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10 July 2000

From Casablanca with dreams

Justin Websterfollows the trail of the young Moroccan harragas who will hide even in truck

By Justin Webster

“Know what I’d do?” asked Ned, squinting earnestly, his mouth twitching slightly. “No,” I said. There was no way out. He had that look of sudden conviction.

“I’d nuke all Arab countries.”

“Ah,” I said, holding my tongue and nodding idiotically. After talking to truck drivers for three days, I didn’t want to get into another endless debate based on our limited grasp of global history and natural justice. I was more interested in the facts. Besides, Ned was frightened. It was his fear talking.

We were in the United Seamen’s Service Centre just outside the port in Casablanca, a home from home for the 300 or so British truckers who work the route up from Morocco, importing textiles and foodstuffs into Europe. As the oldest American-owned bar in Africa (founded 1952), this low, white edifice, with a tropical beer garden and pool tables, can lay claim to being a real equivalent to the fictional Rick’s Bar. And, despite the yawning gap between the film and modern reality, they share a theme: a lot of people want to get out of Casablanca.

Ned was on his second trip to pick up a cargo of ready-made clothes for a British retailer. In a couple of days, he would drive out to one of the industrial zones and spend several hours loading up. Then he would head directly to Tangier, without stopping even at the traffic lights if he could help it.

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While loading, he might have to pull Moroccan youths out by their legs or hair before they dived under the racks of polythene-wrapped garments, or he might just ensure that the groups of boys carrying knives and pliers, who mill around the back of the lorry, didn’t get close enough to make a desperate, and often fatal, bid to stow away. Once on the move, chased by a posse of mopeds, he would almost certainly have the locks damaged or a hole cut in the trailer roof. At the very least, he’d have would-be emigrants eyeing up the size of his engine compartment, spoilers and wheel arches.

On his first trip, two weeks before, Ned did everything he could, he said, and he still ended up in Tangier with three stowaways in the back. He saw that the lock to the trailer doors had been forced, reported it to the Moroccan police and they sent in the “ferrets” – small, agile agents with torches who slip between the tight-packed clothes and drag out anyone there for a beating in front of the drivers.

“I wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for ‘im,” said Ned, with emotion, nodding at his mate Kevin. This cued Kevin into a rambling but fact-filled babble about his 16 months on the Casablanca route, which ended heroically with him laying out a couple of the natives.

“A lot of guys can’t cope down here,” confided Kevin, “It’s like cowboys and indians. Ten days ago, I had cars flashing at me because there were stowaways on the roof. When I got to Tangier, seven or eight trucks had been attacked. And if you pull out a dead one, you’re making statements for weeks.”

John Mann International, one of several British haulage operators to North Africa, is currently the company most targeted by the determined and incredibly resourceful harragas – literally fire-raisers, because they burn their papers to avoid being repatriated. Apparently, John Mann’s logo is now easily identified as a form of transport heading all the way across Spain and France. British drivers – either for John Mann, Davies Turner, Breda or others – make up the biggest single national group at the United Seamen’s Service Centre, but the French and Spanish tell similar stories.

“You can’t let it get to you,” said another British driver, who had been working in Russia before switching to Morocco three years ago. Russia’s chief problem was robbery, sometimes armed. But he said he’d never seen the Mad Max-style scenes of stowaways on this scale before Casablanca. Once he reached Tangier with stowaways aboard. The police managed to get five of them out. Then the doors were locked and bolted again. When the truck arrived in Manchester, the driver found that one stowaway had stayed in, undiscovered. He was dead by this time, from the heat or suffocation, after three days on the road.

“It’s not the dead body that bothers me. That whole cargo had to be condemned. That was half a million pounds’ worth,” he said. “It’s the smell, you see, it gets everywhere.”

There are no official figures for the number of Moroccan youths – usually aged between 14 and 25 – trying this method to get out of their own country and into Europe. Kent Brown, the American director of the Service Centre, has heard of three stowaways dying this year. One fell off a truck travelling at 100kmph. The driver didn’t stop, but he was sure the boy was killed. Two more were pulled out of a trailer with severe dehydration after they had spent several days waiting, in vain, for it to set off. Someone had heard them banging. They later died in hospital.

Although it seems impossible, some do make it across the Straits of Gibraltar by truck. I’ve met them. From a rough survey among Moroccan migrants living in shacks and working in hothouses in Andalucia, I found that about a third had crossed in the well-known and frequently overloaded small boats. A third had simply slipped aboard a ferry. The rest had come on trucks. Last month, at a petrol station in Cadiz, a Moroccan crawled out from a truck engine with a burnt arm, to the astonishment of three German drivers.

British officials in Morocco call this a delicate issue. They have made representations. Richard Caborn, the trade minister, visited the governor of Casablanca to express his concerns over the safety of the drivers, on humanitarian grounds – meaning the risks to the stowaways themselves – and over the possible damage to trade. Exports from Morocco to Britain, two-thirds of which are textiles, have tripled in the past ten years. Marks & Spencer and Coats Viyella are two major customers who have their clothes made in a country where the price of skilled labour is low, and the proximity allows for quick and highly flexible deliveries.

One reason why the issue is uncomfortable is that there are no mafias involved. If they had any money, the harragas would be easier to control. Apart from beating them up, the police don’t know what to do with them. They can’t confiscate their savings and they can’t put them all in jail. And, as there are no mafias, there are no convenient scapegoats. The sheer number of attempts and the extreme risks taken point to deeper causes. It is the raw expression of a simple desire: to leave or die trying.

In the ebb and flow of police pressure and stowaway tactics, most of the harragas have now flocked to Tangier. About 300 youths circle around the export park to find hiding places in the trucks parked there waiting to clear customs. They are periodically shooed away by police, but these efforts are more symbolic than effective. One British trucker made a formal complaint last month after he injured his leg, and was then unable to drive, after extracting several stowaways from his truck. Although often armed with machetes for cutting their way in, the youths do not usually attack the drivers but, in this case, they had threatened him.

“Everyone passes the buck,” said Stephanie Sweet, the British consul in Tangier. “I’m surprised I’m not called out more. The drivers are very unprotected.”

The problem has come to a head at a testing time in British-Moroccan relations over immigration. A new British scheme to allow some Moroccans visas if they deposit £3,000 has been given a cool reception by Moroccan authorities. Proposed by Jack Straw, the Financial Immigration Bond Scheme will be launched in Casablanca and Manila in October, with the aim of allowing Moroccans and Filipinos – whose visa applications would normally be denied – to visit relations in Britain. The applicants will have to leave the money as a guarantee that they will not stay in Britain.

“I can only be shocked by such a measure,” said Abubakr Jamai, editor of the weekly Le Journal in Casablanca, “because you cannot solve this kind of problem like that, and the message that money is the deciding factor is morally unacceptable.”

Le Journal‘s offices overlook the port where the lorries are parked outside. At weekends, when two ships leave for Europe and dozens of trucks set off to load up at the factories, it fills up with hundreds of young Moroccans looking for a place to stow away.

“It’s terrible, but it has become so normal we hardly notice it,” said Jamai. “It is a sensitive issue. To acknowledge there is such a problem is to acknowledge Morocco has failed to foster prosperity.”

In the Ben M’sik industrial park on the outskirts of the city, where brand-new textile factories line the dusty streets, prosperity seems to be on its way, at least for some. When a bleeper sounds, hundreds of workers, mostly women, flood outside for the hour-long lunch break. The state sets their wages at eight dirhams an hour, the equivalent of £4 for an eight-hour shift.

At one European-owned factory, the foreign, Muslim manager greeted my unexpected visit warily. I had come with a Moroccan, a friend of one of the truckers, because they had warned me that Ben M’sik was dangerous, especially if I took a camera. The manager explained how the harragas provoke complaints from clients because they often damage the goods. He estimated that around 40 per cent of all the trucks were in some way affected.

He allowed me to take a picture of his workforce, neatly arranged in lines, each deep in concentration amid the clatter of sewing machines. He accompanied me into the workshop and, once we were alone, asked if my Moroccan friend could be trusted. When I said yes, he wanted, to my surprise, to prolong the interview.

He told me that family members of workers in his company had disappeared after they had criticised the king. The last case was four years ago, before the death of Hassan II and the succession of his son, Mohamed VI, last year. The new king has made gestures towards reform, but the textile manager said he had seen no real changes yet.

The second insight that he offered me was that primary education was very basic and that secondary education was very expensive, and therefore open only to a few. The government, he said, imposed a quota for exam passes, regardless of the results, to control access to education. After he had told me this, he thanked me. “It is a relief for me to talk to someone,” he said.

The truckers had told me about the crazy risks the boys take. Others, Moroccans and British, had told me that the stowaways were deluded by false hopes and, even if they succeeded, would find only poor jobs and racism in Europe. Only the textile manager credited them with any rational basis for their extreme course of action.

“Even if you build a wall as high as the seventh cloud,” he said, “they will still find a way out.”

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