the police officers didn’t write any reports documenting the objects that were seized (including money, telephones, etc).

As shown by these photos, which were taken by our Observers, the migrants’ belongings were simply thrown into the street, leaving them to be stolen.

People looted apartments where migrants had been living in the Mesnana and Branès neighbourhoods in Tangier. (Photos gathered by the AMDH-Nador association).

"Once we were in the convoy, we were handcuffed two by two. We tried to understand why we had been arrested, seeing as our papers were in order. But they refused to give us any reasons and things became increasingly tense.

After a few minutes, I had a panic attack and I tried to get off the bus. The driver hit me in the stomach.

“Fleeing to avoid being trapped”

Inside the bus, I managed to free one of my hands from the handcuffs.

The other migrants and I started to discuss what we’d do. We wanted to get the bus to stop so that we could escape.

These migrants were handcuffed two by two and taken by bus to southern Morocco. (Photos by our Observer)

One Malian man and another man from Senegal managed to get out of their handcuffs completely. The windows were covered with wood planks so they kicked them until they gave way. Then, they jumped out of the window and landed on the asphalt.

I screamed for the driver to stop because I saw that the two men who jumped from the moving bus had been very seriously hurt. The driver parked, far behind the men’s bodies.

Several European tourists who were driving by stopped their car and started filming the scene. The two men ended up dying from their injuries.

The police seemed to panic. Two men had just died on the highway, not far from a police convoy. Clearly, they were not Moroccan. I think they were afraid that people would put two and two together.

Me and other migrants took the opportunity to flee and to avoid being trapped. We started running through the forest. We kept running for hours and hours.

Screengrabs of the videos filmed by both migrants and tourists who witnessed the deaths of two migrants on August 12, 2018 near Oujda.

After a five-hour odyssey, we reached Rabat. We went directly to the train station, but the police were waiting for us there. They handcuffed us and attached us to the seats of the bus to make sure that we couldn’t get out of the handcuffs this time.

When we reached Oujda, they started stopping the bus randomly in the middle of nowhere and making us get out, two by two. Luckily, I had hidden money in my shoes, which made it possible for me to make my way back to Tangier."

“In the convoy, there were ten police officers for every 25 men”

Boubakar B. (not his real name) is from the Ivory Coast. He applied for asylum in Morocco but on August 9, he was arrested in the early morning and taken to the south of the country.

"In the convoy, there were ten police officers for every 25 civilians. They tied our hands. I asked where they were taking us, and they replied that we were going to Rabat.

We begged the policemen to let off one of the women, who was pregnant and who shouldn’t have to undergo a trip like that. But they didn’t.

In the end, we didn’t stop in Rabat. We travelled through Marrakesh and then Agadir. Before we arrived in Tiznit, they opened the doors and made us get out in the middle of nowhere in the broiling heat. We ended up reaching Tiznit by foot around 6am the next day.”

“We are living in fear”

Many of the migrants who were displaced don’t have enough money to make it back to Tangiers, so they have to stay in southern Morocco.

Abu H. (not his real name) is from Guinea-Conakry. He came to Tangier on a tourist visa in July. On August 13, he was woken up in the early hours of the morning, arrested and taken to the south of the country. Lacking the money to return to Tangier, he has been living on the outskirts of Tiznit.

"They dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. Now, we are sleeping in the forest near Tiznit, afraid that they will take us even farther south.

Frequently, locals or police officers stop by to tell us that we aren’t supposed to stay in this area forever. We depend on local charities for food. We have become undocumented, even though, before, we had the proper papers. We can’t do anything about it. We are living in fear."

Migrants set up shanty towns in the forests near Tiznit, a town in southern Morocco. Local police regularly destroy their shelters.

Migrants sleep in the streets of Tangier. (Photo by our Observers)

FRANCE 24 reached out to the police in Tangier and Nador, but they did not respond to our questions. If they do reply, we will update this page with their response.

“Le rôle du Maroc est celui de gendarme”

Omar Naji is the president of the human rights organisation AMDH (an acronym for the Moroccan Association for Human Rights) in the southern city of Nador.

"The expulsions become automatic for sub-Saharan Africans – it doesn’t matter if the migrants are undocumented or if their papers are in order. They are forcibly removed from Tangier without the possibility of filing a complaint or responding in any way.

It’s an arbitrary policy that is clearly meant to show European countries that Morocco is taking on the role of the police officer. It’s actually paradoxical because the authorities are closing their eyes when it comes to the human traffickers who operate in Nador."

Article by Kenza Safi-Eddine.