Dozens of sub-Saharan Africans expelled from Morocco as immigration policy tightens somehow find their way back into the country, sheltering in makeshift camps on their quest to reach “the other side.”
In these camps, located in the Sidi Maafa woods near Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, the illegal migrants -- men, women and children -- find themselves tantalizingly close to the narrowest stretch of water separating Africa from mainland Europe.
But the living conditions are tough, and the local authorities appear increasingly determined to frustrate their hopes.
“Our leader isn’t here. He has gone to look for food. We haven’t had anything to eat for one day,” one of the camp’s residents, a Ghanaian, told AFP.
In a calm voice, he tells the story of his forced expulsion across the Algerian border, and his return to Morocco.
“We don’t know what will happen to us,” he says.
Moroccan authorities have in the past few weeks clamped down on illegal migrants, kicking nearly 500 of them out of the country since early September.
They are usually sent back across the Algerian border near Oujda, officially closed since 1994 but now the main entry point for African migrants coming into the country.
Spain, just a short boat ride from nearby Tangier for those with the right papers, has also been at the forefront of the crackdown, with Madrid and Rabat cooperating to evict scores of migrants who had swum to a tiny Spanish islet just off Morocco.
On the edge of Oujda, near Spain’s north African enclave of Melilla, the migrants subsist in improvised tents patched together from rags and pieces of plastic.
Some of them reveal wounds suffered, they say, while fleeing from Moroccan police, claims confirmed by medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
“Many of these people were wounded as they tried to escape arrest or as they tried to jump over the border fences,” MSF’s Morocco director David Cantero said. “The majority of them had fractures to the feet.”
In a small cafe outside the camp, Marie, a young Cameroonian woman, tries to connect to the Internet, to “request help” from a European NGO.
For a vulnerable African immigrant so far from home, her case is particularly striking. She is handicapped and confined to a wheel chair.
“My family in Cameroon has disowned me because of my handicap. My sister looked after me for several years but it’s difficult. She has six children,” she explains.
Yet Marie is undeterred by the extra challenges that her disability poses.
“(I hope) all the same to cross this sea, and to reach the other side.”
Looking after her is fellow Cameroonian Mohamed Kalli, 16, who casually pushes the wheelchair.
“Mohammed is a talented sportsman. His dream is to play in a European football team one day” Marie adds, in a tired voice.
Other groups of sub-Saharans have settled close to a wall that runs adjacent to Oujda university, where they attempt to lead what might resemble a normal, albeit temporary life, some playing football, others selling cigarettes.
Smuggling is a well-established activity in Oujda.
There are humanitarian groups trying to help the migrants.
Aid workers say that, after surviving the summer heat-wave, the next major concern is how they will cope with a harsh winter.
“An urgent solution must be found for the immigrants before it gets really cold, because these people are virtually living in the open air,” one of them told AFP.
Their treatment by the authorities is also under scrutiny.
The Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) recently condemned the government’s “wave of expulsions,” saying “human rights violations against immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa have become systematic in our country.”
It said the state had a duty to protect them, but charged that the migrants were instead “subjected to beatings, both by the authorities and by hired thugs... feeding racism and encouraging the citizens of Morocco to turn against them.”
Government spokesman Mustapha Khalfi, when questioned by AFP, said the authorities were open to dialogue with the concerned organizations on the “challenge” of managing illegal immigration.