Beyond news headlines and politicians' simplifications, migration is complex and multifaceted.
Rabat – As migration continues to gather international fervor three weeks after world governments met in Marrakech to sign the Global Compact on Migration, Morocco’s thousands of sub-Saharan migrants continue to wait in line to reach their “European dream.”
Braving Rabat’s capricious weather and the gazes of onlookers, a number of sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco’s capital have found themselves a sort of refuge in Qamra, a popular neighborhood that houses the city’s bus station.
While Morocco takes pride in a “responsible” and “Africa-centered” migration policy, Qamra shows a much blurrier picture.
It is unclear at first sight whether the migrants in Qamra are facing a reluctant world that only perceives them in terms of cost and benefit analysis; whether their lives are eclipsed behind Morocco’s policy priorities, or whether their presence is no issue to locals, many of whom donate food and clothing to the migrants.
Despite some degree of friendliness and tolerance, the complete picture of the increasing visibility of sub-Saharans in Morocco offers reasons for caution. Qamra calls for perspective and nuance, a number of migrants told Morocco World News.
Moroccans are ‘better racists’
Under the bridge linking Qamra to the chic neighborhood of Al Irfane, seven Guinean migrants have established what they call “home.” They eat and sleep there, armed with a buoyant hope of fulfilling their “Boza” dream and royally oblivious to stares and prejudice.
Negotiating the condescension, the indifference, and the generosity of onlookers, but also a number of racist observations on their “black bodies,” they continue to live and think of a day when they will live the “European dream.”
Alpha Omar, the apparent leader of the group living under the bridge, spoke to Morocco World News about his daily hardships. As forthcoming as a Catholic unburdening himself to a priest during a confession ritual, the Guinean migrant spoke of his long itinerary through West African countries to reach Algeria before being expelled to the Morocco-Algeria border.
“We left Guinea because there was no hope,” he says, laughing, his face wearing that unmistakable marker of gravity. His voice grave and sour, as if signifying that he was not exaggerating his story, Omar spoke of the “hell” he and some others went through in Algeria.
“Work is abundant there. We could work there, but at the expense of our lives and security.” He suggests that it was impossible to survive Algeria’s daily patrols and security checks.
What does that make of Morocco? A better and friendlier place for migrants; a racism-free environment?
It depends on what meaning one ascribes to “better,” Omar’s friends jumped in the discussion. There is racism in Morocco, they conceded, but not as harsh as in other Arab countries.
“In Algeria, you can make money but you’re never safe. Here, jobs are scarce, almost non-existent. But you feel relatively safe, generally free of harm from authorities and Moroccans. Moroccans are better racists,” Omar explained.
When asked about Morocco’s recent crackdown on irregular migrants in provinces whose proximity to Europe brought droves of migrants to Morocco in the first place, the Guinean seems conciliatory, saying that Morocco is acting in “defense of its interests.” But, he regrets, “they have made it hard, impossible for people to try ‘Boza.’”
The unfading appeal of hope
The “stubbornness of hope,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in her celebrated “Americanah,” is that it makes you believe that you’re exceptional. The “being exceptional” part was particularly striking in how Omar and his friends approached their Moroccan “stay.”
For all of them, Morocco is a necessary scene in a longer play: life in Europe. As they spoke, their voices, words, and elisions were rife with that gleeful aura of someone who not only hoped to make it to the end but was, in fact, convinced that the end will be happy, and worthy of the efforts and struggles.
“Migration is the only hope left,” Souleymane, the youngest of the crew living under the bridge, said as he chimed in for the first time.
Guinea’s political failures and deepening poverty, he elaborated, herald no prospects of success for “people like us, with no connections in high places in the country.” To leave the country then becomes the only way of helping families to emerge from the deep structural and institutionalized poverty befalling many postcolonial societies.
But how can you even have the time to hope, to imagine a happy ending, when you barely have time to live, to reflect; when your surroundings, the squalor you call “home” elicit only a permanent urge to go, no matter where?
Those questions were left unanswered, but the evasions were evocative, pregnant with meaning: to hope, it is enough to be alive; no luxury is required.
“I have a BA in economics,” said Mamadou. “But in Guinea, there is no job. So the only hope resides in going, taking with you the prayers and good wishes of those you leave behind. To go is like sacrificing your own life and wellbeing so that others in the family can hope of a life without the same difficulties.”
Mamadou, like the others living under the bridge, is from Guinea.
But he doesn’t live with Omar’s group. “Who told you everyone has a home here?” he asked. “People here sleep wherever they can, wherever they find space they deem appropriate for the night.” He points at a number of people lying on the ground, sleeping on generous grass that has become a mattress for many.
Morocco World News met Mamadou in what used to be Qamra’s park. Now occupied by hordes of migrants who sleep on the grass, play and cook in the vicinity, the once-park has become the closest thing to “home” or “our place” for Qamra’s pack of migrants. They call it “la foret” (the forest), perhaps a veiled reference to the migrants’ forest in Tangier.
But while Tangier’s “forest” is actually a forest, with all the dangers that life in such a place entails, Qamra’s “forest” is mostly made up of grass, wooden benches, and a number of lone and small trees, visibly stubborn enough to convince their occupants that they are indeed in a forest, cut from the outside world.
“You can’t bear all these tribulations and ordeal,” Mamadou continued, as he recalled his failed attempts—he didn’t say an exact number—to cross to Spain. “You can’t bear all of this is you’re not driven by something, some sort of positive feeling that you’ll make it, that somehow God has not allowed all this suffering for no reasons.”
This romanticization of immigration, the deliberate choice to ignore the ordeal of irregular migration and focus rather on the financial returns and the possibility of social mobility is reminiscent of sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad’s interpretation of his Algerian informants’ quite naïve and emphatic idealization of reaching France.
Omar and Mamadou are in some sense a perfect embodiment of neoliberalism’ gospel of the self-made man, the much-circulated belief that success can become a reality through resilience and a persevering spirit. “Just as some dream to succeed in life with their good education,” Omar said, “mine is to become rich by traveling, migrating to places that offer opportunities.”
The teaching of this success gospel can be liberating. It may even be well-meaning to Qamra’s migrants and other disenfranchised groups in some other parts of the world, but it is willfully and blatantly oblivious to the effects of class and structural mechanisms of disenfranchisement. It whitewashes the significant extent to which seemingly impartial institutional and structural dispositions have great bearing on people’s economic outcomes.
Perhaps that is the whole intended point, to take society out of the picture and put the entire burden on the individual. Qamra’s migrants, or the vast majority of them, seem to have bought into the idea: Hope and hard work, despite the uncertainty and the crushing precariousness of life as a migrant, will prevail.
Does it not sound unnecessarily romantic and unrealistic to associate migrants’ lives with agency and responsibility when they are clearly acting within boundaries and rules that operate beyond their control, and do not take their lives into consideration?
But Omar has no ears for such intellectual mumbo-jumbo. To him, his daily life is proof that he is “a man,” a conscious agent of his choices; and a “fighter.” “God willing,” he says, seeming to have been taken aback by the seriousness of his own words, “like my other friends who have already crossed to Spain, I, too, will one day make it.”
Between victimhood and agency
But that does not mean that Omar and his pack are complacent optimists.
Ingrained in the belief that success can in some way right their countries’ failures to grant them decent living conditions, their present life is a constant game of fantasizing about a better future; they dream of changing their circumstances. They hate being called “illegal migrants.”
Torn between sub-Saharan Africa, Morocco, and Europe, they have developed complex personal stories, convincing themselves that salvation will come from “Boza,” even if that means challenging the jaws of the Atlantic or Mediterranean, and sometimes dying in the process.
What, then, can one say to adequately capture Omar and his friends’ lives? Where does one even draw the lines? Are they victims of neoliberal globalization or conscious agents of a battle for a better future? Are they innocent collateral damages of their origin countries’ political failures? Do they feel victims of marginalization and discrimination in their host society or rather beneficiaries (actual or imagined) of the many opportunities associated with migration?
Omar and his friends seem to be many of these at the same time. Sometimes, they are even all of these. Migration is a universe of contradictions.
For all that it is worth, Souleymane, the economics graduate, is adamant about his status. He is no victim, he continuously proclaimed, repeating words like “dignity,” “respect,” and “humanity” like a broken faucet.
Their lives, he suggested, is a walking confusion, a sum of battling, scattered, and confounding selves. He argued that the narrative of victimhood takes away the complexities of migrants’ stories. Instead of passive victims ensnared in the grip of lives they did not choose, he urged others to think of him as someone trying his best to escape from the unintended consequences of a conscious choice.
Ansoumane Mara, a sub-Saharan rights activist and blogger residing in Marrakech, agrees with Souleymane. Migration, Mara explained, is more complicated than people may think. Driven by the urge for nuanced analysis, Mara is more interested in “exposing the root causes” of migration.
It doesn’t help to unendingly debate whether or not migrants are victims or have agency, or which Western country is pro or anti-migration. “Until we address the causal factors, we will keep on having the same debate,” he said.
But who, then, is responsible? How does one even measure responsibility in such a multi-layered and multi-faceted phenomenon?
“It is true that the West, especially France, has a lot to be blamed for. But while neocolonialism can help explain the lot of many African countries, I think African leaders are the primary culprit. African countries’ failure to devise working policies and their leaders’ lack of concern and love for the youth seem to me to be the prime factors. Did you listen to Macron’s speech in Burkina Faso? He clearly suggested that France does what it does in Africa thanks to its loyal and Francophile vassals who are leading Francophone Africa.”
It is doubtful whether Omar and his bridge friends were listening to Mara, even though they may have agreed with him.
As Mara bombarded them with questions about how they survive in Morocco (How long have they been in Morocco? What do they eat? How do they make money? Are they in touch with their parents? Do they need some clothes?), Omar replied, “We speak with our parents every now and then.”
Sensing Mara’s next question, perhaps the point of their conversation, Omar hammered home: “When conditions are ripe for ‘Boza,’ we will try again. That is what we are here for.”