Spain loses title as Moroccans' land of opportunity

Moroccans seeking economic opportunity used to flock to Spain, but with its economy tanking, Spain has less and less to offer them. 

Anas Benhima spent over a decade building a new life in Spain: an education, friends, and a career. Then he left it all and returned home to Morocco

“I saw my friends losing their jobs,” he says. “And I knew that eventually the same thing could happen to me.” 

Mr. Benhima, like an increasing number of Moroccan migrants, is giving up on his northern neighbor. For years Spain beckoned as a land of opportunity, but that image is now shattered by an economic crisis that has pushed unemployment there to nearly 25 percent.

For Morocco, Spain’s woes are part of larger troubles among European trading partners that have dented the Moroccan economy, too, as remittances and tourism revenue have sagged. For Spain, fading luster as a source of jobs underlines how deep its malaise has become.

Unemployment among Spain’s estimated 783,000 Moroccan workers is just over 50 percent – roughly twice the national rate, according to a report released in May on the effect of Spain’s crisis on Moroccan workers by Colectivo Ioé, a Spanish social affairs research institute. Data from Spain’s central bank indicates that remittances to Morocco fell by a third between 2007 and 2010.

Increasingly, Moroccans are giving Spain a pass. While illegal migration makes exact numbers murky, a net loss of Moroccan immigrants was registered in 2010. Last year that loss was nearly 22,000, according to Spain’s national statistics institute.

Coming full circle

Change is felt acutely in Moroccan cities like Tangier, where Spanish headlands are visible across the Strait of Gibraltar. For years Morocco’s north, a region formerly colonized by Spain, has relied on sending migrants there to help feed families at home.

Benhima grew up in Tetouan, once Spain’s colonial capital, where his father worked as a customs official. He went to Barcelona to study textile engineering in 1998, but financial concerns led him to dive into the job market instead.

“At first you work to pay for studies, but then you forget studies and just work,” he says.

He drove a golf cart by day and tossed pizzas at night, supporting himself while also helping cover medical bills for his father. He stayed in Spain for two uninterrupted years, until he got legal residency. Then, in 2000, he surprised his parents with a visit. His father died four days later.

Benhima’s mother and three siblings moved to Tangier, while he settled in Madrid. Using his ability to speak Spanish, French, English, and Arabic, he found work in 2001 handling overseas clients for an insurance company. The job put him in the top tier of Moroccans drawn by an economic boom in Spain. Moroccan arrivals peaked in 2005 at about 75,000, according to the Colectivo Ioé report.

Meanwhile in Tangier, Benhima’s mother, Badia Amrani, founded BAYSIM, a goods transit company, in 2006.

“I’d only ever been a housewife,” Ms. Amrani says.  “But with effort you can accomplish anything.”

She is a bright, chipper woman who commands BAYSIM’s office from a desk in the main room. On the wall are large maps of France and Spain, where the company has many of its clients.

Back in Spain, things went downhill in 2008, when the housing bubble burst and the jobless rate started to climb. Immigrants have been among the hardest hit. Skilled and experienced, Benhima was relatively secure in his job, but in 2011 he quit.

At first he stayed in Spain, living on unemployment benefits that he eventually took as a lump sum to help launch a business in Madrid exporting building materials to North Africa. “Keeping a door open in Spain,” he explains. Then he looked toward Morocco.

“As you get older, and without a family, it’s harder to live outside your country,” he says. “And with the crisis, I saw that life in Spain was going to get worse.”

Early this year he resettled in Tangier, got married, and started working with Mrs. Amrani at BAYSIM.

Can Morocco handle returnees?

Morocco, however, has problems of its own. Its growth is expected to slow from 5 percent to about 3 percent this year. Last month it borrowed $300 million from the World Bank, the latest of several recent international loans, to fight unemployment.

For some in Tangier, those issues raise questions over Morocco’s ability to cope with more returnees should Spain’s crisis deepen.

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“Most of these people lack professional qualifications,” says Najib Sakkaki, a Tangier accountant and local representative of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights. “They don’t have capital – just basic experience in things like agriculture and construction.”

At Tangier’s Ramon y Cajal primary school, founded in colonial times by the Spanish government initially to serve expatriate families, director Francisco Ramirez is struggling with another complication: as Moroccan families have returned from Spain, waiting lists for the school have ballooned.

“These applications for the preschool level may be local,” he says, sweeping a hand over a waiting list displayed on his computer. “But all these others are from people who’ve come from abroad.”

One day Benhima’s 4-year-old niece, Nour, may face that predicament. For now, her parents have jobs at Madrid hotels.

Last month they sent Nour to visit her family at their apartment. One morning she was watching Spanish cartoons while around her the others began their day. Amrani left early for the office, Benhima’s sister Imane – visiting from studies in Britain - made breakfast, and Benhima got dressed for work.

He and his wife, Sana, are expecting their first child, and he dreams of opening a restaurant. He regards Spain with a mix of nostalgia and realism.

“I saw the problems in Spain,” he says. “Now I’m trying to start a new life in my mother country.”

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