Port Lures Africans Longing for Europe

Stuck in Tanger, as Morocco cracks down on smuggling across strait

LUXURY beach-side hotels stretch along the golden sand that brings thousands of tourists to the exotic north Moroccan town of Tanger.

But as the wealthy tourists flood in, hundreds of the town's poorer residents - many of them transients from North and West Africa - are taking increasing risks in the hope of getting out.

Waiting in the shadows of the Place Souk Dakhil for a boat to smuggle them to Spain, small groups of migrants wander among the cheap boarding houses of the casbah hoping not to be noticed before they can slip out to sea and disappear among the lights starting to flicker on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar.

A tall African teenager emerges from a doorway along a winding alley lined with spice shops and tailors. He stands on the edge of the square, looking anxiously across to the other side.

He says he had no passport. But he does have 1,000 dirham [$125] earned from working illegally on a building site in Tanger. He is here searching for a boat that will take him across the 10-mile Strait of Gibraltar in the hope of a better life on the other side.

''We have already tried once to cross. It cost us 4,500 dirham [$560]. A Moroccan in Tanger arranged it, but he never came to the place we had arranged to meet,'' he says, looking across the heads of the drifting crowd to the other side of the square. ''That was six months ago. We never got the money back,'' he says. He turns to join some other West Africans and they disappear into the crowd.

Despite increased security and coastal patrols that have seen the previously semipublic illegal travel agencies closed down and their proprietors jailed, the north Moroccan coast remains the gateway to Europe for hundreds of illegal emigrants from throughout North and West Africa.

It is late afternoon. Smoke from a forest fire belches across the strait, which stretches like a sheet of sparkling gold glittering beyond the battlements of Tanger's labyrinthine medina. A ferry chugs out of Tanger port and plies the tantalizingly short stretch dividing Morocco and Spain.

In recent weeks Moroccan naval patrols have intercepted 66 people as they tried to cross the strait by boat. So far this year, Spain has captured 200 illegal immigrants who have made the crossing, including nationals from Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Tunisia, Liberia, Ghana, and even Somalia.

A similar number are estimated to have successfully crossed without being captured. Many others stow away on the ferries hidden inside the spare tires of trucks or in the engine room of the vessels.

''Before the surveillance, it was like a travel agency, and people built boats specially designed to hold maybe 12 or 15 people. But now it is more difficult for the passeur who owns the boat, because of the patrols,'' says one Tangerois, whose role had been to introduce would-be emigres to the passeurs.

''The risk that one of the clandestin will be caught on the other side means the passeurs are at risk of being denounced. So now the passeurs prefer to transport drugs rather than people, because drugs don't talk. But the strait is still our boulevard,'' he says.

''When people come back from Europe, they don't talk about the racism and the trouble. They just come back in new cars and build their new houses. That's what people see across the water - El Dorado,'' he says.

Tricked out of his money

The whiff of stale water blows with the cold autumn wind through the rubble and dust of Quartier 41 on the west side of the city. Mtalsi Abdeslam carefully recalls the English phrases he learned at the Anglo-Continental School of English in Bournemouth, England.

Five months at the school ended in 1972 when he returned to Morocco to nurse his sick parents. Their deaths meant he had no money to continue the course. The British consul refused him a work permit to return to Britain, and he began looking at other ways to reach Britain.

''The first man I approached said he would take me by coach to Spain,'' Mr. Abdeslam recalls. ''But he was a liar. He took my money and then kept saying: 'Next time, next time.' Eventually I found his house and he gave me the money - 1,500 dirham - back, because he was frightened now that I knew where he lived.

''Then I heard of another man who had a boat. I met him in a cafe in Tanger, and he said I should go with my luggage to Riffien, and the boat would take me from there. One evening I arrived there with my luggage, and we were taken to a deserted beach and set off.

''The sea had been calm, but in the center of the strait the wind blew up, and we were all sick and for seven hours we thought we would die. But I thought about my four children and how I couldn't feed them, so the risk was worth it because if I got to Europe I would work and their life would improve. And then we arrived in Tarifa [Spain] and walked through a forest after being attacked by dogs and reached the road, where the Spanish Civil Guard were waiting for us and sent us all back.''

Abdeslam, who was threatened with prison if he tried a further crossing, now has a temporary job as a night guard for a construction firm working on one of the many buildings thrown together in Tanger as a way of laundering money from Morocco's narcotics trade with Gibraltar. Rent costs half his salary.

There are thousands of stories like his. Among a population where in some regions 70 percent of people are under 30 years old and 25 percent unemployment among the young is the norm, such experiences are threatening Morocco's stability.

Europe closes the door

To confront this and soften its previously obstructionist reputation, the Moroccan government has made it much easier for people to obtain passports to look for work abroad.

But European countries have responded by imposing strict visa regulations. ''There's an enormous psychological impact of Europe having closed the door on Morocco,'' says Yussef Haji, president of the Tanger cultural organization Darna, which recently highlighted the issue of the boat people at a seminar to discuss free movement around the Mediterranean.

''The reaction of the intelligentsia is to turn more and more toward the Arab world for its inspiration,'' Mr. Haji says.

''Our humiliation by Europe, which Moroccans with European doctorates and the money to support themselves now experience every time they have to queue for hours for visas, is stirring a backlash against the West and finds its voice in support for Algerian radicalism and Saddam Hussein.''

The Moroccan government is desperate to impress Europe with its measures to stop illegal immigration as part of an effort to strengthen ties with the European Union. But the government's relative success is also a potential failure unless it can provide jobs for those denied access to Europe.

''The youth here are lost. You can have intelligence, physical strength, and determination. But there's no hope of finding work,'' says one of Tanger's few active Islamists not in prison following suppression by the authorities.

''As a result, in order to become rich in Morocco, and particularly around Tanger, you have to do things that are against your morality, like prostitution or selling drugs or street crime. Of course, a lot of people go and do those things. But others are left feeling lost and disappointed. And even the political freedom - legalizing the opposition parties and so on - has not been a sufficient response to the reality. All the political parties have sold out, without exception,'' he claims.

The implications of Europe having all but closed the door to North Africans, more than 1 million of whom already live in Europe, is understood at the heart of Morocco's conservative political establishment too. This group is equally keen to use the issue as a political lever.

''If Europe doesn't understand that it should assist us, then Europe will never live in peace and North Africa will never be in peace,'' says a senior Tanger police officer who is leading efforts to curtail the illegal emigration.

''The illegal emigration is a problem for Europe because we are the third world and people want to go where they can work,'' he says, stroking the collar of his Yves Saint Laurent shirt. He denies his officers look the other way or assist in the passage of illegals.

''Even if the authorities understand that people are facing difficult times, they don't allow people to cross the water illegally,'' he claims.

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