Published in the Sunday Tribune, June 8, 2008
“I struggled out of the water, into the rescue boat.
“After some minutes, they brought out my woman. She was already dead.
“Then, after some minutes, they brought out my baby. Dead too.”
Eric Onaginu paid a trafficker €2,600 to ferry himself, his wife, Pat, and their four year old daughter, Sandra, across the Mediterranean from the Moroccan port of Nador to the south coast of Spain.
Half way across, in the early hours of the morning of April 29, they were spotted by a ship of the Moroccan navy. The Onaginus were crammed into a small inflatable boat with between 60 and 70 others. The Moroccan ship dispatched a small craft to approach them.
When it arrived alongside the migrants’ boat, one of the Moroccan naval officers “brought out a knife”, says Eric Onaginu, and “used it to stab where the engine was”. The Moroccan boat then departed, but returned shortly afterwards. The officer had fastened his knife to the end of an oar, according to Eric Onaginu.
“He used it to stab the boat twice”, says Eric Onaginu.
“Everybody fell into the sea. They did not give us anything to rescue ourselves.”
Eric Onaginu says 30 of 70 passengers in the boat drowned, amongst these four children and a number of women. Some of the bodies were retrieved. Others were “left in the water”, he says.
The Moroccan government “categorically denies” Eric Onaginu’s allegations. According to a spokesman for the Moroccan Embassy in Dublin, the Moroccan Navy’s intervention on the morning of April 29 saved “dozens” of migrants’ lives, and led to the recovery of ten bodies from the water.
Eric Onaginu’s account is confirmed by another Nigerian survivor, who wishes to be identified by just his first name, Kelvin. Kelvin says his two brothers drowned in the incident, though he saw just one of the bodies recovered. He says he survived by holding onto the rope that ran around the circumference of the inside of their boat.
Other survivors have been interviewed by Moroccan human rights organisations, whose testimonies, published in two separate reports in recent weeks, confirm the account of events given by Eric Onaginu. (According to these reports, the migrants’ boat at first attempted to flee from the navy. Eric Onaginu denies this.) Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for official investigations into the incident.
The two men say they were subsequently brought by the Moroccan navy to the coastal town of Al Hoceima. Then, according to Eric Onaginu, “They drove us to the border and they marched us to no man’s land. They left us there.”
The border in question was the border with Algeria, which runs through an expanse of desert scrub. The group of survivors were marched into the desert and told to make their own way into Algeria. After the military had left, they turned around and walked back into Morocco, to the town of Oujda, just 13 kilometres from the border, where they are currently living in illegal squatter camps.
The Onaginus had travelled overland from Nigeria, in west Africa, to Morocco, where Eric Onaginu paid a trafficker €1,250 for his passage to Spain, plus a further €1,350 for his wife and daughter. His family had raised the money by selling land in Nigeria, and sent him the money to pay the trafficker, whom he calls “the collection man”, via Western Union. This bought them a place in one of the inflatable boats, colloquially known as “Zodiacs” (after the name of one of the leading boat makers), that are the preferred mode of transport for traffickers in the Mediterranean.
“I’m just lonely here”, says Eric Onaginu, speaking in a café near the camp where he is living. “I paid my money to go to Spain. To eat, now, is my problem. I have no money. If I want to eat, I beg fellows like me to give me food.
The camp is on the edge of the grounds of Oujda’s university, just behind the Law Faculty building. This camp is home to hundreds of migrants from all over sub-Saharan Africa. They are organised by language – French speakers on one side, English on the other – and then by country – the Nigerians are together, the Malians, the Côte d’Ivoirians, and so on.
Other migrants live in what they call “tranquillos”, temporary camps or squats in the town or in the woods outside.
The migrants are regularly harassed by the police, they say. Kelvin says that, two days previously, “gendarmes came to our bush (camp) and burned everything”. Another Nigerian migrant, who identifies himself by his nickname, Smile, says his camp in the woods has recently been raided during the night.
“The police burned our clothes and our tent”, he says. “We ran. What can we do? We don’t have papers for their country.”
In late 2005, in an incident that provoked an international outcry, the Moroccan authorities drove 500 migrants hundreds of miles south into the desert and dumped them there, 18 miles from the village of El Aouina-Souatar, near the Algerian border. There have been repeated summary round-ups and deportations of migrants since.
Yet despite these threats, the size and relative prosperity of Oujda appears to offer these migrants some temporary shelter. Oujda is a staging point on one of the key land-and-sea routes from Africa to Europe, a last stop before the short journey to the coast and the perilous attempt to cross into Europe. After the comparative harshness of the land journey across Niger and Algeria, Oujda offers some respite. And police efforts to deport the migrants by simply leaving them at the nearby border, from where they can trek back into the town, appear lacklustre.
To this foreigner, Oujda is notable for its strange mixture of confidence and paranoia, and of opulence and poverty. The city, with a population of 400,000, is aggressively modernising: it seems as if the entire town centre is under roadworks or reconstruction, and the drilling continues till midnight and starts again at four am. The centre’s wide streets are lined with Parisian-style boulevard cafes, flanked by banks and new office blocks. The hotel where we stay is comfortable, and the staff effusively welcoming.
But talk to the people working with Oujda’s thousand-strong population of illegal migrants, and there is a different attitude. Those who do speak to me are afraid of being seen by the security services, in case this leads to trouble for their organisations or for the migrants they work with. They believe they are being closely monitored, and that this reporter is being followed. Migrant camps are regularly raided by the police, they say, and migrants are beaten up and summarily deported. In our travels by road around Oujda, there are constant police roadblocks. The border with Algeria is closed, and there is a large contraband trade in the area.
There are two routes into Europe from here. The most dangerous, and expensive, is that which the Onaginus attempted, by boat to Spain. The alternative is known by some as “the barbed wire”. This involves attempting to cross the nearby land border from Morocco into the Spanish enclave of Melilla, a kind of European city-state on the north African coast.
One of those planning to attempt this route is Smile. Aged 25, and with a diploma in public administration, he left his hometown in Edo State, Nigeria, in October 2007, aiming to get into Europe across the Mediterranean from Libya. On the way, in Niger, he was robbed. He lost all his money, $300, and decided he would not be able to pay a trafficker for a place on a boat, and aimed instead for Melilla, via Morocco. Smile was planning to walk the final 140 kilometres to the town of Nador, beside Melilla, by night, and then attempt to cross “the barbed wire” when an opportunity presented itself.
That wire is razor as well as barbed, and sits atop a triple fence that reaches to six metres in height. Crossing it is next to impossible, though there is a steady traffic in migrants who find other ways to get into Melilla. Yet for all the desperation of Smile and others to get in, there is much desperation amongst those migrants already inside.
In Melilla’s elegant, imperial central square, the Plaza España, a group of 20 or so immigrants are currently on hunger strike. Some of them have been here more than two years, and have found that, rather than securing access to the European mainland, they have been caught in a kind of political limbo. The Spanish government wants to deport them, but this is legally and logistically complex. Melilla has no capacity to absorb them but appears unwilling to ship its “problem” to the Spanish mainland. (In the past, Melilla regularly transferred illegal migrants to the mainland, which the migrants call “big Spain”, where they would simply “disappear”, joining migrant communities in the large cities and finding work in the informal economy.) The men are stuck, housed and fed in Melilla’s “temporary stay” centre for immigrants, but prohibited from working and from travelling.
Many of these hunger strikers are from Algeria. One of them, Amine, describes how they each managed to pass “the barbed wire”. Amine’s journey was relatively easy: he paid a trafficker €700 to get him from Oran in western Algeria to Melilla, and was given a Moroccan passport and driven across the border. He knows some Algerians who swam into Melilla’s harbour from the neighbouring Moroccan harbour of Beni-Enzar, he says. One man he knows of drowned this way two months previously.
One of his fellow hunger strikers, 19-year-old Hadj Ahmed, was in a group of five who tried to sprint across the border crossing with Morocco. The four others were caught and deported, but Hadj Ahmed made it through. As Amine describes this, others amongst the strikers, lying on cardboard on the pavement, wrapped in blankets and plastic sheets, perk up, and smile, and gesture that they too “fought” their way through the crossing.
“You queue at the border”, Amine explains. “When you get to the guard, you push and run. Very, very hard.”
One friend of his who got into Melilla this way, later sneaked onto a boat and made it to Spain, and is now in Madrid, he says. How is he getting on, I ask. Amine laughs. “He is well”, he says, as if the question is stupidly obvious. “He has work.”
Amine could have paid the same amount, €700, to a trafficker to bring him across the Mediterranean from Algeria. But that route is long and dangerous; Amine had two friends who died at sea while being trafficked in 2007. Still, his hometown is just a few hundred kilometres away. Why does he not simply return?
“This hunger strike is better than life in Algeria”, he says.