Debating Ideas reflects the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books. It is edited and managed by the International African Institute, hosted at SOAS University of London, the owners of the book series of the same name.
“Elach Jina Wehtajjina?” Rhetorically asking why they are here to protest. “Wladna li Bghina,” they answer, with a breast-beating shriek for their lost sons. Xeroxed pictures of their missing sons dangle on red ribbons from their necks. They march behind the vinyl-printed banners, making light-footed steps towards the Saidia beach—a seaside bordering Algeria. After rehearsing a suite of slogans, they lower themselves into a crouch and repot the shoreline with flowers in commemoration of dead and disappeared migrants. And yet, in their minds, their sons are never dead.
These are families of dead and disappeared migrants in Morocco. On this Global Day of Commemorating Migrant Death and Disappearance—which marks the Tenth Anniversary of the Tarajal Massacre—they demand truth and justice about the fate of their loved ones. Those attending are mostly from the Oriental region; some had an all-night trip from Beni-Mellal to Oujda to participate in the commemoration in Saidia, organized by the indefatigable borderland militant, Hassan Ammari, and other members of AMSV (Association d’Aide aux Migrants en Situation Vulnérable). Amid efforts to bring solidarity groups down to size, AMSV, created in 2017, started its work with families of missing and dead migrants in 2018. The shift in migratory dynamics, mapped out below, drove its members to shift their focus on the (im)mobilities of West and Central African migrants to Moroccan migrants. Other families are unable to afford transport fares to attend the sit-in, or simply emotionally weary after attending dozens of sit-ins to no avail.
I had countless conversations and stays with these families. Singular as they are, their stories of loss are proof of the EU’s deadly anti-migration policies. They also speak of extended collusion with a national system that has abdicated its responsibility towards the dead, disappeared and their families. Europe’s border regimes offshore not only border control to their southern neighbours; they outsource border violence, migrant death and disappearance, and the management thereof. Fortress Europe seeks not only to keep undesirable populations at bay, but its hands spick and clean from preventable, or rather willful, migrant death and disappearances. Such gory consequences are meant to be a memento mori for prospective migrants.
Trajal Massacre, leaving at least 15 migrants dead and dozens missing and maimed as they waded their way to the shore, staged an obscene spectacle of border violence that, after ten years, let the Spanish Guardia Civil off scot-free. A new lawsuit, however, has recently been filed against Spain by a Cameroonian survivor.
Now let me draw a broad sketch of migrant death and disappearance at the EU-Moroccan borders. In 2018, the Western Mediterranean Route had many twists and turns. After a series of incessant expulsions and deportations in the north of Morocco, West and Central African smugglers relinquished their grip over the “illegality industry”. The growth of such industry has a history of at least two decades, from the late 1990s up to the so-called “migration crisis” in 2015. During this period, North Africa had been (and still is) carrefour migratoire (a migratory crossroads) for West and Central African migrants fleeing poverty and warfare in their home countries. After 2018, Moroccans have held the mantle, quickly placing Moroccan migrants atop of the nationalities intercepted. No sooner had the year come to close than this route shut down owing to the run-up in migrant arrivals. And there is the rub. Old routes have reactivated, new ones are activated. New tactics are embraced to outwit the militarization seaming easier routes.
Such geopolitical buildups gave way to a new and complex edge to migrant death, disappearance, and incarceration. In mid-2020, countless fishing boats started to leave Morocco’s southern shorelines, bound to disembark at any of the Canary Islands in sight. Unsurprisingly, death and disappearance tolls have seen an uptick. When common departure points have been militarized, new departure points have been activated in cities such as Sidi Ifni, Agadir and further north on the Rabat and Casablanca coastlines. Such routes have never been sailed by migrant boats to reach the Canary Islands, in the case of Sidi Ifni and Agadir, or mainland Spain, in the case of Rabat and Casablanca. While boats may escape the mandibles of border surveillance, they get lost into the doldrums of the Atlantic Sea before they find their ways to the Spanish archipelago. The “count regime” of the IOM may chronicle some of these fatalities, but their exactitude is always blatantly compromised—counting on media reports to count migrant death and disappearance.
Most families taking part in this commemoration are from the Oriental region. Their sons took riskier routes which have been activated following the striation of the Western Mediterranean Route. They crossed the Moroccan-Algerian border trenches before they could set sail from Algeria, Tunisia, or Libya. Some get lost at sea, while others are incarcerated in Algeria or Libya. These geopolitics are crucial to understand how death and disappearance, the twin technologies of the EU’s border deterrence, are marshalled along these routes. The EU’s security-driven approach, laying financial focus on border management, spares no efforts to engage with migrant death and disappearance.
Families remain clueless about the whereabouts of their loved ones. Loss and unresolved grief trap them in a ghostly vertigo. Amid total disengagement with migrant death and disappearance, their individual, at times collective, efforts to look for their loved ones pale into insomniac waiting and stasis. Consequently, families are left embattled with their loss, falling into a spiral of scam, hope and disappointment.
Yet their efforts to mobilize shame against the death juggernaut of the EU’s external borders are tireless. Their efforts to search for their lost ones never cease to haunt the perpetrators. They turn their individual pain into collective grief, and collective grief into collective action to search for their missing sons. They never stop looking for their sons, even in dreams.