Borders, Drugs and Migrants in Northern Morocco

Although the concept of borders has a long history, a definition remains quite ambiguous. It relies on a multitude of complex socio-political and economic elements that are at times contradictory. This is primarily due to the difficulty in establishing the shape and function of borders, since they are constantly changing and evolving. Thus, the concept of borders changes as you move between academic disciplines. There are a number of diverse approaches to the concept and each field employs ideas and philosophies specific to it; whether that is historical, geographical, political, sociological, anthropological, psychological or other, it is evident that there is no single definition. Nevertheless, the notion of the border relies heavily on John Locke’s notion of natural law and the demarcation of private property rights. It is a concept at the heart of knowledge production in the social sciences and has currency in the field of international relations.

This article will not, however, investigate the definition of borders nor their complexity in international relations. The aim is to understand borders on a practical, day-to-day level. It highlights the interpretive flexibility in the concept of borders and its connections to concrete issues like migration and drugs. Countries around the world must face the fact that with the increase globally in migration and drug trafficking, border management has risen in importance. An example of this is the closed border between Morocco and Algeria. According to the Algerians the closure is due to the traffic of drugs from Morocco, yet, ironically, the closure only benefits the traffickers further. Another example can be seen in the agreements on border management signed by Morocco and the EU. Their purpose is to control the flow of migrants and shows how the notion of borders can shift for Morocco is not geographically a part of Europe yet it finds itself acting as a EU border patrol agent.

The data I have collected on field trips will be used to discuss the practical use of borders. In this sense, it is the opinions of those involved rather than the abstract concept that will be debated in this article. I have chosen to analyse the northern borders of Morocco in relation to migration and drugs. Both issues force the state to review the policies it employs in controlling borders. While the EU almost never questions Morocco on its border controls for drug trafficking, it is very interested in Morocco’s procedures for policing the common borders when it comes to migration. The collective attempts of migrants to cross the borders at Ceuta and Melilla make us question the physical and symbolic function of borders. How do migrants view borders? How are they experienced, imagined and viewed by players in the drug trafficking business?

Borders, a Source of Tension

Morocco’s location geographically makes it an obvious entry point to Africa and there have always been tensions along its borders, particularly with its northern neighbour Spain. The Mediterranean Sea has played a dual role throughout history, creating relationships for social, economic and cultural exchange while also being the source of tension and geopolitical conflict. The question of how to control this area has contributed to the divide between the North and South, a divide that can only truly be understood within a historical context. Against this backdrop of tension, borders have an important role to play in enabling us to understand their imbalance and asymmetry, a way of understanding the complex nature of social, economic, and political relationships and how the actors within this perceive the borders.

Before 1991 and the introduction of visas in Spain, movement between Morocco and its northern neighbour were free and fluid. When Spain entered the Schengen zone, visas were required for people from North Africa, thereby, permanently changing their relationship with the EU borders. Suddenly, there was an imbalance in the way people experienced the invisible lines that separated countries; Spanish citizens could enter Morocco without a visa while Moroccans had to request a visa and justify their stay in Spain.

Since then, waves of primarily Moroccan illegal migration have increased, leading to moments of tension between both countries. In 2002, border management created a diplomatic crisis between the two following a reference by Spain to Morocco’s apparent ‘laxness.’ As a result of increased Moroccan illegal immigration in the 1990s and early 2000s, Sub-Saharan migration has now become the primary source of tension. Migrants arrive in northern Morocco at border cities like Tangier or near Ceuta and Melilla and wait for a chance to cross.

Illegal immigration on boats leaving northern Morocco has resulted in Spain exerting pressure on Morocco to police its northern border in an attempt to prevent migrants from entering Spain illegally; the 2000s were marked by the pressure placed on Morocco and led to it becoming a Buffer State for the EU.

Despite the drastic control measures put in place by both Rabat and Madrid, each year there are new bids to cross the barrier separating the two Spanish enclaves from mainland Morocco. Estimates suggest that 20,000 people try to cross the border each year, and more recently, Sub-Saharan migrants have been joined by ranks of refugees and asylum seekers from conflicts in Syria, Libya and Iraq. 

The barriers around the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, located on Moroccan soil, evidence the way in which Europe uses its borders against migration from the South. Despite the fences, migrants live in the surrounding forests, isolated from the local population and waiting for the right moment to cross. Collectively they develop strategies to evade the controls on the fences that separate them from their final destination: Europe. Waiting encourages them to learn patience but also to better understand borders. They move freely between the border cities of the North: Tangier, Tetouan and Nador and depending on the seasons, summer or winter, they choose their moment to cross.

Sub-Saharan migrants in Tangier have a totally different experience to those who attempt to cross at Ceuta and Melilla. Between 2014 and 2015,[1] during the course of our investigation of Tangier as a border town, we discovered that the city has a double border. There is the external, physical border that leads to Europe and then there is the internal, social border that separates the migrants from the local Moroccan population in Tangier. Sub-Saharan and European migrants’ experience of these borders is qualitatively different. As a port city, Tangier receives daily boats coming in from Gibraltar and Tarifa. Although these borders are closed to Sub-Saharans and Moroccans, Spanish migrants and tourists cross them easily. Spanish citizens who work in Tangier during the week return easily to Spain for the weekend, even if, as our study showed, they work on an irregular basis in Morocco. In stark contrast to Sub-Saharans, neither the Moroccan authorities nor the local population view the Spanish as illegal immigrants crossing a border.

Border here is read as ‘barrier’, a barrier to stop migration. This perception of borders relies heavily on seventeenth century thinking, which saw them as the furthest extremities of the kingdom and provinces to be protected from enemies. In order to cross these borders Sub-Saharan migrants make contact with so-called ‘spotters’ who are for the most part Moroccan. The role of the spotter is to collect information on the position of the Moroccan Navy and on the best route to breach the borders whether by land (Ceuta and Melilla) or by sea. This information costs about 1,000 MAD (100 Euros) and works as a kind of subscription service that must be paid prior to making the attempt to cross.

These borders are primarily political but they also serve to reveal the tensions between migrants and the local population since they put into question the borders that public policy creates to manage migration. The desire to cross the border is fed by a few successful attempts made by migrants, mainly in the summer. On 12 August 2014, cities in the south of Spain witnessed a huge influx of migrants. National newspapers like El Pais and El Mundo spoke of about 900 people rescued from the sea by the Coast Guard in Tarifa and nearly 1,200 people travelling in pateras picked up off the Spanish coast. According to newspapers, it was the result of an attempt by Moroccan authorities to reduce the pressure of migrants in the north of the country. However, this wave coincided with a major diplomatic incident, the King of Morocco’s yacht was intercepted by the Spanish coast guard off the coast of Ceuta on 7 August 2014. The issue was swiftly resolved through the intervention of the Spanish interior minister in the minutes following the incident, and the governor of Ceuta went to present official apologies in person to the King. Several Spanish newspapers, however, made the connection between the arrival of so many migrants and the incident in Ceuta. They attempted to show that Morocco had sent a message by allowing the boats to leave the northern coast for Spain, and that it was vital to view borders as a politico-territorial issue. 

These borders, which represent entry points into Europe, are primarily entry points to a huge labour market. As such, borders separate the north from the south and demarcate the political and economic imbalance between the two coasts of the Mediterranean. Borders in this sense do not converge but act as a means of separation.

Borders and Drugs

If borders and migration both separate and connect Spain and Morocco in their attempts to fight illegal immigration, drugs are another issue that challenges the concept of borders. The northern borders, in particular those with Ceuta and Melilla, are part of the daily lives and practices of the local population. They play an important economic role both for legal trade and illegal exchanges, particularly smuggling. Since the 1960s, this close connection between the borders and the local population facilitated the trade of Moroccan cannabis to Spain. Cannabis took the same route as contraband products to cross the Strait of Gibraltar.

Despite strict checks and controls on the borders, the trade in cannabis from Morocco has not stopped. During our research, we learned that Tangier’s prison holds over eighty young Spanish citizens arrested for having attempted to smuggle mostly small amounts of cannabis into Spain. The proximity of Tangier to Spain gives the impression that crossing borders is quite easy and yet the prison in Tangier is not only home to young Spaniards, but also to Belgian and French citizens. These are people who agreed to be a ‘mule’ in order to earn a little money either by bringing back a few grams or kilos of cannabis in their cars, camper-vans, or by swallowing small quantities of olive-shaped capsules on behalf of traffickers or for their own use. Drug mules moving between Morocco and Spain are, for the most part, Europeans, recruited by traffickers because they have a better chance of getting through undetected while Moroccans are viewed with suspicion by local and Spanish officials. In the Moroccan media Europeans are portrayed as the victims of traffickers, while Moroccans are presented in an unfavourable light.

That said, substantial drug seizures are also made at the port of Tangier Med highlighting the position Tangier holds on the trafficking circuit despite the opening of other routes. Cannabis can easily be hidden in trucks transporting products manufactured in the Free Trade Zones, which leave from Tangier Med for Europe. While the arrival of a large truck scanner has reduced the flow of drugs, it hasn’t stopped drug seizures altogether. Tangier’s border is that of a truly transnational city. It is a crossing point for products ‘Made in Morocco’ but also for drugs, whether locally produced cannabis or imported cocaine. The movement of drugs across borders requires Mafia-like organisation, but also the complicity of a number of Moroccan and Spanish officials.

In Spain in July 2015 a particularly large seizure was made. It involved two articulated lorries from Tangier Med carrying fifty tons of cannabis and was the largest drug haul in Spanish history. Cannabis leaving Tangier travels on to the EU’s capital cities via Spain. For example, in October 2015, 7.1 tons of cannabis from Morocco was seized in Paris. Drug trafficking provides a very different perception of borders than that provided by politicians.

The permeability of borders, in part due to economic fragility and political corruption, enables drug traffickers to create new pathways for their merchandise. If the traditional route for drugs is through Spain, it is not surprising to see that traffickers are opening up new parallel pathways, for example, through Libya. While these routes may be less direct and more costly, they are less dangerous for the merchandise. This shift has led to migrant smugglers diversifying their activities with those skilled in crossing the Mediterranean hiring out their services to drug traffickers.

Whether it is a report on drugs or migrants, the media tends to focus heavily on figures so we become used to hearing headlines such as: ‘1 ton of cannabis seized on the border between Morocco and Spain.’ Or, ‘100 migrants attempting to cross the border arrested.’ Drugs, like migrants are represented solely in figures to underline the efficiency, or lack thereof, of state border controls.

When looked at through the lens of migration and drug trafficking, borders seem like spaces of uncertainty, working outside of the standard state logic. They reveal how our concrete relationships with borders are only made apparent when they acquire a strategic importance for those involved. An analysis of socio-economic practices on borders forces us to think beyond simplistic interpretation, encouraging us to see them as dynamic fields of action.