The homes in northern Morocco's impoverished villages are roofed with metal sheets held down with rocks or broken appliances. Parents send their children to unpaid jobs, instead of school, hoping that at least they will learn a trade.
But many of these youngsters see the road out of poverty not in some apprenticeship, but on a map. For them, hope begins in nearby Ceuta, a Spanish outpost on the tip of North Africa that is Europe's door, just eight miles from mainland Spain.
In a pattern alarming social workers and irking Spanish politicians, these children, who range in age from 10 to 17, are immigrating to Spain on their own, often risking their lives as they cross the Strait of Gibraltar.
Like their adult counterparts streaming from poorer parts of the globe to Europe, the youngest migrants are finding themselves increasingly unwelcome.
The number of Moroccan minors entering Spain has risen steadily since the Spanish Interior Ministry registered them for the first time in 1998. From 811 that year, the number more than quadrupled to 3,500 in 2002. But when they arrive, they find few options for getting an education or eventually a job.
The chief problem, say human rights advocates, is that Spain views these children as simply another source of illegal migration, not as minors protected by international treaties.
"There is a resistance to give children papers, because no one wants them to become citizens later on," says Liliana Suarez Navaz, a professor of migration and multiculturalism at the Autonomous University in Madrid. "But without papers, these children get stuck in no man's land. They often go to the street, and the street is mean. Children who never would have stolen or done drugs in Morocco are guaranteed this world on the street."
In a nationwide conference on Moroccan minors, held in mid-March, Spanish and international human rights groups urged Spain to show more compassion toward the children.
Under Spanish law, undocumented minors who have spent nine months in Spain must be given residence permits, if their guardians at home cannot be located. But the granting of a permit is considered a feat, says Elena Arce Jiménez, an attorney specializing in immigrants' rights. "The officials pass the responsibility on like a hot potato, hoping that in the meantime the child turns 18 ... and can be sent back to Morocco."
Ceuta is ground zero in the controversy. When the European Union began softening borders between member countries in the 1990s, Ceuta became a new crossroads between Africa and Europe. The EU subsidized a $300 million fence to help authorities stem clandestine immigration from Morocco and the rest of Africa. But, just as on the US-Mexican border, immigrants continue to overcome the barriers.
The lure of Spain, with its per capita income 14 times as great as that in Morocco, is strong for youth in the North African country, where more than 40 percent of the poor are younger than 15.
Minors caught trying to cross to the mainland are taken to Ceuta's children's refugee center, where recently some 100 Moroccan adolescents were being housed. The children often escape, only to be returned by the police the next day. "Their goal is not to stay in a residence center, only to be deported home at age 18," says Ana Moreno, a nun who works with immigrants in Ceuta. "On the street, there is at least the chance to slip into a truck crossing the sea."
Mohammadi Ananou, Spain's social welfare officer in Ceuta, denies that papers are illegally withheld from the children. Neither the government delegate nor Ceuta's social affairs department would say how many children have received residency papers in the last year. Nor does any national body carry those figures.
Pressured by Spain, Morocco's ambassador to Spain recently said his country wants its child émigrés to come home. But with many children having long ago lost contact with their families, and Morocco's social services already overwhelmed by 30,000 streetchildren of its own, nongovernmental organizations are wary of proposals to send the children back.
The family reunification initiative is part of a larger Spanish effort to respond to growing anti-immigrant sentiment, says Vicenç Galea i Montero, a social worker in Barcelona. "We think the new plan is just a way to make what are essentially illegal practices legal."
Last year, Ceuta asked to be exempt from the law giving foreign children the right to residency papers after nine months on Spanish territory.