“‘Black locusts’ are taking over Morocco!” So ran the September 12, 2005 headline of al-Shamal, an Arabic-language Tangier newspaper, describing the forays of masses of in-transit sub-Saharan Africans trying to scale the security fences separating Morocco from the Spanish-ruled enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Moroccan authorities immediately banned al-Shamal for employing this racist language, but the press on both sides of the Mediterranean continued to use terms like “massive invasion” and “plague” to denote the sub-Saharan migrants’ repeated attempts in September and early October to escape from Africa into the territory of the European Union.

Were it not for the tragic fate of the would-be immigrants — both men and women, some accompanied by infants — the audacious storming of the fences might have attracted little international attention. Of those attempting to enter Fortress Europe in Ceuta on the night of September 28, five were killed and over 100 wounded. Six more fell at the Melilla border on October 6, and the total death toll from the forays is estimated at 15. Some of the dead were reportedly killed by Moroccan and Spanish fire; others are said to have fallen or been thrown down from the barriers.

Infuriated by the heavy media coverage, Moroccan security forces hunted down undocumented Africans encamped in the mountains surrounding Ceuta and Melilla, arresting several hundred in just a few days. Initially, Morocco deported the detainees to Algeria through an unofficial checkpoint at Oujda. Though the Algerian-Moroccan border has been closed since 1994, Oujda has become a main entry and expulsion point for clandestine immigrants to Morocco. Doctors Without Borders reported on October 12 that some of the migrants were also abandoned without food or water in a southern desert area. According to Interior Ministry official Khalid Zerouali, an additional 3,600 Africans were subsequently placed on 22 direct flights back to their countries of origin — an action without precedent in the Moroccan state’s struggle against illegal immigration. [1]

These events shocked the international community. Media criticism — particularly in the global South — was intense, as were the protests of human rights organizations. The Spanish and Moroccan security forces were censured for having used live ammunition against people seeking refuge. Spain was reproached for having driven some of the migrants back onto Moroccan soil — a practice that has become common at the enclaves — in contravention of the EU laws of asylum. Finally, the Moroccans were blamed for having cast the undocumented Africans into the desert, in inhumane conditions, before expelling them to Algeria or forcibly sending them home.

The campaign to arrest and deport the sub-Saharan Africans reflected the Moroccan state’s need to limit the influx of transmigrants, as well its complex regional interests. What produces both illegal migration and its repression, however, is the EU’s increasingly restrictive immigration policy, despite EU member countries’ needs for labor and population growth. This policy has only tightened, and has been externalized, as European states place reducing immigration, and fighting trafficking and international criminality, under the rubric of stopping terrorism, following the attacks of March 11, 2004 in Madrid and July 7, 2005 in London.

Closing the Door

In 1985, the same year in which the EU created the “Schengen space,” an internal free movement zone, the EU closed its doors to those seeking entry from the global South. Dramatically fewer visas for Southerners have subsequently been granted in all categories — students, university teachers, petty traders and family visits. In the following years, the numbers of aspiring immigrants swelled, especially among middle-class youth, as hopes faded for democratic transition in many southern countries. Clandestine immigration, much of it organized by global networks, developed rapidly. In order to avoid European border controls, aspiring migrants began to travel as far as the border of the EU and, from there, to attempt an illegal crossing with the help of smugglers. Having entered the Schengen space, migrants requested political asylum, the only status enabling them to obtain a temporary residence permit and thus avoid expulsion. Morocco, along with other Mediterranean countries outside the EU, became a passageway for global transmigration.

Prior to Spain’s 1986 entry into the EU, Spain was not a transit country for immigrants’ final destinations, and the borders of Ceuta and Melilla were relatively porous. With the growing influx of illegal immigrants during the 1990s, however, Spain was compelled to tighten its border controls in the enclaves. Under a 1992 deal, Morocco agreed to take back immigrants who had illegally entered Spain from its territory. In practice, the agreement has mainly applied to Moroccans. Since 2002, however, Spanish guards in Ceuta and Melilla have begun returning asylum-seeking sub-Saharan Africans to Morocco without due process. While this practice did not dissuade the migrants from retrying their undocumented passage into Europe, it did make attempts at passage more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous.

Spain may or may not have pressured Morocco to undertake the October 2005 campaign of arrests and deportations. Human rights organizations are worried about a subtler and more systemic form of pressure: Europe has effectively conditioned the participation of southern and eastern Mediterranean states in the EU’s Barcelona process of economic, strategic and cultural integration upon their cooperation in curbing illegal immigration into Europe. [2] The January 1999 Tampere summit that created the EU’s High Level Group on Asylum and Migration emphasized the idea of transforming Morocco into a buffer zone to reduce migratory pressures at the EU’s southern border. [3] In the wake of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s March 2003 announcement of a “new vision for refugees,” European leaders endorsed at a Florence summit in October 2004 the concept of building “transit processing centers” for potential immigrants outside European frontiers. In practice, and spurning the Geneva Refugee Convention, people entering the EU illegally would be collectively returned to borderland states, without person-by-person checks of nationality, migration route and reasons for seeking shelter in the EU, and after being confined in special detainment spaces. These spaces already exist in the EU, in transit zones of airports, where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and human rights organizations have little access, as well as at border camps in Ceuta and on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Canary Islands and some Greek islands. The development of intake centers in EU borderlands would facilitate the deportation of undocumented people.

Progressively, the EU is subsuming the migration issue under what Giorgio Agamben calls “the state of exception” or the “state of emergency.” [4] The Italian philosopher claims that today the West’s political model is more the camp — like the EU transit zones or Guantànamo Bay — than the city-state, and that people, particularly “aliens,” are increasingly subject to extrajudicial state violence, preferably in extraterritorial spaces. In the era of the global war on terror, Agamben’s state of exception is, alas, a relevant paradigm for understanding recent developments in European migration policies.

As the closing-the-doors policy failed to stop immigration, and the number of undocumented migrants continued to grow, the EU responded, one the one hand, with enhanced border security measures and, on the other hand, with massive campaigns to “regularize” the undocumented migrants. But even this response was not aggressive enough to reduce migration dramatically. Benefiting from the weaker rights accorded to migrants in southern Mediterranean countries, the EU has managed to induce other states to impose the “state of exception” on behalf of Fortress Europe. The Moroccan state’s behavior in October 2005 is a case in point.

Crossing the Desert

The nine miles from Tangiers to Algeciras have become like
The 5,000 miles from Kinshasa to Brussels
God, Our Father in Heaven, it is now your problem.

—Popular migrants’ song composed by Congolese migrant El Pacha Docha

Most sub-Saharan Africans arriving in the Maghrib come overland, by truck, traveling in stages of varying length, beset by the heat and cold of the Sahara, and the threat of racketeering or rape at the hands of policemen and soldiers on the roads. Some die of dehydration and are buried by their fellow travelers in the sand, with only a pebble to mark their graves. Notwithstanding their exotic reputation for Western travelers, the stopover cities for the salt, gold and slave caravans of yore — Tamanrasset, Gao, Agadez, Timbuktu — rarely inspire any desire to return in transmigrants en route for Europe. Who would wish to retrace her steps through hell?

Those who safely reach Morocco encounter other difficulties. Because they have no identity papers and few resources, they are often piled up, in precarious conditions, in informal camps on the edges of cities. In unemployment-ravaged Morocco, they survive as best they can. Some live on their savings; others are supported by family members already established in Europe who wire them money. Those with neither resources nor relatives abroad must smuggle, peddle or appeal to Islamic charity by begging in front of the mosques or in the streets. In the lyrics quoted above, the “nine miles” are the distance between the Moroccan and Spanish coasts. Written in Lingala and sung by numerous migrants in transit through Morocco, the song describes the disappointment of those who, after having traveled for months or years, can see the lights of Europe on a clear night, but discover that the Fortress is very difficult to penetrate. El Pacha Docha, the composer, left Kinshasa in 1998, traversed West Africa and the Sahara, and went back and forth between Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, looking for a way into Europe, finally trying his luck in Morocco, thinking that the Straits of Gibraltar would be easy to cross. Unfortunately, he came too late: The golden age of the Moroccan-Spanish border crossing had come to an end. By 2000, Spain had constructed a double barrier of fences, topped with barbed wire, around its enclaves. Many migrants, like El Pacha Docha himself, found themselves stuck in Morocco. Undocumented foreigners in a country surrounded by a sea of water and by a sea of sand, their only remaining hope was to get into the EU, by any possible means. But as a result of the bottleneck produced by the strengthening of Spanish border controls, the price of passage had skyrocketed out of reach. European borderlands like Morocco have become spaces of suffering where control and repression reduce migrants to what Agamben describes as “bare life.” [5]

In contrast to the media image, most of these migrants are not the poorest of the poor in their own countries. Clandestine travel costs anywhere from $5,000 to $35,000, depending on the network. Many migrants are petty entrepreneurs who sold their businesses, or landowners who mortgaged their property, in order to pay for the expensive trip. Some have a high school education and have undergone vocational training.

The stubborn resolve of migrants to cross into Europe at any cost, so vividly illustrated by the rushing of the fences around Ceuta and Melilla, is best explained by their large investment in getting to the border, their fear of having to recross the Sahara and their despair trapped in transit. The route to the EU is a part of an “entrapment apparatus,” from which no return is possible except by forced deportation. [6] Thanks to their obstinacy, most of the migrants somehow manage to enter Europe.

Although there are no precise statistics on the flow of illegal migrants, observers have estimated the sub-Saharan African population at tens of thousands in each of the Maghrib countries and hundreds of thousands in Libya, a country that allows them to work while in transit. In Morocco, estimates vary between 10,000 and 40,000. The first waves of Schengen transmigration to Morocco, following the era of work migration in the 1970s and 1980s, were composed of Senegalese and Gambians. For centuries, Senegalese had made pilgrimages to the holy places in Fez honoring Ahmad al-Tijani, founder of a Sufi brotherhood that is mainstream Islam in West Africa. Their presence in Morocco is therefore tolerated, and migrants can count on networks of Senegalese pilgrims and marabouts in major Moroccan cities. English-speaking Nigerians began to arrive in Morocco in the early 1990s. They are organized in powerful networks and benefit from the significant commercial exchange between Nigeria and Morocco. The next to arrive were the Ghanaians and Malians, followed by migrants from other parts of Africa. These last illegal transmigrants, coming from much farther away, represent a minority in a flow dominated by migrants from Senegal, Nigeria and Mali.

Facing the Straits of Gibraltar

Until 2000, slipping across the enclave borders was not especially dangerous, though it was not as convenient as taking a boat across the Straits of Gibraltar or to the Canary Islands, or crossing the borders with false identity papers. Migrants entering Ceuta or Melilla had not yet really penetrated the Fortress. Once inside the enclave, they had to request political asylum and wait several weeks or months for an answer before continuing. Spanish NGOs — the Spanish Red Cross in Melilla and the Temporary Center for Immigrants in Ceuta — set up offices in the enclaves in the early 1990s to make these migrants feel welcome while waiting. In this, the NGOs were encouraged by the Spanish authorities, and not only because they took charge of the immigrants during their stay. As seaborne passage with fake documents made it impossible to determine how many persons were entering the EU, the authorities preferred to attract migrants to spaces like the transit camps in the enclaves, where they could be monitored before being let into Europe or shoved back into Morocco. The humanitarian NGOs that set up camps or assistance stations on the migration routes cannot escape the fact of their involuntary contribution to the control of illegal transmigrants and, accordingly, to anti-migratory policy. This fact explains their small numbers and the limited scope of their activity. Migrants are well aware of the ambiguous role played by these charitable institutions, and generally mistrust them.

With the increasing numbers of transmigrants, Moroccan police officers stepped up arrests and deportations to Algeria, in particular after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. A special police unit was commissioned to target transmigration, and shortly after the May 16, 2003 Islamist terrorist attack in Casablanca, the Moroccan parliament introduced new laws both on controlling migration and limiting terrorism. These measures could not stop migrants from covertly returning from Algeria to their transit residences — on foot, hidden in the trunks of taxis or even by public transportation across the Rif mountains. They did, however, make the migrants even poorer. Out of money and with no hope of finding “good papers” for passage by boat, their one choice was to pitch illicit survival camps in the brush a few miles from Ceuta and Melilla. From there, they could “attack” (to use the migrants’ own expression) the security fences by night, in groups of five or all at once. The first collective storming of the Ceuta border occurred on New Year’s Eve of 1999–2000. As the Spanish security forces rang in the new year, 500 transmigrants, dreaming of entering both Europe and the twenty-first century at the same time, scaled the fences. By 2005, thousands waited in the underbrush to “attack” the Spanish outposts.

Finding Shelter

Ceuta has been under Spanish sovereignty since 1497 and Melilla since 1580. Spain claims that Morocco was not then a state, and so refuses Morocco’s demands for retrocession of the colonial enclaves, referred to in Morocco as “occupied territories.” Surrounded, respectively, by the Gourougou and Ben Younech hills and the Rif mountains, the twin ports have always been smugglers’ dens, most recently for those trading in drugs. Mountainous northern Morocco has a long history of struggle for autonomy, initially against the occupation of the Moroccan coastline by Spain, and subsequently in the rebellion directed by Ibn ‘Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi against the Spanish and the French. Shortly after Morocco declared independence from France in 1956, the region rebelled against the monarchy. That revolt continued until its bloody defeat by troops led by the future King Hassan II and Gen. Mohamed Oufkir. While he was king, Hassan II left the Rif to its own devices. The economy that developed in this Berber-dominated region centered on the cultivation and trade of hashish, smuggling, illegal importation of Algerian gasoline and remittances from those forced by joblessness to emigrate to Europe.

Cannabis, apparently introduced by the Arabs in the seventh century, has been the most important crop in the Rif since the 1990s, and Morocco has become the world leader in cannabis production. [7] Most sources agree with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime that Rif-grown hashish generates trade in the amount of at least $12 billion per year. Moroccan officials believe that as many as 100,000 families in the Rif are supported by the crop. [8] In an economy so closely linked to smuggling, the first sub-Saharan African transmigrants had no difficulty convincing locals to tolerate their presence. They could pay for their passage, padding the Moroccan and Spanish smugglers’ income, and when they crossed the border in groups, they served to divert the gaze of Spanish border police from illicit trade. Though poverty is endemic among Rif Moroccans, many migrants were able to obtain food — usually free of charge — or even a bit of money. Coupled with the benefits for smuggling, Rif Moroccans’ spirit of autonomy from the state, Islamic charity and empathy for the migrants offset the burden imposed by these slightly troublesome guests.

As the transmigrants’ numbers swelled, however, they began to hamper smuggling activities. In normal times, a petty smuggler could earn upwards of $50 a day by running contraband through the security fences around the enclaves. With the stricter border controls to counter the wave of illegal transmigrants, the incomes of thousands of smugglers and their families began to collapse. Recent Moroccan police attempts to reduce cannabis production in the Rif will probably worsen the economic problems in the region. [9]

A Three-Dimensional Problem

The migration crisis has put the Moroccan state between a rock and a hard place. Europe is pressing hard for Morocco, as well as other Mediterranean countries, to bolster border security in order to fight both terrorism and illegal migration. But the remittances of 2.5 million Moroccan immigrants worldwide and the value of the European Eldorado for diverting unemployed Moroccan youth suggest that migration will stay a sacred cow in this country — and will not be confused by the state with terrorism. In the short run, the Barcelona process does not have much to offer to secure Moroccan cooperation, and at Euro-Med summits in October and November, Morocco and other southern countries revealed their lack of enthusiasm. The prospects of long-term rapprochement with Europe, as the Moroccans see it, are closely tied to the growing political role of the sizable North African community already in Western Europe. Even assuming that Europe succeeds in signing migration agreements with Morocco, their efficacy is far from certain, because they will not prevent the migrants pushed back into Morocco from attempting to breach the Fortress walls by other means. Deporting the migrants to their countries of origin, as the EU would wish, is likely to cast Morocco in a bad light in Africa.

Since the Casablanca Conference of 1961, which produced forerunner pacts to the Organization of African Unity, the kingdom has taken care to preserve its diplomatic relations with African countries, especially Congo (formerly Zaire), where it has intervened several times under an international aegis to reestablish law and order. Educational and military cooperation with countries like Guinea and Mauritania, and visa waivers for entry into Morocco, have strengthened Moroccan-African ties. Morocco is also a member of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, established to enhance economic and security cooperation among its 21 members. Economic exchange with African countries has increased tenfold since the 1990s, and Moroccan émigrés conduct extensive commerce throughout West Africa. The opening of Morocco to Africa, reinforced by King Mohamed VI, has been principally motivated by the need for international support in the conflict over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco. In the course of time, this policy has borne fruit: many African countries have withdrawn their support from the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in favor of Morocco.

Third, the enforcement of EU border controls by Moroccan armed forces could have troubling consequences for the historically rebellious Rif. The Moroccan government is well aware that at some point in the future this poor region will have to switch over from cannabis to other crops. In the meantime, a tightened Spanish border could suffocate its economy, and the risk of conflagration is too great to warrant the Moroccan security services’ blowing on the coals. Measured against this concatenation of African and domestic interests, the $53 million promised by the EU to Morocco (some of which already has been transferred) for the struggle against clandestine migration does not look like much.

From “Gendarme” to “Victim”

Confronted with EU accusations of laxity, while simultaneously labeled the “gendarme of Europe” by the African media and NGOs, Morocco has adopted the role of victim. [10] The Moroccan press consistently insists that Morocco has absorbed the misery of its fellow poor southern countries, and never misses an opportunity to mention that, although the border with Algeria has been officially closed by Morocco since 1994, the great majority of would-be immigrants come through Algeria, more recently through the Tindouf area that houses Sahrawi refugees. [11] The POLISARIO Front that represents Sahrawi claims to independence is accused of facilitating this illegal border crossing. [12] The deportation of sub-Saharan Africans to the desert in October 2005 and the attendant media hype were undoubtedly intended to attract international attention to these claims that Morocco’s traditional enemies, Algeria and the POLISARIO, are funneling transmigrants into Morocco. According to a recurrent conspiracy theory, the Algerian government encourages illegal transmigration in order to destabilize Morocco and discredit it in the eyes of Europe and Africa.

Algeria, for its part, retorts that Morocco is unilaterally dumping sub-Saharan African migrants in the Algerian desert in the south or elsewhere on the border. Algerians acknowledge the Tindouf area crossings, but object that Morocco sends back anyone and everyone regardless of their transit route.

In any event, the Moroccan government presses a larger claim as well, also through the media: that a solution to the problem of fighting clandestine transmigration depends on the recovery of Morocco’s “occupied territories” of Ceuta, Melilla and a few small islands. This territorial claim enjoys consensus backing in Morocco, being in line with the policy orientations of the nationalist right, the Islamist trends (as Spain is a Christian country) and the traditionally “anti-colonialist” left. In this way, the question of migration is used by the regime as an instrument for pressing its territorial claims and encouraging national cohesion.

In light of this ambivalent position of the government, simultaneously assuming the role of the victim and the policeman, the predicament of Moroccan human rights organizations becomes clear. While several petitions against these repressive policies have been circulated, political factors, such as the sweeping anti-migration national consensus and the risk of facing accusations of conspiracy against the state, have left these organizations unable to protest effectively on this issue. The ability of Moroccan human rights associations to mobilize is further weakened by the dominance of Christian NGOs like Caritas and Cimade on the ground, as well as by the indirect influence of UNHCR, the main EU-supported organization. Attempts to join forces with foreign organizations for financial reasons are undermined by the risk of being identified with “Christian” or “Western” interests and thus alienated from Moroccan civil society, which itself produces high numbers of emigrants.

Exporting Anti-Migration Policy

With 1,254 miles of boundaries on land and 1,140 miles of coastline, it is hardly probable that Morocco will succeed in keeping the flow of migrants in check without help. Even assuming that the Moroccan dream of getting back the Spanish enclaves comes true or that new fences are too high to be scaled, nothing will keep the migrants from taking other routes to the Eldorado to the north. Europe is not opposed to the importation of labor; rather, the EU’s anti-migration policy is mainly motivated by questions of internal politics and identity, as well the linkage of migration with terrorism. In the unlikely event that the EU succeeds in controlling all the migration routes to its doorsteps, this project will still take years. Clandestine immigration is not about to die out.

Still, the effective exportation of EU anti-migration policy to European borderlands proceeds. EU pressure and, in compensation, the promise of Barcelona process benefits seem to have created a similar pattern in all of the southern Mediterranean countries. Internment camps have been created in Tunisia and Libya. Since the incidents in Morocco, Algeria has deported thousands of sub-Saharan Africans to its southern frontier. [13] In January 2006, Egyptian police fell upon a demonstration of Sudanese asylum seekers, killing at least 27 and probably many more, according to NGO sources. [14]

The wish to seal off Europe behind inviolable walls entails the risk of strangling peripheral regions. How will the Rif react to a dramatic curtailment of its informal trade and trafficking in cannabis? Unrest there will give the Fortress a good pretext for increasing its insularity and further extending its control mechanisms outside its borders. Meanwhile, penalized by national and social origin, impoverished by their long voyage, beaten or raped the moment they cross the borders, exploited and marginalized upon arrival in Fortress Europe, and used as political footballs by the regimes of transit countries, migrants like the sub-Saharan Africans holed up in the Rif are a profitable commodity.


[1] Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, December 3, 2005.
[2] On the Barcelona process, see Sheila Carapico, “Euro-Med: European Ambitions in the Mediterranean,” Middle East Report 220 (Fall 2001).
[3] For details, see Francisco Javier Moreno Fuentes, “Evolution of Spanish Immigration Policies and Their Impact on North African Migration to Spain,” Hagar: Studies in Culture, Polity and Identities 6/1 (Spring 2005).
[4] See Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
[5] See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).
[6] For more on this concept, see Elie Goldschmidt, “Migrants congolais en route vers l’Europe,” Les Temps Modernes 620–621 (August-November 2002).
[7] For details, see James Ketterer, “Networks of Discontent in Northern Morocco: Drugs, Opposition and Urban Unrest,” Middle East Report 218 (Spring 2001).
[8] Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, July 20, 2005.
[9] For details of the new anti-drug push in the Rif, see Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, March 14, 2006.
[10] On the general subject of Moroccan migration policies, see Abdelkrim Belguendouz, Le Maroc non africain gendarme de l’Europe? (Rabat: Belguendouz, 2003).
[11] See, for example, Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, October 25, 2005.
[12] Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, October 15, 2005.
[13] Al-Mujahid (Algiers), December 20, 2005.
[14] On in-transit migration in Egypt, see Fabienne Le Houérou, Forced Migrants and Host Societies in Egypt and Sudan (Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 2006).


How to cite this article:

Elie Goldschmidt "Storming the Fences," Middle East Report 239 (Summer 2006).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This