‘Paying to die’: migrants’ perilous journey to Europe

By Mohamed Siali

Sebt Ait Rahou, Morocco, Dec 18 (EFE).- Saad Kataloni – his eyes red, his face pale – looks out at the barren landscape passing by the window of a bus that is headed back to his village in central Morocco from Dakhla, 1,800 kilometers away in Western Sahara. He replays scenes of wild seas and death in his mind, memories from just five days earlier of his failed attempt to set sail in a dinghy for the Canary Islands and the promised land of Europe.

The 19-year-old, who only survived thanks to the life jacket he had on, saw with his own eyes how his friends drowned when the boat sank shortly after leaving port because it was carrying too many passengers.

Now, back in his hometown in a part of Morocco where many dream of emigrating, he is looking for ways to make a living without being forced to abandon his homeland. The alternative, he says, “is like paying to die.”

He has no intention of trying the crossing again, the world’s most perilous migratory route that claimed the lives of at least 785 people between January and October, according to the International Organization for Migration, although the true toll is likely to be far higher.

It is November 17, and Efe joined Saad on his bus journey from Dakhla to Sebt ait Rahou, a village 150 kilometers southwest of the capital Rabat. He is carrying nothing except the clothes on his back and a blanket he got from an elderly beggar woman at a road stop.

His family had sent him the money for the trip after the dinghy sank, he remembers, still in a state of shock.

“More migrants boarded than expected,” he told Efe on the bus. “After setting sail, some fifty yards from the shore, the boat split in two. Many people died”.

Among them were some of his friends who had paid 2,500 euros to board, but their bodies were pushed to the beach by the tide.

“Their parents came to retrieve them. That’s why I decided to go back home,” he said. “I’m not going to venture into a boat again. It’s like paying to die.”

“I am going to return to my village to study and find a job. When I have a salary it will be easier to travel to Europe with a visa,” he added.

Nearly a month after that trip, Efe travels to meet Saad in his town. He has enrolled in a driving school and wants to work as a transporter.

But he complains that even to get a job like this you need to have “connections”. He dropped out of school two years ago, in his senior year, to work as a baker and carpenter.

In Sebt Ait Rahu, home to about 9,000 inhabitants, poverty is evident. The condition of the roads is poor, health services are scarce, street lights are almost non-existent and the internet signal is very weak.

The driver of the only bus connecting the town with Rabat swears every time he goes over a pothole: “May God punish those in charge. Look at what the road is like!”

Over the past few years, many areas of central Morocco have become a focus of the mass exodus of young people to the west or north to embark on boats bound for Spain via the Atlantic or the Mediterranean.

Some will die, others will manage to reach Spain, and the remainder will give up and decide not to risk their lives again. Buaza Ben Anaya, who unsuccessfully tried his luck from his northern city of Tangier two decades ago, is one of those who chose to stay.

The organizer of the trip stole his money and he was unable to reach Europe. At 56, he now has a small kiosk downtown where he sells sweets to students.

“I also planned to emigrate in 1992. The smuggler stole our money, it was 25,000 dirhams (about 2,400 euros at current exchange rates),” Buaza told Efe.

“Young people emigrate due to lack of work. In order to continue their studies, they have to move to another city,” he said.

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