It has been so long since Rodrigué left Cameroon and began his journey to Europe that he cannot remember how old his only child is. And although the 32-year-old says he finished school, he has difficulty writing his name, saying with an embarrassed shrug that he has not touched a pen in years.
Rodrigué finds it difficult to talk about his child, one of the main reasons he left home nearly a decade ago in search of a better future. How can he keep in touch, he asks. He lives rough on a Moroccan mountain. There is no email or Facebook, and he and dozens of fellow migrants share one battered old Nokia, the ringtone stuck on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, even in the middle of August.
From their temporary home on Gurugu Mountain, the migrants’ goal seems so close: just below are the lights of Melilla, a tiny autonomous Spanish enclave on the north coast of Morocco and one of the few land borders into the European Union. But to reach it, they risk death and injury, either on a heavily fortified fence which encircles the territory, or out at sea as they try to swim through the dark waters to reach the Spanish beach.
For more than eight years Rodrigué has travelled through the cities and deserts of North Africa, trying to edge just a little closer to Europe and to his dreams of wealth and opportunity. A few years ago, he found himself in Libya with dozens of migrants who were boarding a flimsy vessel bound for Italy or Malta. At the last minute, Rodrigué decided against it: “I didn’t like the look of it, I can’t swim.”
Neither could most of the 300 men, women and children who drowned or are missing after plunging into the sea off Italy on Thursday to escape the disintegrating craft which had set sail from North Africa crowded with families from Eritrea and Somalia.
There are hundreds of thousands more like them, forced by poverty, hardship or war to set out on journeys that for some will end in death. EU officials say they are ready to do everything they can to prevent such tragedies. But at the same time EU member-states are doing all they can to keep the migrants out. As unemployment soars and social welfare is cut in the nations hit by the economic crisis, there are less funds for housing, feeding and processing migrants and asylum-seekers. Which means countries on the fringes of Europe build their border fences even higher.
That does not stop people leaving places where poverty or political persecution makes their lives unbearable. It just means they are taking greater risks to get to Europe. “They just suffer and try again and again until they get here,” says José Palazon, a human rights workers in Melilla.
Rodrigué has been so long on his quest that he would never consider giving up, even though he bears the scars from 17 failed attempts to storm the razor wire, encountering pepper spray and the security forces that guard the line between Africa and Europe. “When I look at Melilla, I know my life will change,” he says.
Rodrigué is the oldest of the dozens of Cameroonians on Gurugu; the youngest is 14. Most are young men who found it impossible to start a life in one of the poorest countries in the world, where life expectancy is 52 and the average monthly wage is about £68.
Alain comes from the Cameroonian countryside. After finishing school, he started painting houses. But there were not enough houses to paint, certainly not enough to provide for his parents. So at 18, he set off for Europe. “Our life is risky,” he says, “but my family doesn’t have anything.”
Now 21, he has tried to climb the fence 10 times. He has also made five unsuccessful bids to swim around the fence, which stretches out to sea. Bodies sometimes wash up on Melilla beach. Each year, a few men die on the fence. “I’ll keep trying because I know by the grace of God I will get out from this place and I will go to Melilla,” Alain says. “I’m going to find my life, find a wife and have children.”
While Rodrigué and Alain are escaping poverty, further up the slopes of Gurugu are Malians who fled a civil war earlier this year. A handful of Syrians also recently found their way to the mountain.
Political turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East means migrants and asylum-seekers are heading to Europe in increasing numbers. The EU’s border agency, Frontex, says 31,000 people have been detected entering Europe through Malta and Italy so far this year. This is already double the 15,000 who entered in 2012. No one knows exactly how many people are trapped in the Moroccan forests – charity workers in Melilla say it could be thousands.
In the past, the migrants on Gurugu were able to build something resembling a normal life. They put up tents, slept at night, and tried to earn a little money during the day. That life ended last year when Moroccan police burnt down their camps and started sweeping the mountainside in the day, arresting any migrants they found. Now all the daylight hours are spent hiding in the shade of cacti.
“They treat the migrants like they are the enemy, with an army, but they are only people who want to come here to improve their situation,” says Mr Palazon.
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