Long famous for its markets, Tangier is now home to a camp that illustrates a darker side of trade: human trafficking. It's a station for sub-Saharan Africans seeking a better life in Europe. But many never make it.
Thousands of boat people have made their way to Italy this summer from staging camps in northern Africa.
TANGIER, MOROCCO -- "I think about God. I search for him because maybe he can help me scrape together a little money. I'd be very grateful to him," says a young man who calls himself Stanley.
One day, Stanley believes, his dream will come true. For months, he's been living in a refugee camp near Tangier, Morocco, waiting for his chance to cross the Mediterranean in a small boat to a better life in Europe, the El Dorado of his dreams.
"I want to go to Germany," he says. "If God be willing, I will go to Germany. I'm a mechanic and I can work for a lot of different companies. I'm also a soccer player. In Lagos I played in the second Nigerian league. There's just a problem with money in Nigeria and that's why I want to go to Europe."
Another man, who calls himself Ian, has no money, no family and nothing to look back to but a bleak future at home. "Our monthly wages aren't enough to even establish a family," he laments. "That's why we have to first go to Europe and look around before we would even be able to come back home, where our girlfriends are waiting."
A man named Paul from Cameroon is also waiting for pennies from heaven.
"In Europe, you can earn a lot of money and you can lead a decent life – you can even become a millionaire. That's what we hear on TV," Paul says. "We always want to out do each other. If the neighbor earns 200,000 francs, then I have to earn more. And the only way to become a real man is to go to Europe and come back with a lot of money. That so many people wind up here [in this camp] is unknown – it's never mentioned on television and nobody talks about it. Only the newspapers and foreign media report it."
A station on the route to Europe
The Tangier camp is one of many staging grounds in Northern Africa for the human trafficking trade to Europe – one of the first stations for illegal immigrants en route to the European Union. Traveling in rickety boats, the long journey ends in tragedy for many. In June, 200 would-be immigrants drowned when the boat they were traveling on sank off the Tunisian coast. Italian officials believe that 3,000 illegal immigrants from Africa made it to shore that month alone. Others are caught and placed in detention centers until they can be deported back to Africa.
Would-be immigrants are helped by Spanish soldiers on the Punta Paloma beach in Tarifa, Spain, on May 8, 2003. Some 50 immigrants survived the crossing arriving in a small boat from Morocco.
Spain is encountering a similar surge in illegal immigration. The government detained 23,381 people trying to enter the continent from Morocco in 2002. And the Spanish Interior Ministry reported in 2002 that it had busted 735 human trafficking rings, up from 362 the year before.
The Moroccan Workers' and Immigrants' Association in Spain (ATIME) has estimated that 4,000 people have died since 1997 crossing the Strait of Gibraltar or the slip of ocean separating Africa from Spain’s Canary Islands.
Governments across Europe are seeking to take action, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the rotating president of the European Union, has said he will make combating illegal immigration a priority during his six months at the helm. Berlusconi has called for the creation of a European Border Patrol agency to scan the waters for illegal immigrants as well as the establishment of detainment centers outside the EU for illegal immigrants.
In the mean time, the immigrants keep coming and the dangers continue to grow.
Shuffling from border to border
More than 100 people are gathered in a temporary tent made of cellophane here in Tangier. As long as they have a little pocket money on them, the police continue to look the other way. Some women are so desperate to stay here that they're willing to sell their bodies to raise the necessary cash. Occasionally there are police raids and some of the refugees are taken back to the Algerian border. But they just hop on the next bus back to Tangier. Just as the police in Tangier are happy to look the other way, so are the border guards in Algeria. Some refugees have been traveling back and forth between the two countries for six months.
"I went through Algeria until I could get over here ... the hard way," says a man named Oscar. "I had to travel across the desert to get to Morocco. Normally the trip takes eight months, but if you have enough money you can do it in five months. I was really lucky to have made it this far."
The Spanish Civil Guard has its hands full trying to intercept rickety boats bound for its coasts from North Africa.
The illegal immigrants in Tangier are in a quandary. The Spanish government recently erected a $120 million radar system along the coast that serves as an electronic fence between the Spanish port city of Algeciras and Tangier. Since then, it's become much more difficult for refugee boats to get across to the European continent. Some now try to make it as far as the Canary Islands. Others try to make it to Libya, where many boats are now heading for Italy. But to do so, they must first cross Algeria – a large, dangerous and, for the immigrants, expensive land. Others opt to stay here in the make-shift camp and continue dreaming of El Dorado.
Stanley is among them.
"We're trying to get out of here together," says Stanley. "And one day we'll make it to Europe. I have faith."