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Migrants Wait In Moroccan Forest For A Chance To Cross Into Europe


There are many ways migrants try to get into Europe. One route is closing off. After the European Union's migrant deal with Turkey, they head of NATO said today the number of migrants making the trip to Greece has, quote, "dropped significantly." But a much more dangerous route - Libya to Italy - now seems to be having a revival. One sobering sign of that occurred last week. The U.N. says as many as 500 people may have drowned when a boat sank in the Mediterranean. Next door to Libya is yet another route into Europe - two small enclaves of Spanish territory tucked along the coast of Morocco. To get there, migrants have to cross a forest, sometimes sleeping and hiding there for years. NPR's Leila Fadel went to the forest and has this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: I follow a gaggle of men traipsing through a rocky forest on the outskirts of the border town of Nador. We reach a clearing where makeshift tents of blankets and garbage bags are propped up on the hills. Clothes hang in trees to dry. Dozens of people are sitting around.

A woman washes dishes in a small plastic bowl. Four men huddle around a meager fire as one person fries up eggs for the group to share.

ABISON JOHNSON: We are suffering. We are suffering like this. We are suffering.

FADEL: That's Abison Johnson, from Cameroon. And when he sees my microphone, he tells me why he's here.

JOHNSON: I come from a poor family - very poor background. And I thought if I go out to help my family - but to my great surprise, life became worse and worse to me.

FADEL: He wants to go to Europe. But that would mean getting through a series of Moroccan and Spanish walls meant to keep people out of the Spanish enclave of Melilla. They're reinforced with floodlights, electronic surveillance sensors and barbed wire.

JOHNSON: Barbed wire injured so many people.

FADEL: Are you injured from it?


FADEL: He lifts his shirt to show me a long, dark scar on his right side where the barbed wire sliced him open.

This is from the barbed wire?


FADEL: Johnson has jumped the wire, as they call it here, onto the Spanish side several times. Each time, the Spanish guards send him back. And sometimes, he says, the Moroccan border guards beat the returnees. Crossing now is almost impossible.

JOHNSON: Not like this. Nobody can get past. Nobody.

FADEL: Last year, Spain was criticized for imposing what Amnesty International called the automatic and collective expulsion of migrants and refugees from the borders of these two Spanish enclaves. It means people like Johnson and others can't even apply for asylum. Amnesty calls the enclaves the ultimate symbol of fortress Europe. So people like Johnson get stuck because they have no money and nowhere to go.

JOHNSON: I need to go to Europe to change my life and that of my family. I tried. I tried. But I'm tired. I'm tired. I don't know how to get back. I'm blocked.

FADEL: So he's lived in different locations of this forest for three years. To eat, he and the others beg in the town, but not during the day. Then it's easy for police to spot them.

CHRISTIAN FUNGA: (Foreign Language Spoken).

FADEL: The police haul them away - far away from the border. That's Christian Funga, from Cameroon.

FUNGA: (Foreign Language Spoken).

FADEL: He shows me a little stream strewn with garbage.

Two women boil water and use it to wash their clothes. At night, they say, they worry about rape in the forest by drunks who come in from town. Funga says they also have to be ready to scatter from police raiding their camps.

FUNGA: If they come in, we run and climb up this mountain.

FADEL: Sometimes, the police burn all their tents - all their belongings. And they rebuild. It's not even a proper camp. There's no shelter, no aid, no school for the children. Now, Morocco has taken some steps to provide relief. In 2014, it gave legal permission for more than 20,000 migrants to live in Morocco. But thousands didn't get the papers. And even if they did, many laugh at the idea of staying in Morocco anyway.

There aren't enough jobs and too much racism. They can't get to Europe from here. Those with money will try a more dangerous route - through Libya. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Nador, Morocco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.