"When Spain hands us over to Morocco, this is what they do to us"
Dozens of sub-Saharan immigrants in Oujda claim to have been beaten up by police
Musa Ali, 20, has a broken arm and several bruises on his head. Patrick, 32, walks around on crutches and both his arms and legs are bandaged. Next to him is a young man from Cameroon with a bandage around his forehead, a bloody eye and several cuts near his eyebrow. There are other Africans here with all kinds of wounds. It is a desolate spectacle to behold, and it is taking place in a corner of the campus of Oujda University in eastern Morocco, along the border with Algeria.
Hundreds of undocumented migrants from sub-Saharan Africa live and sleep here, out in the open, in patios into which the police are not allowed and the university has been letting border transients use for years out of humanitarian concern.
The number of people with injuries here is striking. Every so often, somebody new limps in. In most cases, they claim it was the Moroccan police who did it.
"They kicked me and they hit me with a large wooden stick near the border with Melilla before deporting me to Algeria," says a nervous Musa Ali.
"They hit you and hit you. And we can't report it or do anything about it. What do they think we are, animals?" he asks.
It is an undeniable fact that there are lots of wounded people in Oujda. Whether this is a result of abuse or whether there are other causes is something the courts could look into. But that is precisely another common complaint around here: the migrants say they cannot report abuse and that they do not even have the right to a lawyer during their deportation process.
"The hospitals refuse to extend medical reports and their complaints are not recorded," says Hicham Rachidi, president of a migrant support group called Gadem.
"The fact that they are taken from Morocco to Algeria immediately after their arrest makes it impossible for them to appeal, which is a right granted by Morocco's immigration law. They are being denied the right to a defense. The whole procedure is illegal."
Oujda University - or La Fac (The Faculty), as they call this ghetto - is a transit area for sub-Saharan migrants moving north to Europe. Some of them have just arrived in Morocco after passing through Algeria, but many others were deported back there from the border with Melilla (a Spanish enclave located to the west) after trying to jump the fence into Spanish territory or while waiting for a chance to do so in the mountains near Nador. In fact, many of the individuals here have been in and out of Oujda several times, in an endless loop.
When the sub-Saharan migrants reach Morocco through Algeria, their first stop is either La Fac or the mountains near Oujda; here they remain until they can put together enough money (chiefly via begging) to travel the 150 kilometers that separate them from Nador, a Moroccan city on the border with Melilla. Once they are there, if they are unable to reach Spanish territory over the fence or via the sea route, and end up getting arrested, Moroccan authorities take them straight back to the border with Algeria. This border crossing is closed, but Moroccan police officers get the migrants off the buses and instruct them to keep walking until they reach the neighboring country.
" Allez, allez! [Come on, come on!]," they scream at us, explains a Senegalese man at La Fac.
"Sometimes they shove us along. As soon as they leave, we turn around and walk right back to Oujda. It takes several hours and we have to keep hiding from the police, but if they leave us at the border at night, by daybreak we are back in Oujda again."
This is the deportation procedure that Gadem association describes as illegal.
This newspaper tried unsuccessfully to reach Morocco's Interior Ministry for its side of the story. On Friday a ministry spokesman agreed to speak on the phone, and was sent a list of questions via email regarding the origin of the migrants' wounds, the medical assistance they have access to and whether they have the right to any kind of legal counsel. There was no reply, and the spokesman would not take any further phone calls, despite repeated attempts.
The immigrants' version of events is that they are being beaten for trying to reach Spain; the Moroccan police are allegedly trying to prevent them from jumping the fence into Melilla and close a route whose final destination is not Morocco. They also say they are being treated in a way that illegal immigrants would never be treated in Spain.
The migrants claim that the situation was not so bad a year ago, saying the Moroccan law enforcement agents did not display such violence back then. They say that their belongings and documents get taken away, never to be recovered, and that their basic rights are being violated.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the only humanitarian group to provide the Oujda migrants with medical help, said in a statement that between June 25 and July 16 its personnel in the area assisted 165 people with "wounds caused by violent assault."
"Among these were 81 individuals who were taken by force to this border town with Algeria following massive arrests conducted by Moroccan police in Nador on July 11," said MSF.
"Are you journalists?" asks Ibrahim, a mechanical engineer from Gambia who speaks in almost perfect English. Ibrahim is clearly angry. "See with your own eyes what the situation is like here," he says. "We're just looking for a better life, like any other person. Do you really find it so strange for us to leave countries where there is nothing? That is why we want to go to Spain, to Europe. There are professionals here like myself. People with things to contribute. And here they treat us like cattle. If they want to return us to our countries, let them do so, but in accordance with the law. There are no rights here. Human rights have been suspended. When Spain delivers us to Morocco, it should know that this is what they do to us."
But not everyone is so happy to see journalists around. La Fac is also home to mafias that do what they please, trafficking in people or sexually exploiting women, or both. At one point, a group of five people walk up to the two youngsters showing the journalists around and tell them in an extremely threatening tone to take the Europeans away immediately.
Moroccan humanitarian groups working in the area say they have not seen such numbers of wounded people since 2005, when thousands of Africans threw themselves at the fences around Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish autonomous cities that are surrounded by Moroccan territory. Some of the migrants who did were shot down. Others were taken by bus and truck to desert areas on the border with Algeria, and left there with no food or water. Others still were transferred to the Sahara desert and dumped in territory controlled by the Polisario Front, the Western Sahara independence movement. Dozens of sub-Saharans who had settled in major cities such as Casablanca and Rabat suffered the same fate.
Things calmed down after that. Spain raised the fence around Melilla from three to six meters, Morocco stepped up controls in the area, and migratory pressure relented. But last year, the number of migrants around Ceuta and Melilla began rising again, gradually reaching peaks of 1,000 people, who arrived this summer in the mountains around Melilla, according to the Spanish Civil Guard. Moroccan aid workers who assist immigrants feel that violence is on the rise again following the death of a Moroccan military officer who was allegedly killed by a stone hurled at him by a migrant trying to climb the fence.
The wounded men in Oujda are asking for painkillers. In the morning they stand in line to get examined by MSF aid workers. They also go to hospitals and health centers in the city.
"At La Fac, we take care of them," says the Gambian Ibrahim. "But somebody has to do something for them."
His colleague Alhaji, from Senegal, has lost half a leg. He says he was run over by a train as he was running away from Moroccan agents. "It was an accident, but now here I am, unable to walk, sleeping on this basketball court. I cannot reach Spain and I cannot return to my country. What do I do?"
Next to him, sitting on a blanket, his friend Lamine has an open atlas in front of him. He is staring at Spain. Another young man with a bandaged arm and a lost look in his eyes tells how they kicked him until he was nearly unconscious.
"I made it to Melilla. The Civil Guard turned me over to Morocco and I was beaten half to death," he says in French. "Excuse me for not standing up anymore, but I need to sit down. Do you have any medicine?"
The immigrants say there are also wounded people in Nador and around Melilla. Two support groups, Asociación Rif de Derechos del Hombre and Asociación Beni Znassen para la Cultura, el Desarrollo y la Solidaridad, issued a joint release on August 10 expressing concern "for immigrants living in the Nador region, where they are confined in precarious and unacceptable conditions, living in a state of insecurity and anguish, and bereft of any means of subsistence."
MSF says it is "very concerned" about the situation in Nador. "The number of victims of violence that we have seen in our mobile clinics in Nador has been on the rise since late May," explains the aid organization's general coordinator for Morocco, David Cantero.
"In July, 34 percent of our visits had to do with violence, when in May that figure was 18 percent." In July, MSF took 20 immigrants to Al Hassani hospital, where they were seen to by health personnel. Nine required hospitalization for concussions, broken jaws and fractured limbs. Three had to undergo surgery. Cantero underscores that "the organization wishes to improve coordination with the state health services in the area to increase the number of mobile clinics and guarantee medical assistance to migrants who require it."
Marian, 32, who is from Chad, lives in a forest near Nador and has also seen widespread police abuse. "My husband was arrested. I don't know where he is. They took his cellphone. I suppose they are taking him to Oujda right now. They hunt us down like animals."
Even as Marian is speaking, around 30 Moroccan law enforcement agents show up. They try to take the photographer's camera away and they arrest both of us. ("This is not an arrest, but you have to come down with us to the police station, whether you want to or not," they tell us.) They ask repeatedly whether we work for MSF. One police officer justifies the arrest thus: "It is illegal to speak with illegal immigrants without permission from the state." End of the interview. Two hours later, they say it was all a misunderstanding.