The experiences of refugees and migrants taking the Eastern and Central Mediterranean routes into Europe has received much attention. Here, Bill Boyes details a story less told: that of sub-Saharan migrants taking the Western Route in the hope of crossing from Morocco to Spain.


It’s early morning. The shop keepers of the Tangier medina are unshuttering, getting ready for the daily hustle and bustle of tourists. It’s still quiet and only a few old men are sitting at the cafes in the Petit Socco, one of Tangiers famous squares. Amongst those readying for a day’s work is David, a thirty-six-year Sierra Leonean migrant. David has been in Morocco for four years now. Like thousands of other sub-Saharan Africans, he is waiting for his chance to make the dangerous crossing into Europe from Morocco.

There are three main migration routes into the European Union (EU). The Eastern route through Turkey and into Greece has been the main pathway taken by those fleeing the war in Syria and other turmoil in the Middle East. As the EU has worked to slow the movement of people, mainly by ‘outsourcing’ control to Turkey, there has been an upsurge in people trying to cross the Central route across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.

Over the past few months, TV news bulletins have shown many harrowing pictures of desperate men, women and children clinging to flimsy life rafts and being help aboard rescue ships sent by European governments and NGOs. As political pressure mounts to close down this Central route, there are signs that the Western migration path up through Morocco and into Spain is seeing increased levels of human traffic. Sadly, this development has been accompanied by a growing death toll amongst the migrants.


As political pressure mounts to close down this Central route, there are signs that the Western migration path up through Morocco and into Spain is seeing increased levels of traffic.

The Western route is the one which David and his friends intend to take. When he first arrived in the Moroccan port of Tangier four years ago, he paid a ‘contact’ $2000 – his life savings – for a place on one of the convoys of rubber boats that make the short trip across the Strait of Gibraltar, from Morocco to Spain. It’s only 12km at its closest and of all the migratory routes, it is seen by many as one of the safest. David is sanguine about what happened to his savings. There was no convoy, there was no boat: he never saw the contact or his money again. He had to start from scratch.

David has since joined the hundreds of West Africans squatting in one of the new housing complexes being built by the Moroccan government to house its burgeoning population of young people. Chief amongst them is the Tangier suburb of Boukalef. Life here is fraught: things are never settled and from time to time, the Moroccan authorities have a crackdown, moving and evicting the squatters from the properties they are living in, thus forcing them into the forests to live rough.


The run-down part of Boukalef where many sub-Saharan Africans congregate. © Bill Boyes. All Rights Reserved.

Morocco acts like a magnet for migrants, mainly from Francophone Africa. If new arrivals are lucky, they can find an empty apartment building to squat in. If not, they live in the hills and forests outside the city or nearer to the other ‘door into Europe’, the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, left over from an imperial age, which now form Europe’s land border with Africa.

“If you can afford it, you take a boat. If you can’t, you rush the fence,” David explains. “It’s mainly the men who rush the fence; you have to be physically strong to get over the wire.”

Rushing the wire is for the poor and the desperate. In 2005, thousands of people attempted to scale the fences at Ceuta and Melilla, resulting in many deaths and injuries. Since then, the EU is reported to have spent nearly $200 million securing the perimeter with barbed wire, CCTV cameras and Guardia Civil. The fences, 3-4 metres high in places and topped with barbed wire, will not deter David. He tried to scale the fence once before. “The whole thing has to be organised,” he says, “text messages and word of mouth spread the news that a group is getting ready to rush the fence.”


If they are lucky, captured migrants will get a beating, as David has previously. If not, they’ll be arrested and deported over the border into Algeria, then forced further south and dumped by the authorities in Mauritania.

Word spreads amongst the migrants, many of whom are camped out in the forests that surround the enclaves. David explains that you need a group of at least five hundred people to have a chance of success. And you have to be in the first wave. The strategy is to catch the guards on both sides of the border by surprise and before they have a chance to react get over the top. It is a mad scramble to get over and that is where most of the injuries take places.

Once on the other side, they are in Europe. Spain is part of the Schengen Agreement and they can make their claim for asylum or refugee status. The unlucky ones who haven’t managed to claw their way to the front incur the wrath of the Moroccan police. There are also reports of the Spanish police handing out beatings. If they are lucky, captured migrants will get a beating, as David has previously. If not, they’ll be arrested and deported over the border into Algeria, then forced further south and dumped by the authorities in Mauritania.

Few amongst them can claim refugee status. David was a child soldier during the civil war in Sierra Leone and served with the notorious Kamarjo units.  The Kamarjo where used as shock troops to fight the rebels and were involved in some of the worst atrocities of the civil war. He fears returning back to his home town of Kenema where he thinks people will try and kill him. But like the majority of West Africans waiting in Morocco, he is classed as a migrant and not a refugee.

David’s journey to Morocco is fairly typical. Up through Guinea, Mali and into Algeria. The border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed since 1994 but there are extensive criminal networks operating all along the border, smuggling everything from petroleum to people. One of the major crossing points is the road from Tiemcen to Oujda. It’s been blown up to prevent petroleum smuggling but there are ways across if you can avoid the border patrols on either side. David was especially fearful of the German Shepherds used by the border guards.

In recent years, the Moroccan government has been trying to regularise the situation of the migrants, giving them some legal status but not rights. Many now carry some form of government ID. David got his ID using a false passport but at least it keeps the police off his back. A street trader by profession, he now survives by hustling tourists in the medina of Tangier, offering his services as a guide – he speaks English, French and Portuguese. Bit by bit, he makes enough to pay for his room in one of the hundreds of pensions that cluster around the Kasbah, housing the transient population.

He can live here for 600 dirhams; around $60 a month. It’s a move up from the squats in Boukalef but he views it as only being temporary until he has his next run at the Ceuta fence. Being in the medina cuts down his travel expenses and makes him more available for causal work in the tourist hotels in the city.


Young migrants find shelter where they can. Living in cramped, basic conditions, some have been here for more than four years. © Bill Boyes. All rights reserved.

It’s tough for the men but even tougher for the women. Few of them dare to rush the fence but rather they choose to take the convoys. They are often the target of exploitation, many being forced to have sex to pay for accommodation and transportation. They have nothing and risk effectively becoming the ‘property’ of the gangsters running the networks. Many end up pregnant.

The migrants have become more sophisticated in the way they deal with the gangs offering transportation to Europe. And the wide spread use of mobile phones is a central part of the trade.  Pre-paid cash cards are now the medium of choice for paying passage. The way it works is simple, as David explained. The card is loaded with the agreed amount – between $1000 and $2500 depending on the class of service being offered. The more you pay, the fewer the number of passengers in the rubber boat. For $5000, you can take your chances and be smuggled through a check point in the boot of a car in Mlilla or Ceuta. The card is entrusted to a friend who waits with a trafficker. On the beach the migrant waits until they are in the boat. They will then phone their friend and give them the pin number of the cash card. The deal is then done. The lucky ones will have friends and relatives already in Europe who will charge up cards for them.


It’s tough for the men but even tougher for the women. Few of them dare to rush the fence but rather they choose to take the convoys. They are often the target of exploitation, many being forced to have sex to pay for accommodation and transportation. 

Once the journey is underway, another call is made, usually to a friend or relative in Spain. They will then either call the authorities in the Spanish Coastguard or be waiting on the beach to greet the migrants who then disappear into Europe. For many who come from desperately poor sub-Saharan countries, all this is a risk worth taking. Population pressures, declining incomes, conflict and uncertainty are driving these young people north.

There are a few NGOs looking after the new arrivals in Morocco. The main source of support in Tangier is the Catholic relief agency Caritas which provides some blankets and clothes. Local health care facilities are open to migrants who get sick. Organisations like Caritas will pay the local pharmacies for any drugs that doctors prescribe.

As pressure grows on the other migration routes, more and more people will start to arrive in Morocco. There are already signs of that with migrants – and some refugees – from the Middle East showing up at the local clinics. Morocco receives significant aid from the European Union and it may well seek further assistance from Brussels if the numbers continue to increase.

Morocco itself is a source of migrants into Europe as thousands seek access to the job market to the north. Highly sophisticated networks exist to transport people into Europe, as well as the “DIY” method of rushing the fence. Morocco is becoming an increasingly attractive destination for sub-Saharan migrants and with the crack down on the central route it is likely that more people will make the journey from the East through Algeria and into Morocco.

David is thoughtful about all this. As he talked with his friends, word came through that 49 people had drowned that night crossing the Straits. Some of them are thinking about returning home to Sierra Leone, the dream of Europe having faded as they move from squat to squat and raid to raid. For him he does not have that option. He sees his only hope of making it to the front of the first wave over the fence at Ceuta.


Bill Boyes is a Scottish-based filmmaker and journalist, specialising in international and humanitarian affairs. He is on Twitter at: @billboyes


Featured photo: Tantalisingly close, Europe is only 12km away but the journey is fraught with danger. © Bill Boyes. All rights reserved.