Repressed by Morocco, Rifians flee in boats

Persecution, poverty and obligatory military service drive emigration of young people

Text: Cristina Mas / Photos: Francesc Melcion
5 min
Una colla de joves a la plaça Saha d’Al-Hoceima, l’epicentre de les protestes populars del 2016-17.

Al-Hoceima (Morocco)"Mohamed VI, close the door behind you when you leave," says a young man from the Rif, the Tamazight region of northern Morocco, fleeing in a boat from the Al-Hoceima beaches with a group of friends to reach the Spanish coast. There are so many videos like this circulating on Facebook and YouTube that the Moroccan government threatened to prosecute their authors this week.

Although the media focus is on sub-Saharan migrants, Moroccans are now the largest group among nationalities clandestinely crossing the Straits of Gibraltar and the Alboran Sea, making up approximately 20% of the 31,822 migrants who have arrived by sea in Spain this year, according to UNHCR. The figures have multiplied by four since last summer.

Vista d'un barri d'Al-Hoceima

The causes are multiple, but there are three that stand out: unemployment, the repression with which the 'makhzen' (the state apparatus) is drowning the popular movement of the Rif, and compulsory military service that King Mohamed VI unexpectedly resumed a few weeks ago.

No future

"There is nothing here, neither future nor hope. There is no work, no school, no sense that things can improve," explains Mohamed, a 20-year-old boy who has spent four months hiding in his parents’ town. He was being searched for by the police for participating in protests last year. The young man's list of grievances is long: His younger siblings go to school, but the teacher many days does not appear in class, and the nearest university is so far away that his father, a fisherman, can not afford the expenses of transportation or rent for a room; nor does he find work. But the worst thing is that he does not want to stop for long because he fears the police will detain him: He only just decided to return home now that a relative with contacts in the Ministry of the Interior has told him his file has been closed archived. But he does not trust this.

La plaça Saha d'Al-Hoceima, va ser el principal punt de trobada de les grans manifestacions al Rif

Mohamed VI, who sought to discredit the Rif movement by accusing it of separatism and foreign funding, has tried to calm spirits with a reconciliation policy that has brought promises of development in the countryside. He has also responded to the protests of the Hiraq by passing responsibility to the parties and government ministers, some of whom have resigned. But discomfort continues, because unemployment in the Rif double that of the country's average and the mountainous areas remain isolated, with health and education even more precarious than in the rest of Morocco.

State of siege

The region continues in a state of siege and the military and police presence is clearly visible throughout the city, with army camps and agents in the Saha Square, which was the meeting place for protesters two years ago. "Now they do not let five people come together," explains the young man. The protest last Sunday in Nador to demand the freedom of political prisoners was also quickly dissolved by the police. It is no coincidence that Rifian emigration took off during the summer of 2017, after movement leader Nasser Zefzani was detained with the rest of the leadership. More than eight hundred Rifians (including 158 minors) have been tried for participating in the protests, which were mostly peaceful, and 400 have been convicted.

Una imatge a les xarxes socials explica la relació entre l'emigració i les protestes socials del Rif.

The most seasoned activists warn that the regime also uses emigration as a valve for releasing social tensions. "Before the beaches were very much controlled. Now a few friends hire a boat and they leave without anyone stopping them; you just need to pay a bribe to the guard on duty," claims a young lawyer who asks for anonymity for fear of retribution. "It is no coincidence that the increase in emigration coincides with the protests: The same thing happened in the 80s and 90s. Police are concentrating on capturing Sub-Saharan people to demonstrate to the EU that they are doing the job of policing its borders, but the regime is fine with young people leaving. " In the social networks a post with the image of one of the massive demonstrations of Al-Hoceima is circulated next to another one of a full boat: The yesterday and the today.

Vista de la costa Mediterrània des de la ciutat d'Al-Hoceima

The restoration of mandatory military service, with a one-year duration for both boys and girls, is also pushing younger people to leave. "They think that this way the young people will be controlled so that there will be no more demonstrations: if you do the service you then enter the military reserve and if you are caught at a demonstration they judge you under military law, with a much harsher sentence. I would prefer emigrate in a small boat than to do the service," says a young Nador law student who also asks not to be identified.

Young people are not the only ones who want to leave. A close friend of Zafzani who is being searched for and lives hidden in a small village in the interior recognizes that he is also looking for a way to emigrate. "We all want to leave now that we have lost hope that things can change, because the repression has crushed everything. The reports of rape and torture in prisons are constant. People are afraid and we know that the government of France and 'Spain will not help us because they have interests in Morocco. We are threatened and intimidated and we want to flee to make a better life. If I get caught, they will torture me and they will take me to a prison far away from home. I do not worry for me but for my family. Me too, if I have the opportunity, I will leave. I am tired of being hidden," he summarizes.

In the videos that young Rifians share, migration is shown as a step towards freedom: "Freedom is a human right: where is our freedom?" "We rather die with dignity than live humiliated," "health is a human right" called 11 activists from a boat in a video released last week that has become viral. They are all slogans that were used in the protests. Three of the young men had been released with the amnesty that Mohamed VI decreed on August 21.

But the dark side of this trend can be seen in the videos recorded on the other side of the border. On September 3, some Andalusian fishermen in the high seas came upon a teenage boy in a toy boat, dehydrated and totally disoriented, rowing with his arms in the middle of nowhere. The fisherman films with his cell phone and asks if there are more shipwrecks: "Where are your friends? This is a shame, man, he’s just a kid. We're gonna get you, okay?"

The Rif, a rebel region

The Rif, the Tamazigh region of northern Morocco, has suffered the scourge of Spanish colonialism and the repression of the Alawite regime. There is still a clear presence of the consequences of the Rif War, after the proclamation of the independent republic founded by Abd el-Krim in 1922. While an army of 400,000 French troops commanded by Marshal Pétain invaded the region, Spain used chemical gases to bombard its towns and stifle resistance. People link these toxic agents to the continued contamination of soil and water, which has left the land damaged, and to the fact that the region suffers the highest rate of cancer in the country. The construction of an oncological hospital is one of the main demands of the popular Rif movement (Hiraq), which broke out in October 2016 with the death of Mohcine Fikri, a Al-Hoceima fish marketer of run over by a garbage truck when he tried to recover a catch of fish that the authorities had confiscated for allegedly exceeding the limit.

Hiraq has been the most massive protest in Morocco since 2011, when the February 20 Movement - which also originated in Rif - was the Moroccan reflection of the wave of protests in the region triggered by the Tunisian revolution. Without parties or trade unions, Hiraq movement was led by Nasser Zefzafi, son of a minister of the republic of Abd el-Krim, who was condemned last June with other leaders to 20 years in prison. He channeled the discomfort caused by the 'hogra', the oppression of the state, dating back to the end of the fifties, when after the independence of Morocco the Rifians rose again against the Alawite monarchy, denouncing their exclusion from the institutions of the new country. That protest was suffocated with blood under Hassan II, then the incoming prince, with more than three thousand deaths. The Rifians did not refer to this until 1984, when a student protest against rising commodity prices and educational rates ended with more repression. In a famous speech, Hassan II described the demonstrators as 'awbach' (savages), and excluded the Rif from the development plans of the country. The Tamazigh language and culture were systematically denied.