14 Escapism

After the death of Cedric, life changed dramatically for migrants in Tangier, especially Boukhalef. Because everyone had risen up and made a stand against the cops, the national media had the chance to bring a lot of attention to what had happened that day. It became big news in Morocco and managed to spill over a little into Europe too.

Everyone in Boukhalef knew that the police would not return for some time after Cedric’s death. This had happened every time the police had caused the death of a migrant – it was usually estimated that Boukhalef would be quiet of police presence for two or three weeks after someone had died. In the past this had given the migrant community the opportunity to get together the necessary materials for an attempt to strike for Europe, without the worries and setbacks of police raids and arrests.

But, this time, several weeks went by before police were even seen, and even then the police were only at daily checkpoints on the edges of Boukhalef. They were still checking migrants for papers, but only as they were coming and going from Tangier city, where many worked.

It appeared that the death of Cedric and the following march had had a bigger impact than usual – but people were certain that the police would slowly be coming back into the area, working their way back up to the level of violence that they were before.

Worries soon subsided though, the police checkpoints went from being stationed every day, down to just a couple of days a week.

There were theories going around that many migrants had gotten too tired and scared of the rise in deaths by the police and had decided to apply for the Moroccan ‘Carte Séjour’ (residency). If this was indeed true, then the number of migrants without papers would decrease and the police would have little need to check for papers as much anymore.

This might sound promising to an outsider, but speaking with migrants about what the ‘Carte Séjour’ means for them. I was explained that having residency gives a migrant the same rights as a Moroccan – but that being Moroccan in Morocco is also very difficult.

The most minor offence can result in imprisonment. For instance, if a sub-Saharan migrant is found at sea trying to get to Spain, then they get deported to the desert, which in itself is very dangerous. But a Moroccan migrant found at sea trying to get to Spain will be put in prison for a minimum of six months. This is why most sub-Saharan people avoid getting residency.

With Boukhalef becoming relatively peaceful, everyone had full opportunity to strike. From Stories we heard, attempts out at sea went from happening a couple of times per week, to a couple of times per night – and the attempts at the fences increased to the point that thousands of people were storming them every week.

As we didn’t have any involvement in these attempts at all, the whole working dynamic changed for people like my friends and I trying to support migrants.

Before Cedric’s death, the obvious effectiveness we’d had lay in living with and nearby migrants so that we could witness and deter police brutality. But when things changed, we began to collect information on the strikes that were happening at sea and at the fences.

We felt it was valuable because when reading the news following events that were happening we found that the reported information would be far from the truth, if events were even written about at all.

For example, there were cases of groups perishing out at sea and the coastguard knowing but not helping – or of people dying during mass attempts at the fences at Ceuta – but the following news reports were saying that there were no casualties, even though there clearly were.

With the level of danger and the amount of people scaling the three six-meter-high, razor wire fences, it’s almost impossible for there to be no casualties – and that’s not even accounting for the brutal retaliation by the Moroccan border police and the Guardia Civil, who viciously attack anyone attempting to cross.

The fences that surround the city of Ceuta end a hundred meters or so out at sea and it’s common for migrants to try to swim around them to get to the Spanish soil on the other side. Sadly, because of advancing technology and resources provided by EU funding – such as infra-red cameras and movement detection devices – swimmers are spotted relatively quickly.

When spotted, border soldiers will deploy tear-gas grenades into the water, making it incredibly difficult for anyone to breath – often leading to suffocation and drowning. If people are able to get close to the shore, the Guardia Civil will either shoot them or throw rocks at them in an effort to knock them out, often killing them.

Bodies would wash up on the shores on both sides of the fence, but the Guardia Civil would “transport” – basically kick and drag – them to the other side, violating yet another major international law by crossing over to the Moroccan side.

Acquiring evidence for these atrocities has proved to be harder than anticipated. Until it has been, European newspapers will continue to go to the Guardia Civil for answers, which are certainly complete fabrications.

Finally, I feel that I should mention the loss of my passport and the problems that came afterwards. It was completely my own fault of course – I should have sorted it out straight away.

It happened early on, when I’d been in Tangier around two months. A friend had come from England to visit and we’d decided to find a few drinks in the centre of town. Far too many drinks and wild conversations later, I left my rucksack with my passport inside a taxi as we were quickly leaving.

For the next couple of weeks, I went from the police station to the taxi office and back again so many times that I could have walked it in my sleep. Eventually, the officer got so sick of me bothering him every day that he decided to process me.

The police station itself was a parody of any seventies cop show that you may have seen. The main room was divided by flimsy glass panels that made no difference in noise reduction. Leather jackets and pointy cowboy boots were standard uniform. Officers would shout at one another like they were speaking through a concrete wall – often arguing and throwing things around like siblings at home. It was hard to tell if there were any ranks or a chief – everyone shouted and grimaced at each other equally, regardless of who was boss.

The guy I spoke to asked me a series of questions about what had happened and when. Luckily, I had a photocopy of the original passport so it saved a lot of time in proving who I was. After some minutes, I signed a bunch of paperwork before being handed a document stating the loss of my passport. I took this as a pass, sort of like a Carte Séjour – but this would prove to be a big mistake later on.

Frankie, Sven and others left for Spain and different people came in. Stephan stayed – they were the only constant for me – and another companion from Christmas onwards was Pipo. It was good having newcomers to freshen the atmosphere – it was easy for people to become tired and burned out, me included. New ideas and concerns sparked enthusiasm in us all as a group.

One of the ideas was to concentrate on healthcare – particularly for people with injuries sustained while striking the fences – but also for people that needed everyday care like allergy treatment and painkillers. We would insist on going to the hospital, doctors or pharmacy ourselves and paying directly to make sure that funds were going to healthcare.

Not having a passport, these activities were difficult for me to accomplish.  I mostly became increasingly paranoid about going in and out of Boukhalef in case I was controlled by plain-clothed police. Also, when Pipo and Stephan made plans to go to Ceuta and Melilla attempting to collect footage of strikes, I was unable to go. So unfortunately, I know very little about the goings on at the fences apart from what I’ve been told.

In the end, there was little for me to do apart from leave the country and come back when I had a new passport. When I was given a kind donation from a friend to help get out of the country, I was able to go to the embassy in Rabat to apply for a temporary passport. This was relatively easy and I was back in Tangier the next day.

The thing that I didn’t account for was that I had passed my visa expiry date by three months. In my continuing idiocy I’d assumed that my loss of passport document was a waiver, clearing my visa responsibilities. So when I was inevitably turned down at the port, I had to conduct further negotiations in order to find out what to do.

It turned out that I had to go to court with the immigration department and face whatever penalties might be given, whether it be a fine, imprisonment, or nothing. After spending a few hours in a cell with sixty Scarface lookalikes, I was given a sickening feeling of guilt at my European privilege by only having to sign my name to be cleared.

In the few months that I was in Tangier – from the moment I arrived to the moment I left – I was treated like family. Everyone I met, migrants, activists and locals alike, helped me far more than I ever could have in return.

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An autobiographical novel documenting the struggles of Sub-saharan African migrants in the EU border town of Tangiers, Morocco. Content note for rape, trafficking, police violence, murder and racial abuse.

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