As winter approaches, many sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco are desperate to reach Spanish shores and start a new life in Europe.
More than 90 of them, including women and children, have died in the past two weeks as they braved the perilous crossing, according to a toll calculated from reports by Spanish and Moroccan authorities and members of the African migrant community.
Spanish rescue services said last week they had saved 95 sub-Saharans travelling in 16 different vessels.
But in one incident a week earlier, lifeguards pulled 14 dead migrants from the water who had set out at night in a raft.
Attempts to cross the narrow stretch of sea – just 14km at its closest point – that separates Europe from Africa in often crowded, rickety boats have multiplied in recent weeks, according to authorities.
In mid-October, nearly 300 would-be immigrants tried to break though the metal barrier of the Spanish enclave of Melilla in northern Morocco which, along with Ceuta, is the only land border between the two continents.
Patrick, a young Cameroonian near Morocco's northeastern town of Oujda, admits to trying his luck along with 15 others at Melilla on October 25, two days before the Muslim festival of Eid, in what he described as a "kamikaze mission".
"There is no other solution. I don't want to die of hunger and cold without having tried," he said.
A harrowing journey
Night falls early in this part of Morocco now and a cold winter looms, prompting the homeless Africans to take their chances before conditions worsen, and amid sometimes harsh treatment by authorities.
"We have walked dozens of kilometres in worn-out shoes and clothes, for nothing," says Patrick. The experiences he recounts chime with those frequently reported by NGOs that work with migrants in the region.
"The Moroccan army and police chased us through the woods [outside Oujda]. Dozens of us were hurt, others arrested," he said.
After having their photos and fingerprints taken, Patrick said the security forces took the group he was with to the Algerian border, officially closed since 1994 but now the main entry point for illegal African immigrants.
Most of them have come back and are hiding in the same woods near Oujda.
Another migrant, asking not to be identified, says he was picked up near Melilla and treated badly "by both the Moroccan and the Spanish authorities".
"They burned my passport and the HCR [United Nations refugee agency] document that would have granted me refugee status," the young man said. "Where is their humanity?"
Clampdown on migrants
Eneko Landaburu, the Europian Union ambassador in Morocco, has raised his concerns about the "extremely worrying testimonies" of immigrants being maltreated, and local activists have alerted the authorities to acts of racism and violence.
Last week, a Moroccan weekly sparked controversy when it ran an article on the issue with headline "The black peril" splashed on its front page.
Human rights groups say between 20 000 and 25 000 sub-Saharans are currently residing illegally in Morocco.
The authorities have clamped down on the problem, with security sources telling AFP that between May and November around 10 000 migrants were kicked out of the country, a figure almost unparalleled in recent years. – AFP