On the night of September 25 a Moroccan Navy ship opened fire on a speedboat transporting 20 people across the straits between Morocco and Spain. Several of the passengers, who were clandestinely hoping to emigrate to Spain, were wounded. A young woman, so far identified only as Hayat B., was killed.
Hayat B. was not yet twenty years old. She was a law student from the town of Tetouane. According to the Moroccan media, she came from a modest background—her parents were separated and her mother worked in a fish-processing factory to support the family. Her friends have said that they had no inkling of her plans to emigrate. She was trying to reach an aunt who already lives in Spain.
The death of this young woman—which at first the authorities here seemed intent on denying—has intensified the national debate over the hopeless situation of millions of young frustrated Moroccans.
Hayat and others aboard the boat were from towns in Morocco’s Northern Rif region, where a protest movement called the Hirak erupted in the fall of 2016. (See a related article, “New Moroccan Protests Call for Fresh Scholarly Approach”.) The protesters called for more public services and opportunities for the historically marginalized region, and criticized government officials and powerful businessmen as corrupt. The leaders of the protests were eventually accused of a conspiracy to destabilize the state, and were recently sentenced to 20-year jail terms.
In addition to the protests in the Rif, Morocco has also witnessed protests over water shortages in the town of Zagora and over working conditions in mines in the town of Jerrada.
In late August, Moroccan authorities announced they would reinstate mandatory military service. This has been seen by some as a measure to rein in young people, their protests and their demands for change.
The purpose of the military draft, a communiqué from the Royal Cabinet stated, is to further the integration of young people into professional and social life, and to strengthen their “sense of citizenship.” But some here have asked if that shouldn’t in fact be the mission of the educational system.
Instead, that system continues to flounder. A recent report on the challenges facing youth by the Economic, Social and Environmental Council described a deep malaise among young people. Two out of three young Moroccans have abandoned their studies, the report found; one out of five suffers from mental-health issues, but few have any access to health services. The lack of interest and faith in political structures is striking: Only one percent of those surveyed belongs to a political party or syndicate.
Out of Morocco’s population of 35 million, 11 million are age 15 to 34. That number is projected to keep growing. Unemployment ranges as high as 20 percent and is highest for those with university degrees. New jobs are not being created at a pace anywhere near sufficient to meet the growing need for employment.
So it is perhaps not a surprise that migration from Morocco (called hirag in the local dialect) seems to be spiking again, with videos of young people celebrating their decision to leave the country behind circulating widely on social media.
And in a recent report released by the leading Moroccan job-recruiting website rekrute.com, 91 percent of respondents said they would like to pursue their careers abroad. Forty-four percent of those aged 25 to 36 and 56 percent of those aged 35 to 44 said they wished to move abroad permanently.
Since early 2018, Spain has recorded more than 38,000 arrivals by sea and land, according to the International Organization for Migration. About 7,000 of those have been Moroccans. For their part, the Moroccan authorities claim to have foiled 54,000 attempts to cross the Mediterranean from their shores.
The ship that fired on the boat carrying Hayat B. and others was part of Morocco’s aggressive policing of illegal migration, which it carries out with the strong encouragement and financial support of the European Union. Moroccan authorities say that the navy fired on the smuggler’s boat only after it failed to heed a warning to stop. But as human-rights groups have pointed out, international military protocol in peacetime is not to fire unless fired upon, and an investigation is reportedly underway.
Yet sadly even the threat of being shot at is unlikely to deter many young Moroccans who are ready to take any risk for the chance at a better future. “You can either stay and rot to death with no dignity and no opportunities or die on the way out,” said the introduction to one conversation on Reddit, the social-media platform.