Officials have made Nador uninhabitable for migrants in search of a better life The city of Nador, Morocco is Europe's southernmost border and a gateway for migrants from Africa in search of better opportunities. But attempting to cross that border can turn deadly.

Officials have made Nador uninhabitable for migrants

Officials have made Nador uninhabitable for migrants

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1134823910/1137501946" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The view into Spain from Mount Gourougou, Morocco on October 12. Men and women attempting to cross the border from Morocco into Spain often spend days and sometimes weeks hiding from authorities on the mountain before they take their chance. Ricci Shryock for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Ricci Shryock for NPR

The view into Spain from Mount Gourougou, Morocco on October 12. Men and women attempting to cross the border from Morocco into Spain often spend days and sometimes weeks hiding from authorities on the mountain before they take their chance.

Ricci Shryock for NPR

Some people spend years trying to get to Nador, Morocco — a city in the northeast of the country, bordering the Spanish enclave city of Melilla.

It is Europe's southernmost border, and also a gateway for migrants in search of better opportunities.

Border guards line a four-tiered, 20-foot fence that stretches miles along the border. Just beyond are the hills of Nador, where the migrants live. They wait there for weeks, sometimes months, for the safest time to jump over the fence.

Officials have made the city of Nador uninhabitable for migrants, who are mostly Black. Shopkeepers have been pressured to not sell them goods, hotel owners who have succumbed to pressure from Moroccan police don't rent them rooms.

Police tactics gained renewed criticism after dozens of people were killed trying to jump the fence in June.

Migrating people and their allies describe detestable and racist treatment from Moroccan police. They also speak of their dreams of crossing the border and finding jobs to support their families.

Listen to our full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: There's a spot on the African continent that's technically part of Europe. It's an enclave city called Melilla - owned by Spain, surrounded by Morocco and the Mediterranean Sea. People have died trying to cross this land border into the European Union. We are going in the other direction.

And with that, we've officially left Spain. (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED BORDER OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Yes.

The border is surrounded by layers of tall fences and armed guards, but if you have the right papers...

UNIDENTIFIED BORDER OFFICER: Oh, my gosh. Morocco is your second country.

SHAPIRO: Thank you so much.

...Border officers give you a warm welcome as long as you don't ask the wrong questions. This is part of a journey we are taking through three countries, connecting the dots across three major stories. In Senegal, climate change is forcing people from their homes. In Morocco, migrants from all over Africa try to reach Europe. And in Spain, these trends are giving a boost to far-right political parties. Climate change, migration, xenophobic politics - it's a story playing out in different ways all over the world.

Walking through the Moroccan city of Nador in the morning, my first impressions are of the smells. Big baskets of spices are set out in front of shops. People are drinking mint tea. And there's fresh baked breads coming out of the bakeries that smell like sesame seeds and yeast.

Nador used to be a place where many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa spent time waiting for their chance to cross into Melilla. These days, it's hard to find any Black people in town.

We're arriving at the church in Nador. This is one of the few places migrants can come for food and shelter. Right outside of the church, there are police guards standing guard.

We asked to talk with some of the people running the church's programs, but nobody who works or volunteers there wants to do an interview.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Someone tells us we can't record at all without permission, so we put away our equipment. It's understandable. Anyone helping migrants in Nador is in a precarious situation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: But a woman from Mali with a 2-1/2-year-old girl on her back doesn't mind chatting. She's been trying to get to Europe, and it's wearing on her. (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: The Islamic call to prayer rings out behind her as she says, "the police hassle us all the time. There's lots of racism, lots of violence. We're not doing well. We're just asking for charity to eat." Before she leaves, she turns back and tells us one more thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "Tell them to open the border so we can go in," she says. "Please, just tell them to open the border."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: She picks up her two plastic bags full of food and medicine from the church and walks away with her daughter on her back.

This situation with migrants trying to cross into Melilla gives Morocco a lot of leverage. The European Union wants to stop African people from showing up in Europe, even as these countries welcome millions of Ukrainian refugees with open arms. Morocco has the power to crack down on migration or turn a blind eye and let people through. So whatever Morocco wants from Europe, whether that's money or control over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, people like the Malian woman become convenient pawns that Morocco can use in this geopolitical chess game. Right now, the European Union is urging Moroccan authorities to take a hard line against migrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHAPIRO: Omar Naji's office in the Moroccan Association of Human Rights is on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator.

OMAR NAJI: Hello.

SHAPIRO: We asked if he wanted to do this interview over tea in a cafe. It would give us a more interesting setting than a stark office - you know, sound of a crowd, glasses clinking. But he said, no, better to talk privately.

NAJI: OK.

SHAPIRO: When Omar moved to Nador in the 1990s, he says he barely noticed the border here.

NAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Buses went back and forth. You didn't need a passport. Now, the border is militarized. Migrants sometimes spend months camping in the surrounding hills, planning their next move.

NAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "Here in Nador, they aren't even allowed to rent a room," he says. "Authorities have forbidden it. If someone rents a room to a sub-Saharan migrant, they can be prosecuted for assisting. You could be asked for your papers in the street, stopped for the color of your skin."

NAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: These pressures exploded in June of this year. All over the world, news reports told the story of more than 1,500 migrants rushing the border fence.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Inaudible).

SHAPIRO: This video shows dozens of men on the ground, their bodies piled up on top of each other at the foot of the fence separating Morocco from Spain. The Moroccan police used tear gas and rubber bullets to repel the group. Dozens were killed in the chaos that ensued, and many more are still unaccounted for.

NAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "Now they're killing people," Omar says. "Migration policy has become criminal."

NAJI: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGTONE)

SHAPIRO: Also, if you need to answer the phone, that's OK.

Throughout our interview, the phone in his pocket has been buzzing and ringing with messages and calls. Finally, he pauses our conversation to answer the phone and steps into the hallway. And when he comes back...

NAJI: (Speaking French).

RICCI SHRYOCK, BYLINE: Did you understand that?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I do.

That's Ricci Shryock, our photographer, who was also interpreting during our interview.

SHRYOCK: You did understand what he said, though, right?

SHAPIRO: That the police will follow you if...

SHRYOCK: The police are following us. He just got a call.

SHAPIRO: Oh, right now the police are following?

Suddenly it's clear why Omar didn't want to talk to us over tea in a cafe. You never know who might be at the table next to you.

To be fair, we're not subtle. You have a camera. I have a notebook. You're the only Black person in the city.

SHRYOCK: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: We're not subtle. Everyone knows you.

It's not unusual for police to follow and question journalists working in Morocco. It's an authoritarian country, and the government doesn't want people to report on migration control. We decide to keep going.

There are no longer thousands of people living in the hills around Nador. Moroccan authorities have made sure of that. But there are some, so we set out to try to find them, knowing the police would likely turn us back before we reach the camp.

We're driving past barren hills, olive groves. It's very, very brown and dusty. There are very few buildings or people at all.

OK. We're turning off the main road onto a bumpy dirt track that goes up into a village where two school girls with backpacks are walking up the road.

An old man runs a general store here. We're not using his name for reasons that will soon become apparent. He says the migrants come down out of the hills and visit his store from time to time, and he tries to help them - everyone in the village does.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) They sometimes come here without shoes because they've been chased. I give them my shoes. They have ripped or burned clothing. Sometimes they have injuries. I try to give them minor first aid.

SHAPIRO: What do the authorities do when they see you help?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) It's always a problem for me, but they can't really do anything to you. They'll ask for documents, take me to the police headquarters until midnight, harass me.

SHAPIRO: And so why do you continue to offer help even when you know police will harass you for it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) Well, I can't stay and do nothing. I can't not help. You see someone who needs help, can't even walk, have no shoes, you have to do it. The day before yesterday, people came. There were only four or six people. But the authorities burnt everything they had. I saw the smoke from that hill.

SHAPIRO: You have this philosophy that if you see someone in need, you have to help. And so when you see smoke coming up from the hill next door, where authorities have burned the few possessions people have, some of which you gave them, how does that make you feel?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) You can't put that feeling into words. You can't describe it. I close my eyes, and I go inside because, as the saying goes, the heart can't feel what the eyes don't see.

SHAPIRO: Could you get in trouble for talking with us? Could the authorities come and harass you for having this conversation now?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) Who knows what's in their head? By law, they can't do anything to us for talking the truth. They can't do anything to me. People are free to speak.

SHAPIRO: As if on cue, a battered old car rolls up, and a man with a baseball cap gets out. He asks if we have authorization.

The police officer pulled up, said we don't have a right to be here, took a photo of the license plate and made a phone call. So...

He tells us to wait until the supervisor arrives.

Yeah, you know what? Just in case, I'm going to remove the sound card and put it in...

SHRYOCK: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Deep in my bag right now. So this is the last of the recording, folks.

After about 20 minutes, a much nicer SUV rolls up, and a man in a suit steps out. He introduces himself as the authority in the area. He doesn't give his name. In English, he asks for our documents and photographs our passports. He tells me I am forbidden from publishing any photos or videos, and I truthfully reply that I have no photos or videos. He doesn't mention audio. When he asks what we're doing, we say we're trying to find out whether there are people living in the hills. The authority in the suit smiles, shakes his head and says in English, quote, "we work on this to not have any Black people here."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, our journey north continues, and we get the view from inside the enclave, talking to immigration officials and some of the lucky people who made it over the fence.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) Immigration is like water. If you block it in one place, the water is going to flow out somewhere else. That's just the way it is.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.