Originally posted May 2010

“There is no way back, cross or die”
(A young boy from the rural area living in Tangier while trying to cross to Spain).

Some of the last decade’s most riveting sets of images in the international press has been the arrival of young North African boys crossing the Straits of Gibraltar trying to reach the shores of southern Spain. Most have been Moroccans, making the trip by hiding under trucks or buses on ferries from Tangier, in northern Morocco, or in overloaded “pateras” - small, precarious speed boats run by professional smugglers.

However, for some of the boys, the migration process does not begin in Tangier. Rather, it begins months or even years before making this treacherous journey, when they leave their homes in rural areas in the center and south of Morocco and move to Tangier with the aim of crossing to Spain. They make the street their place and way of living, organize themselves according to their places of origin, and become the most vulnerable of the migrating boys.

The Social Context of Child Migration in Morocco

Many factors push these boys to migrate, whether directly or indirectly. Everything in Moroccan popular culture publicizes migration to Spain: TV, newspapers, Moroccans living in Europe who come in the summer to show off their success, and peers. Nonetheless, families are the primary forces. Families want the best for their sons, but they also see a boy’s successful migration as a way to guarantee security or help in their collective future. Boys who do not make it to Spain or who are sent back by immigration authorities are commonly met with disdain by their families, who cast them as failures and refuse to accept them back as full members. Unless a boy has managed to reach Europe and preferably also has obtained papers, he is seen as not having been serious about crossing, as having wasted his time on the streets, and as having failed to support his family if he is sent back.

Data from CERED in 2004 show that Morocco’s population has nearly tripled in the last four decades. In 1960, Morocco had a total population of 11,635,000. By 2003, the population had climbed to 29,520,000. Morocco has a young population. In 2003, the 0-14 year-old age group represented 30% of the total. If we relate these data to the high rates of unemployment and high school dropout and also the history of internal migration, we can get a better grasp of the meaning of the large number of boys and young men without a secure future who seek to enter Spain.

Most of the unaccompanied Moroccan minors in Spain come from Tangier and its surrounding region. Tangier, the provincial capital, has a population of about 500,000; the province itself (formed by Tangier-Tetouan-Larache), has a population of 2.3 million.

In the last 30 years, Morocco has experienced enormous migration movements from the rural areas to the cities. In many cases, families came from rural areas further south to urban areas in the north, driven away by droughts in the 1980s. This exodus is still ongoing. In rural areas, there remain high rates of illiteracy and unemployment; rural jobs are limited and badly paid. Like other cities, Tangier has received most migrants from internal rural to urban migration. Tangier also is absorbing people from other parts of Morocco or even from other countries of Sub-Saharan Africa who want to migrate to Europe. The distance to Europe - Tangier to Algeciras - is just 14 kilometers. Tangier is well known for its smuggling (of people and goods) “industry.” It is also a place from which “irregular migration boats” (pateras) leave. Since the implementation of Spain’s “Sistema Integral de Vigilancia del Estrecho” (SIVE)[1] in 2002, the number of boats leaving from this area has declined, prompting people to take riskier routes, such as through Mauritania and even The Gambia.[2]

In Morocco, anyone who is trying to migrate in an irregular way calls himself “harraq,” derived from the classical Arabic word, harq, which means “to burn,” as in “to burn ties.” When used to describe children, the term “harraq” implies that these children are in the street as a temporary position in time and space. They are seen as in a temporary street situation - as having a purpose or “calling” - and from whom much good might come in the future. Possibly hoping to capitalize on the success of some of the children who reach and remain in Spain, even the Moroccan port police, who are supposed to take these boys into custody or evict them from the port, often turn a blind eye to them. No one identifies a boy who is serious about his migration as a “street child,” in the sense of leading an undisciplined, idle life of petty crime. His goal is not to live on the street but to leave the country. For those boys who have not yet succeeded, however, life on the street may be necessary to survive.

Many boys trying to leave Morocco live in the port area of Tangier. The first impression upon arriving in the area - the border and all of the organization (formal, non-formal, and informal) around it - is of a graphic representation of the rest of society: an enormous variety of people all interacting in the same space, ranging from fishermen and tourists to port workers, police, street children, truck drivers, and harraq. Though all occupy the same space, though for different purposes, often one group is invisible to the others.

For would-be child migrants conditions in the port are extremely hard. They form informal support groups, and they divide the port into different areas inhabited by groups of boys from the same neighborhoods or towns. They also need certain skills to survive: knowing how to obtain water and food, how to find a safe place to sleep and, most important, how to integrate themselves with a group of other would-be migrants so that they can gain group protection. They are not allowed to enter the port, so they have difficulty entering and leaving it. They must contest not just security police but one another for the spaces - especially for spaces under trucks - in which to live and from which to try to migrate. They are exposed to the weather; they must avoid the police and security services; and every day they must struggle to obtain food and shelter, and to try to get onto a ferry to reach Europe. Many of these boys suffer abuse from adults or other boys, including sexual abuse. They also suffer from maladies associated with their living conditions: skin diseases, malnutrition, high fevers, and sunburn. In addition, they suffer from accidents, being beaten by the police and security guards, getting bitten by guard dogs, fractures from falling from the walls around the port, drowning, getting run over by vehicles, or getting hit by boat motors. According to my records from discussions with the children and port workers, 14 deaths occurred from such causes during my fieldwork in Tangier port between May and October 2006. None were reported in the local press.

Since March 2006, there has been a bus that deports rural children suspected of trying to migrate irregularly from Tangier and deposits them in the rural areas, sometimes irrespective of where their families live. Although those who are sent away usually return the next day, this is a way of discouraging them from attempting to migrate. Despite such conditions, some of these boys refer to the effort to migrate as a job where you must check in every day. Most of these boys maintain intermittent relations with their families; some even undertake short visits between migration attempts, though they almost inevitably come back to the port to avoid the shame of having failed to reach Spain - and because this is their job.

Unaccompanied Rural Children in Tangier

The majority of the boys that I met during my field work explained that they had started their migratory processes at about the age of 14-15 years old. The idea to migrate had formed days or even months before my conversations with them, as the result of discussions among a group of peers. In most cases, parents had been unaware of the first instance of their son’s attempts to migrate. With some meager savings, they started the journey to Tangier. Once there, they headed for the port, where some of the most experienced boys explained to them the ways to survive (i.e., how to hide from the police, get food, where to sleep, how to try to get into a truck bound for Spain, etc.). The extremely severe conditions cause some of the boys to return and to abandon the idea of migrating. While those who decide to remain in Morocco face many difficulties, only a small fraction of those who attempt to leave realize their dream of crossing to Europe.

Some of the rural children organize their lives into alternating periods in Tangier port where they try to cross to Spain with periods back home where they visit family and rest.


Unaccompanied child migration from Morocco to Spain is arguably a case of globalization and migration laws gone awry. It has an impact on Europe, in how it organizes institutions to handle these children, and on Moroccan families, whose efforts to cope with poverty through the migration of children affect ideas about the meaning of children and migration. Changing Spanish and EU laws have made migration a very different phenomenon than it was just a decade or two ago. For Moroccans, it has placed increasing emphasis on children as the bearers of this burden, and it has made it increasingly difficult for them to return, even if “successful,” for anything except short visits. They are separated from their families at young ages not just by a spatial distance but also by an emotional distance, in that they cannot reveal the extent of their struggles.

The first stage of the migratory process for boys from rural areas begins when they leave their homes and move to Tangier, thereby becoming unaccompanied minors in their countries of origin while waiting to cross the shores. These minors face the struggles of living on the street and making street life their way of life. This phenomenon - of internal minor migration - deserves more careful scrutiny than it thus far has received.


[1]. Integral Vigilance of the Straits System.


[2]. José Pérez de Lama, “Notas sobre emergencias en el Estrecho de Gibraltar (Eurafrica),” 2005, http://thistuesday.org/node/118.