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Moroccans rail against life on the Rock

MIGRANT Moroccan workers, who saved the economy of Gibraltar when General Franco closed the border with Spain in 1969, have exploded in anger against the British colony's policy of deporting them to North Africa.

News that the government was planning to fly 30-year-old Mohamed Rahmouni out of the colony led to an unprecedented confrontation at the Rock's airport on Wednesday night.

Several hundred Moroccans and Gibraltese blocked the runway. Police with water cannon and RAF servicemen with dogs were unable to stop the demonstrators closing the airport for two hours and preventing the authorities taking Rahmouni to the plane.

The protest reflects the growing frustration of Gibraltese Moroccans, many of whom have lived in the colony for almost 25 years. They complain that they face expulsion unless they have work, but are denied jobs because new regulations give preferential treatment to European Community citizens.

Their protest produced a widespread sense of shock in the normally tranquil colony, which was heightened by the arrests of Jose Netto, district officer of the powerful Transport and General Workers Union, and Mohamed Sasri, the respected leader of the Moroccan Workers Association. The Gibraltar Chronicle said that the arrests and the demonstration were a sign that 'things are really getting out of control'.

Netto, acting in a personal capacity, has taken and hidden the passports of Moroccans threatened with deportation. 'I don't think the governor and the chief minister have the guts to send the police to search my offices,' he said. 'And the Moroccan government will not let anyone in without a passport.'

Joe Bossano, the chief minister, said on television the next day that he was calling on Britain to provide extra resources so that order could be preserved at the military airport, 'our lifeline to the outside world'.

The Moroccans were originally recruited by the Foreign Office as a response to Franco's attempts to force Britain to accept Spanish claims of sovereignty. A large proportion of the colony's workforce was Spanish, and Madrid assumed that without their services the Gibraltese economy would collapse. But when the border was closed in 1969, the Spaniards were replaced by 5,000 Moroccans, and Gibraltar survived the blockade.

The North Africans have no right of permanent residence, and their children and pregnant wives can be, and have been, deported so that their families cannot become established. Although they pay tax, they are not entitled to most benefits. But their main grievance is that, even when employers want to hire them, they have to give preference to EC citizens. Denied the right to find new work and without permanent residence status, the unemployed Moroccans have little option but to wait for deportation.

Then this month, the Gibraltar government decided that British migrants should also be denied residence permits and, in effect, be treated like Moroccans rather than EC citizens.

This tangle of employment laws has had one clear consequence: Moroccans, British workers, the unions, opposition politicians and many ordinary Gibraltese, who see jobs going to their old adversaries from Spain, are all furious.

Netto, a tough old negotiator who prides himself on his ability to outstare employers, said that his campaign would continue until Bossano and the Foreign Office accepted that long-term residents should have access to work.

Bossano, emphasising that Rahmouni was not one of the original Moroccan workers and had been only four years in Gibraltar, said he could not allow all unemployed Moroccans to stay.

But the London-based Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said he might not have a choice. 'Deportations are a way of distracting attention from the failure of Bossano's economic policies,' said Don Flynn, a council spokesman. 'But he is in breach of court rulings, and we will challenge him again.'