Europe’s military adventures in Libya in Mali have often been marked by a glaring contradiction; on the one hand European governments have presented these interventions as a generous and altruistic attempt to ‘save lives’ or rescue people from oppression and tyranny.
At the same time European governments and the institutional machinery of the EU have been engaged in a sustained attempt to ensure that refugees fleeing these conditions cannot find asylum in Europe.
These efforts include a complex range of measures, that include the imposition of stringent visa restrictions in countries likely to produce refugees, naval patrols, the enlistment of North African and sub-Saharan governments in enforcing Europe’s migration controls, readmission agreements to countries with little or no tradition of refugee protection, and physical barriers such as the huge techno-fences that surround the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco.
This gauntlet-like system has had dire – and frequently lethal – consequences for the migrants who have tried to circumvent these barriers. Thousands of migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe from North Africa. Thousands more have died attempting to cross the Sahara desert.
Tens of thousands of migrants have found themselves trapped in Libya, Morocco and Algeria in a legal limbo that has left them stranded, sometimes for years, in countries that do not want them and that they do not want to be in. Many of them have already undergone traumatic experiences in the countries they left and in the course of their journeys. Some have seen relatives and family members killed. Others have been raped, robbed or attacked in the Sahara or in the dangerous frontier zone between Morocco and Algeria.
Unable to work legally, and in some cases too poor even to go back to the countries they came from, many of them survive by begging and occasional jobs, living on the streets or in shared rooms on the fringes of societies that often regard them as an alien and unwanted intrusion.
When I was researching my book on European borders and migration I visited Ceuta and Melilla. I also went to the Oujda bottleneck on the Morocco-Algeria border in 2010, through which many migrants pass through at the end of the trans-Saharan route. Oujda is also the place where the Moroccan police and armed forces deport migrants from other parts of the country, often by simply shunting them into the desert at night.
When I visited Oujda back then, thousands of migrants were camped out in forests outside the city, or the university campus and the open plain closer to the frontier. Even then their circumstances were bad enough. They included women with young kids, who were living in improvised shelters that were periodically raided and destroyed by the Moroccan police. Female migrants crossing the border into Oujda were frequently attacked and sexually abused, both by Moroccan criminals who haunted the border area and by local police.
All this is documented in the powerful new report Experiences of Migrants Living in Morocco and Algeria: Lives in Transition by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). The report is based on interviewees with migrants in both countries, such as Fabrice, a Cameroonian migrant who was abandoned with his companions in the Algerian Sahara by their smugglers.
After some days wandering in the desert, Fabrice and his companions were intercepted by Algerian police, who threw sand in their last supplies of water and left them to their fate.
‘We had no more food or water. We walked and walked to try and reach a town or settlement but did not know where to go. Those who were weaker started falling down. We kept on walking, me and my friend. But then even we ran out of strength. My friend fell down and never got up again. He died there. And soon after, I fell too. I knew this was the end for me. I closed my eyes and lost consciousness. I thought that I was going to die right then.’
Fabrice was saved by a passing nomad, who took him to a nearby military base where he was given medical attention. He later told the JRS
‘ So many people die in the desert. You cannot even begin to imagine. They just die there and their bodies are covered by the sand. The world forgets they ever existed. But I will never forget my friend or the other people who I saw die around me.’
This is what can happen to the ‘surplus people’ of globalisation, as the philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once described migrants, who fall between the spaces between nations and find themselves reduced to legal non-people. Such tragedies have become part of the ‘collateral damage’ of Europe’s exclusionary barriers and ‘migration management’ policies that are more concerned with keeping certain categories of people out than it is in protecting them or upholding their rights.
These priorities have effectively turned both Morocco and Algeria into buffer zones and dumping grounds for Europe’s unwanted people. Lives in Transition is an essential testament to the human consequences of these policies, which casts a grim light into a world that governments in both Europe and North Africa would prefer not to talk about.