Refugee policies will be on the agenda at the Africa-EU Summit in Tripoli beginning Monday. A major problem in most African countries is that well-educated people can't find a job and head towards Europe's borders.
Only a fraction of illegal migrants make it to European soil, like these men in Spain
Tens of thousands of Africans every year continue to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in search of work and a better life in Europe. For many illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, though, a stopover in northern Africa can turn into a sojourn lasting many years.
Over the past decade, the European Union has increasingly involved border countries in its battle against illegal immigration. The bloc has tightened measures directed toward stopping migrants from entering Europe but also helped with action aimed at stopping them from even leaving African territory. Morocco is a prime example of this development.
"The measures led by the European Union to fight against irregular immigration have greatly contributed to the transformation of Morocco from a transit country to a destination country, in this way making it a 'buffer zone'," said GADEM, an NGO based in the Moroccan capital Rabat, which monitors the treatment of migrants by the country's authorities.
Active members of society
Most illegal migrants hope they will make it to Europe one day
The number of irregular migrants in Morocco is estimated between 10,000 and 20,000 people, according to figures cited by the International Organization for Migration.
These refugees in Morocco are not the poorest of the poor, either. They are the ones who had professions and were active members of their communities. They are the ones who could build up development, infrastructure and efficient administrations back home - but they often failed due to cronyism and corruption.
Aliyu is a typical example. Like all illegal migrants interviewed for this report, he declined to provide his full name. The 28-year-old studied chemistry back in his native country, Guinea. But after his studies, he couldn't find a job. So he went to Morocco, hoping to use it as a stepping stone to get to Europe. But that hope has not come true yet; he's still stuck in Rabat.
He said he wished Europe would use clear policies to increase pressure on African nations so that so many people wouldn't even have to leave their home countries.
"Morocco plays the cop for Europe," Aliyu said. "But I think the EU should truly reconsider its development policies toward African countries. What is it really about for the thousands of people from Mali or Guinea here? They're looking for a better life and for work. That's why the collaboration with the countries of origin has to change."
Speaking the same language
This cooperation is also one of the topics leaders from the European Union and Africa will address at the two-day Africa-EU Summit in the Libyan capital beginning Monday. It is the third summit of this kind and developed out of the Africa-EU Joint Strategy adopted by 80 African and European leaders in Lisbon in December 2007.
Illegal migrants live in constant fear of being caught
According to the European Commission, the joint strategy has allowed both sides to address migration issues in a more productive manner.
"The partnership has created a forum for open exchanges in a sensitive and complex policy area," the Commission said in a statement earlier this week. It conceded, though, that immediate results were "difficult to measure."
"But the tone and nature of the debate has positively evolved over recent years," the Commission said. "Today, participants speak to a large extent the same language, and they increasingly share the same analysis."
Effective immigration policies
Merely improving the tone, though, is not enough for refugees like Aliyu. He is one of the founders of the "Council of African Refugees." Though not recognized by the government, it wants to be a common forum and voice for migrants. The organization is also campaigning for Morocco to finally get effective refugee and integration policies going.
NGOs like GADEM report of systematic human rights abuses against migrants by Moroccan security forces. They have called on the Moroccan government to view migration not only as a security problem, but also one that concerns Moroccan politics, business and society as a whole.
GADEM's spokesman Hicham Rachidi said it doesn't help anyone to confront the problem with deportation and denial - not the migrants, not Europe and not Morocco.
Rachidi says Morocco has to exert more effort to ensure migrants' rights
"It's like them pouring water on sand," Rachidi said. "It simply seeps away and leads to nothing."
Aliyu's roommate Mahamadou, who is also involved in the council, is originally from Mali and has been living without papers in Rabat for several years. Though he studied chemistry, he now works as an electrician, earning about seven euros ($9) a day illegally. He said structural changes in EU-African relations on this issue were necessary.
"The money that is supposed to help us develop never reaches us," Mahamadou said. "So I wish that donors would have direct contact to those people it actually affects."
Aliyu, Mahamadou and others stress that the situation in their native countries must improve. They would like to see development aid from Europe more closely tied to certain conditions and communities instead of being dependent on governments. In 2009, the European Commission dedicated 4.1 billion euros ($5.4 billion) - around 42 percent of its total disbursed aid - to Africa.
"I wish the Europeans, if they themselves don't want any refugees, would help these people in their countries much more directly in order to further development there," Mahamadou said. "Then none of us would risk our lives in the desert or the ocean."
Willing to take risks
Even if there were positive developments in aid structure, the problem of illegal migration will certainly continue. Migrants want to reach European soil - be it mainland Europe, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla or islands in the Atlantic and Mediterranean - and are willing to risk people smugglers, deserts, sea crossings and the possibility of being sent home, all for the dream of a better life.
Many refugees in Oujda live in makeshift camps in the nearby forests
"Life is all about risk, but the greatest risk is not to take a risk at all," said 39-year-old Justin. "So you must take the risk in order to survive."
The engineer is from the Delta state in Nigeria and has been stuck in Oujda close to the Algerian border for three years. This is a particularly tough terrain. It's much more difficult to find work than in Rabat, though the sub-Saharan African refugees help each other out where they can.
Their largest risk is being caught by the Moroccan police. In Oujda, taxi drivers are forbidden from transporting sub-Saharan Africans. For these migrants with dark skin, it's better to make themselves invisible in Oujda.
Aliyu said there are often police raids, whether it's in Oujda or Rabat.
"They search the refugees and take away their money and telephones," he said. "Then they put them on a truck like animals and dump them again on the other side of the Algerian border."
Often, they are led back into the desert, he said.
"There in the Sahara, it's really awful," Aliyu said. "There's no water, nothing to eat. It's horrible and many of our friends have lost their lives there."
He said Moroccan authorities still haven't recognized that their country has long been a place for sub-Saharan Africans to live and work. It was high time for effective integration policies.
Authors: Ute Schaeffer, Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Rob Mudge