Moussa Keita smiles as he recalls the moment he first set foot in Europe, storming into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta with hundreds of others after climbing a border wall that separates it from northern Morocco. "I had cuts in my hands from the razor wire but the feeling was good, good, good," said the 19 year old from Guinea. "Many of us were injured but we marched in line into Ceuta shouting: 'Freedom, freedom'."
Spain has become the leading destination for migrants crossing the Mediterranean into the EU, with more than 60,000 people arriving in the country last year, according to data from the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. But Morocco is stressing there could have been many more.
During the summer, it launched a crackdown on immigrants trying to sneak into Spain and says it has foiled 70,000 attempted illegal crossings.
Morocco’s efforts highlight an important new front in Europe’s attempt to staunch migration: moves to work with countries outside the continent to stop migrants before they arrive on Europe’s shores.
Its crackdown has involved rounding up thousands of migrants to bus them to southern Morocco, where some have been abandoned in remote areas, according to reports cited by Amnesty International. The group has described the moves as "cruel and unlawful" and denounced "particularly violent raids" on informal settlements occupied by migrants.
Amnesty has also criticised Spain for expelling 116 migrants back to Morocco the day after they arrived in Ceuta without adequate screening for genuine asylum seekers.
For the north African country’s leaders, angst over migration in Europe gives them some leverage. In Spain, where African migration is a source of growing unease, officials have promised that Madrid will be Morocco’s “voice” in the EU.
Haizam Amirah-Fernandez, senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid think tank, said: "Part of the Spanish reaction to the rise in numbers is to try to get support from Europe for Morocco in different forms such as economic aid, materiel for control of immigration plus broader political support."
In his first official meeting with Morocco’s king and prime minister in November, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez stressed that Morocco itself was “suffering” from migratory flows. “The EU has to, in a structural way, offer economic resources for Morocco,” he said.
He emphasised their countries’ “total harmony” in their approach to migrant returns, but said co-operation would be “strengthened” after reports that Morocco had cut the number of irregular Moroccan migrants it would let Spain send back without due legal process.
The Spanish mainland is easily visible from Ceuta and the shores of northern Morocco and the lights of Andalucían cities such as Algeciras beckon to migrants who have endured often-horrific hardships crossing the Sahara.
Migration through Morocco shot up as the route to Europe via Libya became more dangerous, with Italy cracking down on rescue ships and making deals with the Libyan coast guard to stem departures.
Migrants receive food from Moroccan families and live in fear of undercover police: 'We can only move in the evenings to avoid arrest'
The migrants who try to storm the walls of Ceuta and Melilla, another Spanish enclave, often capture more public attention, but the vast majority head directly for the Spanish mainland on board smugglers' boats that cross the narrow Strait of Gibraltar.
Last year, more than 60,000 Mediterranean migrants arrived in Spain, including Ceuta and Melilla, surpassing the combined total of migrants who have arrived in Greece and Italy. However, the overall number of Mediterranean arrivals of 117,540, as of mid-December, is barely one-tenth of the 2015 high of more than a million.
Forced into hiding
In the Moroccan port of Tangiers, where African migrants could be seen begging or labouring in markets earlier last year, the crackdown has forced many into hiding.
Yahya, a Senegalese, who has been in Morocco for seven months, said he was bussed to Tiznit 900km to the south after police raided the home he shared with other migrants.
“I begged to collect the bus fare and returned,” said Yahya, who has tried five times to reach Spain. He says migrants receive food from Moroccan families and live in fear of undercover police. “We can only move in the evenings to avoid arrest,” he says.
Khalid Zerouali, Morocco's border control chief, told al-Jazeera television in December that allegations of human rights violations against the migrants were baseless. "What we are doing is according to our laws," he said. "We encourage migrants to settle in Morocco but we can't allow illegal behaviour."
Morocco has given residence papers to some 50,000 migrants since 2014, but most of the young Africans who arrive in the kingdom have no interest in settling there.
The Moroccan crackdown, which some say has started to abate, is the harshest since 2013, according to Karim Chairi Hourri, a lawyer in Tangiers who represents migrants. But he said there has historically been "an ebb and flow" in anti-migrant campaigns.
“Sometimes they step up their campaigns and sometimes they look the other way and allow migration to happen as a form of pressure on Europe,” he said.
Amirah-Fernandez said: “There is the suspicion that migration control is used to convey a message to Spain or to Europe when there is neighbourhood friction over an issue important to Morocco.”
Back in Ceuta, Keita, the Guinean migrant, is waiting for the government to move him to mainland Spain and his new life in Europe. But many in the enclave – including Algerians and Moroccans – face expulsion back to their home countries if they cannot persuade the European authorities to grant them refuge on grounds such as the risk of political persecution.
By the harbour in Ceuta, Fathi Berrached, a 23-year-old Algerian, waits for a chance to steal on to a ferry to make the half-hour crossing to Spain. "You swim to the ferry and climb on the engine, but if they spot you first, they push you back," he says. "Nothing will stop me. I had no work and no future in Algeria. " – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019