“We’re here, we’re dying in the borders”
An interview on the migrant struggle that remains unseen
by Jo Magpie
I met Michael* in the city of Tangier, on the northern coast of Morocco, where many West Africans try their luck to reach Europe. They risk their lives daily in flimsy, overcrowded boats on the Strait of Gibraltar and the razor-wire fences that divide the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco. If you can scale these fences, survive the beatings and the push-backs of the Moroccan Border Guard Units and the Spanish Guardia Civil, you can touch Europe.
Morocco has always been a transit point, hosting many people coming from East, South, and North throughout its history. In the 1960s, it became one of the biggest emigration countries, with Moroccans emigrating to European countries, such as those of former colonisers France and Spain, in search of work and a better life. Since the 1990s it has increasingly become a transit country for people from Sub-Saharan Africa, escaping abject poverty, political unrest, civil wars, and economic downturns in their home countries of Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Niger—some from as far as the Congo.
In the past, these migrations were tolerated, but since the 1990s a series of agreements between Spain and Morocco have led to an increasingly harsh reality for those attempting the journey. Spain has attempted to seal off its borders through a complex array of high-tech surveillance equipment, huge razorwire fences, and militarised border guards. Meanwhile, EU countries began to effectively “externalize” border controls to countries like Morocco, Libya and Turkey, pressuring them to clamp down on irregular migration and sign readmission agreements in return for huge sums of money, military equipment, and improved visa conditions for their citizens. Morocco is now essentially paid to keep the migrants from the border, and none of the European governments are watching how they do this. Those who do call attention to the pervasive human rights violations are liable to be deported—or worse, if they happen to be West African.
At the time I met Michael in December, 2015, he had been in Morocco for a year and five months, and had survived—on occasion very narrowly—twelve failed attempts to reach Europe.
Michael is from Gambia, a former British colony, and so we were able to communicate easily with English as a shared language. After leaving his home in Gambia in search of a better life for his family, Michael has been beaten unconscious by border guards, almost drowned in the Mediterranean, and seen many friends die, or simply disappear. This is his story, one of many thousands like it.
What brought you to Tangier?
I left my city when I was studying. I was working in a hotel part-time, and it wasn’t working very well because the money there, it’s not as powerful as even the dirham [the currency used in Morocco].
My dad is no more. He died like five years ago, so my mum was struggling a lot paying my school fees. I have a younger sister and two younger brothers. They are very young. My mum struggled to pay for me, pay for them, and then bring foods in the house. It was going very tough for her, and as we grow, our educations are getting more expensive. My last examination that I took, only me, her and god knows how she get the money to pay for me. She sold even her clothes, everything, took her best clothes and sell them in the market, to pay for me to go and do these exams. Then I pass the exam to go to another level she cannot afford. If at all she did [that] for me, she will not be able to take care of the kids’ education, the younger ones. So I took this decision that I will just forego school, and then let her continue paying for my younger ones, because it really hurts me a lot if I see her struggling to bring food in the house. It pains me a lot, because I am the first child. I know that my mum cannot be young and strong forever to take care of us. I know that one day will come she will not be able to do all this, so by then I will want to be there to take care of her, you know? So that’s why I leave. I thought if I come here, if I work here, things might be better.
I know that my mum cannot be young and strong forever to take care of us. I know that one day will come she will not be able to do all this, so by then I will want to be there to take care of her, you know? So that’s why I leave.
I was in Casablanca for like three, four months. I worked there, but the things were not changing. All the salary that I have there was enough for food for me, maybe for house, and that is the end of it. I cannot do no changes for my family, and I thought that if that is the case, it’s better I stay back and be with my family.
My friends told me about Tangier and how close it is to Europe, “Maybe you can have the chance to get to Europe and maybe something else can change.” I said okay, I will come and try the chance. That’s how I came to Tangier. The first week, we were six people. I met two in Casablanca, so we came three of us. We met three other friends here. So we six, we were living together. In the first week, we hear about the Ceuta fences and we see on the Net how it’s just a fence that you can jump. We were all brave, thinking that we are going to do it. This is a fence. If the soldiers cannot run faster than you, or you have a plan once you hold the fence… We thought it was that easy.
We arrived, six of us. We arrived at the garage at midnight. I said to them, “Do you see how clear the lights are? The soldiers before the fence will not be sleeping by now, they will all be awake and at work. So we have to make a hide somewhere in the bush until maybe at two, three o’clock. By then, maybe many of them will be sleeping, or the dogs in the bush will be sleeping”—’cause you have lots of dogs in the bush to take people.
At one o’clock we start walking toward the fence. One kilometre before the fence, it’s a military zone on the Moroccan side. You have all the soldiers living there and protecting the fence, so you have to hide from the soldier camps, from the soldiers and from the dogs. We did that. We really struggled, like almost two hours, up to like three o’clock. We were like 100 metres close to the fence. Then, unfortunately, the fence start alarming. Maybe we were detected by the Spanish machines. The fence start alarming, whee whee whee. That’s how they caught us.
When they caught us, they tie our hands at the back, and then our legs—and tie very strong—and then laid us down on the floor. It was very cold by then. That was my worst punishment that I have ever experienced in my life. From that time, like around three o’clock, we were beaten up to nine o’clock in the morning, in the soldier camp, where everybody can beat you however or whenever they feel like. At the end, I was just lying down there. I shouted. I cried until a voice cannot come out of my mouth again. I cannot even feel anything if they beat me again. It was like my body was already dead.
A friend of mine got up then and asked them to kill him. He was tired. He was begging them to kill him so that he could just relax once and for all. He was discouraged. We were bleeding. In the morning, they took us in the police station, without food, to register our names and they detained us there up ’til eight o’clock in the evening.
They drove us on the highway, where we could walk to get to the forest where the migrants live, in Fnideq at the border [with Ceuta]. We walked, six of us, we struggled until almost five kilometres inside the woods, where the other migrants live.
We thought that we were going to relax, but unfortunately we met the migrants organising themselves in groups, wanting to make an attack [on the fence]. We were all weak, it’s true, [but] I told my friends that honestly I am not going to stay in the forest alone, because if they go, [whether] they make it or not, the soldiers will come to the forest to fetch more people, and I will not take that risk to sit here. I am going to follow this group again. I was already half dead.
My friend says okay, he’s going to come with us. His name was Mohammed. The other four wanted to come, but they cannot. They were so tired, it’s true. So me and Mohammed joined the group.
We were almost 270 people. At night we took the way toward the fence. We went up to where the lights were before the fence. The soldiers were already waiting for us. I think they knew that we were coming. We met almost three times our number of soldiers standing at the fence, armed and waiting for us, with their helmets and everything.
At the other side you have the [Spanish] Guardia Civil, who were with their cars, you know, making whee whee whee, waiting for whosoever they catch.
We said okay, there are three ways out: one, you make it; two, you die; or three, they catch you and you are seriously injured. So when that decision was taken, nobody have to go back, no single person. We go as one voice. And they start running to us then.
We faced them. We talk among ourselves that we have already come up ’til here and there is no way we can go back in the forest and sleep peacefully. No way. If we go back, these soldiers will come in the forest, and it’s going to be a massive torture there, and nobody will be free. We said okay, there are three ways out: one, you make it; two, you die; or three, they catch you and you are seriously injured. These are the three things that are there, the three results you expect that moment. So when that decision was taken, nobody have to go back, no single person. We go as one voice. And they start running to us then.
We ran toward them. We were all shouting, “Boza! Boza! Boza!” Boza means victory. It’s a general language that all the migrants here use to say victory. So we were shouting that, running toward them. When we ran toward them, they started throwing stones on us—big stones. When they started throwing stones on us, they were expecting us to open, to spread so that they can catch us easily. So we did not spread. We all came in a bunch and then run toward them. The soldiers opened up, we all rushed to the fence, hold the fence to try to climb. That’s where they surrounded us and that was the day I saw people lying down on the floor. That day I had to walk or run on top of human beings who were lying down on the floor. I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. You know, they beat people to death that day. When I held the fence, there were blades already. I had gloves. When I held the fence, the glove will remain there, ’cause of the sharp barb-wire. So I held one, two, it all get off there. I said, there is no way I can climb here. There was no way. And if I’m late one minute here, I will be beaten here to death.
I tried to find my way back. That’s the first decision I took, to find my way back to escape. And out of that like two hundred and sixty, seventy people who went attacking, only twelve people escaped from there. They escaped back to the forest. And just one person made it to Spain, who was caught by the Guardia Civil and pushed back inside. And he was massively beaten. All the others were caught. All.
Imagine that then just two buses were deported to Marrakesh in the desert, in the detention centre. Two buses. At most you have like thirty or forty places there. Where are the other people?
They all lost their lives.
It was last year, December , something like that. Here, they bury people in bunches. If six people die, they will go dig a hole, just bury these six people. Nobody will know that people died. That is how it goes here. After that you will not hear or know nothing about it. They will bury them and you will not see a body again. They have their own ways of doing things.
I will rather die in the sea and be eaten by fishes, but I will not go back to the fences again. Because if you fall down in the sea, you can die by drinking water—but it’s more painful if they beat you to death.
We twelve escaped. We went to the forest to see my other friends. That is when I last saw that friend [Mohammed] that I went with to join the group. Up ’til now I did not see or hear from him. And I know that he is not alive. If he was alive, he would be in Morocco and we would see him. We did not see him. His family thinks that he is still in Morocco, they don’t know he died.
We stayed there for like five days in the woods. We went out to the market, begged for some money, came back. We did that for five days. We made a little money, we paid transport and came back to Tangier. When we came back to Tangier, our other friends were here living in the same house that we left in Misnana [a neighbourhood in the outskirts of Tangier where a lot of migrants live].
Since then, I said I will never go back to the fences. I will rather die in the sea and be eaten by fishes, but I will not go back to the fences again. Because if you fall down in the sea, you can die by drinking water—but it’s more painful if they beat you to death.
I went to the sea several times. Two times that we went, people that I know—we have been together in the boat, you know—fell down in the sea. There is nothing that you can do about it. The only thing that you can do is to watch them die. You can’t get in the water and bring them back. The boats don’t have no machine to stop or things like that, so if they fall down in the sea, you have to watch them die. This is how my friends lost their lives.
When I fell down in the sea, I had a life-jacket, and the life-jacket just pulled me up… I saw our boat was already 200 metres away from me. I wasn’t seeing Morocco. I wasn’t seeing Spain.
I tried twelve times to cross. First was in the fence, the eleven more times were in the boat. The last time I went, I myself fell down in the sea, outside the boat. It was in the middle of the sea. When I fell down in the sea, I had a life-jacket, and the life-jacket just pulled me up. When it pulled me up, I saw our boat was already 200 metres away from me. There was no machine, the boat was rolling like this on the sea. I wasn’t seeing Morocco. I wasn’t seeing Spain. I was deep inside the international zone by then. I was just seeing big waves that are seven times taller than me.
I saw the boat very far. If it happens to anyone here, the person is forgotten. I was in the boat two times that happened to people who were on the boat with us, and they died there. When it happened to me, I was just thinking that it’s finished for me.
I said, okay, I will not be panic. I did not panic. I removed my life-jacket, because I know that with the life-jacket, I will not be able to swim. I threw it in the sea and I struggled to swim to the boat. The people on the boat stopped paddling. They stopped and the boat was just rolling like this in the sea. So I swam and swam for almost fifteen minutes before I got to the boat. I was not close.
I drank a lot of water. A lot of water entered in my eyes, in my nose. I was tired. I already give up. I give up because I cannot even rest my arm. My stomach was so full, and the water is very heavy. I was tired.
I opened my eyes again. I saw the boat was not very far from me. It was close. I continued then. That’s how I was saved. I got to the boat and was so very tired. Then in five, ten minutes, the Moroccan Marine arrived there and picked us up. They picked us up and brought us back [to Morocco].
When they saved us, they took us to the marine port here. I couldn’t even stand up. I was just lying down, and my friend carried me. So the people there knew that I was very sick. The ambulance came and took me to the hospital.
After I got back home I said, okay, I don’t want to rush now to be risking my life in the sea and things like that. I think of all my friends who died here already. I know that there is no difference between me and them. I am not better than them. If they die in the sea, I see no reason why I cannot die in the sea.
That is why and how I am here up ’til now. That’s it.
What’s the situation in Tangier now?
Even if I walk now in the streets, I am scared. It’s even worse than four, five months ago. Now people are not even free to walk around the city. People don’t feel secure to go outside to beg for food, like they used to do before. People are not free even to work. Wherever they see migrants working, they will come to you.
With or without papers, they will beat you up, take you. They don’t want to see your papers.
With or without papers, they will beat you up, take you. They don’t want to see your papers.
Even two days ago in the restaurant where lots of migrants go and eat, they went there and arrested everybody. Even the ones who were already eating, who just bought their plate. With or without papers, they will beat you up, take you. They don’t want to see your papers. I have a friend who had the card. He have this like residential permit, called Sejour. They break his card. They tell him, “Is this a card?” They break it, beat him up, put him in a car. They will not take him to the police station, they take them to the forest where the soldiers are. They leave them there in the cold, near the sea. In the cold, the whole night. I mean, why? Why are they treating people like this?
Lots of people now have been deported to the south of Morocco [in the desert, near Tiznit], where you have less houses. Thousands of people are there now, struggling to come back to Tangier, or else are struggling to go to other cities and work, because they have given up.
Lots of people are now planning to go to Libya, to see if they can cross from there. Libya itself is much more risky than here. And to get to Libya is another problem, ’cause you have to go through the Algerian desert, and you have to fight from the Algerian-Moroccan border, which is very dangerous too. The number of people that died in the Algerian-Morocco border is uncountable. People don’t know, because no journalist or activist go around that area, because the border is in the middle of a forest, it’s not in the cities, like here, or other places.
There wasn’t a fence there, but now they have built a fence, and they dig a hole of like six metres deep. You need to get inside the hole, then climb, before reaching the fence. It’s very dangerous, and the Algerians, they shoot people to death. They make their dogs chase you and the dogs there are trained to bite and kill. Many people lost their lives in that area. And the Libya-Algeria border too is not an easy task. There’s a road in the desert that separates the two countries. Before you get there, from Algeria to that road, you have to walk almost sixteen kilometres in the desert, where you’ll have nothing but sand and wind, and if you get to that road, the other twenty kilometres that you need to walk is the same. Mountains that are full of sands, rocks. Just that you will see. People die in this area. It’s very risky. If you see people going out of here going to Libya, it’s because they are not free here, and they are frustrated. If at all people were okay here, they would want to sit and would not want to take that risk again.
Just living in Morocco is a risk. Trying to cross in boats or cross the fence into Ceuta is a risk, so if people take the plan B, it means that plan A is not working.
What do you want to say to people who are reading this?
I think people should know that this situation of migrants is not all about Syrians, because that’s what majority of the world know. If you talk about migrants, they say Syrians. We’re here, we’re dying in the borders. People don’t even know we’re here. Every week people die here, but nobody will talk about it. They tell us here, “We respect the Europeans. If any European die in Morocco, it’s big problem for Morocco. But if you people die, no problem!” They tell us that. A soldier told me that.
If you talk about migrants, they say Syrians. We’re here, we’re dying in the borders. People don’t even know we’re here…. You have thousands of migrants who live in Tangier, but you will never see them. If you come as a tourist with your camera, you will think Moroccan is a nice country, you will see a beautiful country.
You have thousands of migrants who live in Tangier, but you will never see them. If you come as a tourist with your camera, you will think Moroccan is a nice country, you will see a beautiful country. You will see one, two, three or four migrants working in the Medina, when there are thousands living here. Why are they not here? If you ask any migrant, “Did you ever think of coming and living in the woods, sleeping on the floor in the cold like that? Did you ever think of it or want it?” They will tell you, “No!” People do it because they have no other choice. If life was better, they will not even risk the sea, they would stay here and work. People cannot even take their time to look at what the weather will be, or if their weight is too much in the sea. People have to go and try, ’cause they think they are not safe here.
We really want people to know that people are here and really suffering and really want support. We really want the world to know what is going on here.
*Michael asked not to disclose his last name.
Jo Magpie is a writer, a traveller, and a campaigner for social justice. She was born in England and currently lives in Granada, Spain.
Michael is a young man from Gambia. Since this interview was recorded, he has decided to return to his home country.
To receive our next article by email, click here.