Clandestine Immigration Tragedy
Over 50 dead as patera sinks off the coast of Tunisia
by Mary Fowles
Originally Published in Morocco Times
The drive into the Moroccan village of El Foqra is as desolate as the lives of the people who live there. Barren and dusty, not one tree has pushed through the compact clay ground that slopes as far as the eye can see into nowhere.
Driven by dreams of a better life in Europe, in the first week of October, the village of about 400 lost dozens of its young men and boys when they boarded a leaky boat off the coast of Tunisia, illegally bound for the shores of Italy.
The dream ended in tragedy when the boat sank one hour off shore the night of Oct. 3. The shipwreck, which was to transport 75 Moroccans and Tunisians, left only 11 survivors in its wake.
"El Foqra is perhaps the worst of the Moroccan Kindom," said Hicham Rachidi, vice president of the NGO Friends and Families of Clandestine Immigration (AFVIC), explaining why this region in particular sees so may of its young men and boys disappear into the waters separating North Africa from the 'European fortress'.
"The living conditions are unbearable."
The village, near vast phosphate strip mines 100 kilometeres south-east of Casablanca, is home to about 25 families of 15. Each dwelling, made of compacted clay from the ground and tin roofing, is isolated by hundreds of meters of barren land. The inhabitants are primarily shepherds, raising sheep and goats on a water-less inhospitable desert. The livestock survive from the few sprigs of dry grass that have pushed through the vast kilometres of dirt. The village has no electricity, or running water. The day's supply of water is collected before dawn from one of the four wells in the village but its quality is poor. The effects of malnutrition can ben seen in children as young as 8 years old whose teeth have started to turn black.
Desperate to escape their hardship, whatever money is saved among the families is kept for the day when one of their sons can attemept the illegal immigration. It is thought that once he arrives in Europe he will find a better life, work, and be able to send back money to support his family. In reality, the few who survive the exodus find themselves in a different but equally inhospitable environment. Vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, they remain in dire poverty, often living on the streets, always conscious of the fact that they are illegal citizens, on the run from authorities with the power to expulse them.
"My dream since I was 12 years old was to migrate to Europe," said Majoub Benslim, 27, who is illiterate. Since the day he began working raising sheep, earning about DH 30 per day, he saved his money with the aim to leave Morocco as soon as possible. In the first week of October he had DH 8,000 which he gave to smugglers before boarding the leaky vessel. Though he is one of the survivors, he doesn't consider himself very lucky.
"I was returned to El Foqra by the Tunisian authorities in handcuffs. I have lost everything," he said outside his family shack. "But if I had the money I would try to cross again."
AFVIC estimates that DH 6 million have been taken out of the village due to illegal immigration.
Of the dozens who have attempted the passage over the years, the villagers can only confirm two are living in Europe. Most are stopped by the authorities and returned or are "missing."
"Even though they understand the risks, they are ready to do what it takes to get to the other side," said Rachidi, who spent the last two weeks confirming the death of the sons, brothers and husbands of villagers who have lined up outside his door with photographs of their missing loved-ones. "They believe it can't get any worse than where they are and they want, at any price, to help their families."
According to the Tunisian-based Maghreb Workers Association, Tunisian authorities have since buried 52 Moroccan corpses without consulting the families of the victims. The lack of clarity around the situation has sparked horrific rumours. "The smugglers slit the throats of the passengers in a very primitive way," said Mohamed Benmalek, who has lived in El Foqra his entire life, "then threw them over board and kept the money."
"These rumours are incredible," admits Rachidi. "But what are these families supposed to think when they cannot bury their own dead?"
Karima Alaoui lost the youngest of her nine children in the tragedy. She sits in mourning on traditional Moroccan brocade-covered pillows on the dirt ground in her home. The . house is guarded by four hungry, vicious dogs and one can only enter by throwing stones to keep them at bay. Her hair veiled and her head low, she keeps mostly silent. "I am too sad to talk about this," she says, fighting back tears. "I want to see my son again."
Her husband interjects: "Our community has been abandoned and ignored. The only way we can change our lives is to get out of here. But a visa is impossible so either way we live in misery."