'The world upside down': The rise of Spanish immigration to Morocco

The number of Spaniards living in Morocco has quadrupled over the last decade as Spain's flailing economy unexpectedly prompts its citizens to look south for new opportunities. 

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    Omar, a 19-year-old Moroccan, repositions a Moroccan flag in the border area separating Spain from Morocco in Nador, northern Morocco, Aug. 18, 2010.
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Marcos Martinez Bacelo does not know when he will be able to go home.

It's been six months since the 36-year-old mechanic came here from his hometown of Vigo, Spain to work as a mechanic. As he runs calloused fingers through his short black hair, peppered with gray, he lays out his circumstances: A year ago, he lost his job at an electric company in his home country. He eventually found another, but only six months later he faced a layoff at his new job. That's when he decided to leave his wife and two young children in Spain and strike out for Morocco, where yet another job was waiting. 

“The most difficult part about living here is not having my family by my side,” says Mr. Martinez, gazing at photos of his children, Soraya, 10, and Nicolas, 3. 

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For generations, Moroccans have immigrated to Europe for work but now, in a surprising illustration of Europe's economic crisis, that trend is reversing –Europeans are coming to Morocco in search of jobs.

It's "the world upside down," writes Hein de Haas, co-director of the International Migration Institute, affiliated with Oxford University.

The number of Spaniards officially registered as residents in Morocco quadrupled between 2003 and 2011, according to the National Statistics Institute of Spain. Tens of thousands more are now believed to be in Morocco illegally. Before the crisis, Martinez says, no one in Spain ever thought they would come to Morocco for work. 

“We did not even joke about it,” he says.

But unemployment in Spain now stands at a staggering 26 percent and even Moroccans have changed their long-held view of Spain as a land of economic opportunity. At the Instituto Cervantes in Tangier, the number of Moroccans enrolled in Spanish classes has decreased by nearly one-third since the crisis started in 2008. At the same time, the number of teacher resumes arriving from Spain per month has doubled, says Javier Álvarez Gálvez, an administrator at the institute.

One teacher at Instituto Cervantes, Natxo Laborda, is a recent Spanish college graduate who arrived at the institute for an internship in 2010 and decided to stay when he saw youth unemployment in Spain had hit 55 percent.

“I get scared of going back to Spain with that information,” he says.

Mr. Laborda is paid an hourly wage without benefits. That provides him enough money to live comfortably in Morocco, but Laborda says his salary would never be sufficient in his home city of Madrid. He returns to Spain nearly every month, thanks to low cost airlines. Though he loves to see friends and family, however, with the economic situation as it is, Laborda is happy to be in Morocco.

“I don’t like what I see, so I prefer going back to Tangier,” he says.

Morocco may seem like a strange preference for a Spaniard. With its GDP one-sixth of Spain’s and an unemployment rate estimated at 30 percent,  “Morocco is in a deeper crisis than Spain,” says Mehdi Lahlou, an economics professor at Morocco’s National Institute for Statistics and Applied Economics. Still, Mr. Lahlou says it makes sense that Spaniards would consider moving to Morocco for work.

Spaniards do not need a visa to enter Morocco for a stay of up to three months, and only need to step on Spanish soil – which includes Spanish enclaves in Morocco, such as Ceuta and Melilla – to renew their stay. (Moroccans, on the other hand, must receive a visa to legally enter Spain.)

Plus, with the euro to Moroccan dirham exchange rate currently at 10 to 1, Lahlou says Spaniards who work for European companies in Morocco or come with savings from home can “live like kings” in the country.  These advantages, he says, allow Spaniards to easily move back and forth between continents looking for work wherever it may arise. 

Moving to Morocco was his best opportunity for employment, according to Martinez. But it has come at a price.

Martinez’s family has lived in Galicia, a region of northwest Spain, for generations. Rubbing his thumb on the heel of his hand, Martinez says Galicia is like a stain on the skin. “Moriña,” he said, a Galician word that means an intense longing for one's homeland. No matter where you go in the world you will always be Galician, says Martinez.

Though Tangier is only eight miles away from Spain, Morocco is “a world away,” says Martinez. From the call to prayer projected over loudspeakers five times per day to the disapproval of alcohol consumption, Martinez says Morocco feels very different from Spain.

Still, cultural differences don’t appear to deter desperate Spaniards.

Moroccan restaurant owner Hicham Abdelmoula recruits Spanish chefs for his Spanish restaurant in Tangier, which overlooks the Strait of Gibraltar, where ferries cross back and forth from Spain to Morocco every day. The Spanish restaurant industry was hit hard by the crisis: The number of restaurants in Spain is at its lowest number since 1997, according to the 2012 Nielsen market report.

Abdelmoula has always recruited Spanish people for his restaurant but, since the crisis hit, he has noticed a dramatic increase in resumes and a change in the attitudes of applicants.  

“Most are ready to leave their families, leave everything behind to work for a salary here,” he says. “They seem desperate. When you call someone to tell them about your [restaurant], they keep calling and calling and asking. They are willing to make concessions to get the job ... especially to leave their country and go to Africa."

For Abdelmoula, a lifelong resident of Tangier, this comes as a surprise. He offers an analogy for people in the United States:

“It’s as if tomorrow [Americans] started going to Mexico for jobs.”  

* Karis Hustad and Rose Gunson spent several months in Morocco in late 2012 on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a non-profit that mentors the next generation of international journalists.  

Ikram Benaicha contributed reporting.     

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