“They only give us the really hard jobs” – the exploitation of migrant labour in transit and destination countries around the Western Mediterranean

Workers with hardhats on a construction site, date & place unknown. Source: Pexels.com, stock of royalty free photos

Migration, from a European point of view, is often associated with overcrowded boats, people climbing fences, horrific pictures from shipwrecks and the purportedly heroic actions of some (white) individuals and (European) NGOs. As a network supporting people at sea, our daily Alarm Phone work also means confronting those moments of life and death at sea. Yet, this focus on the horror-become-normal runs the risk of diverting attention from the day-to-day exploitation and suffering that people on the move are subjected to. This is why we have chosen to dedicate this report to one specifically blatant form of everyday exploitation: how host and transit societies exploit and benefit from the migrant workforce.

The following chapters thus portray migrant labour exploitation in the Spanish state, in different regions of Morocco and in Algeria. The report shows how similar conditions and mechanisms of exploitation are on both sides of the Mediterranean (and Atlantic). Capitalism exploits and benefits from the fact that certain groups are marginalised and without documents, face language barriers, and have poor access to legal protection. Across all regions, we can observe how ridiculously little undocumented migrant workers are paid, from 150€ to, in rare cases, 500€ a month. (If you have documents, you may well also have a contract and thus better working conditions). Shockingly, people on the move do not necessarily receive much more once they arrive in Europe. In the Spanish state, it takes an average of 7.5 years for you to receive a residence permit and with it a less vulnerable status. It is a period which is rife with underpayment, abuse and violence. Whether it’s in the Spanish state, Algeria, Morocco or any other country, migrant workers receive much less than the local population, ranging from an average of 30% to 60% less (and in extreme cases of forced labour, no remuneration at all). Yet, people on the move typically work in sectors that require hard work: construction, agriculture, markets, kitchens, cleaning, factory work and, of course, the informal sector. Only a small part enjoys working conditions (a contract, health and safety provisions, proper salaries) that fulfil the legal requirements of the local labour legislation or that can be considered dignified. Furthermore, women (or anybody who is not a cis-gendered man) usually experience specific forms of exploitation. Women earn less than men and are more frequently exposed to sexual harassment. When they are “employed” as domestic workers, they are especially vulnerable to violence and abuse, as a report published by the association ALECMA in 2016 succinctly put it:

“Most of the employers modify the terms of the verbal job contract, and working hours do not respect the norm. Those who live with the employer work more than 8 hours a day. They work without break, live with insults, and suffer from mistreatment and sometimes rape. […] In addition, there is contempt, racism, discrimination, lack of written contract, lack of social security and a mixing-up of tasks to be fulfilled.”

Many migrant women are sexually exploited, either during work or as a general income-generating strategy. We assume that the bulk of sex work done by migrant women (or people of other genders) is in fact forced prostitution, either because it is in fact your only way to survive or due to actual physical/psychological force, and thus cannot be considered as work as an individual deliberate economic strategy. We do not want to omit these forms of exploitation; therefore we have included some information in this report. Yet we want to emphasise that human trafficking, sexual exploitation and forced prostitution are something apart from labour exploitation and thus not the focus of this analysis.

As Alarm Phone, we stand up against sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, the exploitation of all vulnerable groups, including, of course, people on the move. And we believe that the struggle against borders and for freedom of movement involves fighting the capitalist structures that create much of the misery detailed in this analysis. Horrific working conditions may be the result of some individual unethical behaviour (e.g. by a racist farmer in Andalusia, or a greedy factory owner in Morocco), but the tremendous gain from cheap migrant labour often ends up with large international corporations, be it huge agro-food chains, European car manufacturers, Chinese fishing companies, etc. So when taking a critical look at migrant labour exploitation in Northern Africa, we should also be aware that the beneficiaries of these forms of exploitation are often to be found within European societies. Due to its geographical location, this analysis focuses on labour exploitation in the Spanish state, but the same mechanisms can be found in any other European country. (Western, wealthy) Europeans want to buy cheap vegetables in their supermarkets and relax in freshly made beds in fancy holiday resorts – all provided for by migrants’ drudgery and toil. European economies need cheap labour, and this need is satisfied on both sides of the border to the detriment of people on the move.

2 Sea crossings & Statistics

According to UN statistics, 9,420 people made their way to Spain via the unofficial routes between the end of June and the beginning of October 2022. Contrary to the trend observed in our last reports, the largest part made their way to mainland Spain (5,754), while 3,666 people arrived through the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands. We wish them all a warm welcome and send them a lot of strength to continue the fight for freedom of movement and the freedom to make their homes in places where these rights are continuously denied.

In general, immigration from Morocco and Western Sahara to the Spanish coasts is less intense now than before. The Spanish newspaper El Pais attributes this drop to the resumption of relations between Morocco and Spain, following the Sanchez government’s support for the Moroccan autonomy plan for Western Sahara announced on 18 March. This plan was simultaneously rejected by Algeria, which led to a sharp increase in departures from the Algerian coasts to the Balearic Islands and the Andalusian coast.

Alarm Phone Experiences

Overall, Alarm Phone has been in contact with 128 boats on the Western Mediterranean and Atlantic routes from the end of June to the beginning of November 2022. Out of these, 75 had embarked on the Canary route.

In the summer months of July and August, Alarm Phone dealt with 45 cases, 29 in the Atlantic region and 16 between Northern Morocco and mainland Spain. Out of these, 16 boats were intercepted by the Marine Royale; in one of the cases, 18 people were missing. One case actually consisted of four boats of which two were intercepted and the other two made boza (“victory”, the Bambara word for successful arrivals). Another 21 boats were rescued or made boza to Spain. Two of those cases used jetskis as the means of transport. Tragically, in one of the cases a woman and a child died. In another case, four people remain missing and are suspected to have died.

September and October were even busier than the summer. During these months, Alarm Phone was alerted to 74 boats on the Western Mediterranean and Atlantic routes. Among them, 29 were most probably rescued to Spain. In one case, a boat was intercepted and brought back to Boujdour; three dead people were found on board.

Altogether, from July to October, in three cases the people returned to Morocco on their own. Sadly, in one of them people then got lost in the desert. We had to close several cases without having a clear understanding of what happened to the people. One boat from Senegal with 40 people on board is still missing. Our hearts and thoughts are always with those lost at sea and their loved ones.

3 How Europe benefits from cheap migrant labour: the example of the Spanish state

Spanish law only allows you to start a regularisation process two years after your arrival is documented. But the statistics say that there is an average period of seven and a half years in an irregular situation before you are able to regularise your stay. During this time, you will most likely be exploited for their work and will have no kind of social protection. In addition, your residence status is likely to be conditional on your work contract. During the Covid pandemic, a lot of people lost their jobs and with it their residence permit in Spain. Many people fell back into irregular administrative situations. In extreme cases, this affected people who had been living in Spain for 30 or 40 years and, naturally enough, had a family there.

It is important to remember that a very high percentage of migrants arrive in Spain by plane, mostly from South and Central American countries. More than half of them are women. They arrive with tourist visas for three months or with an invitation from a family member. Only 4% come from the African continent, on small boats, without visas. For these people, it will take longer to find a job, because you will first spend months in camps before you are allowed to leave and finally look for a job. The language barrier is also important. In contrast to people coming from South and Central America, African people are unlikely to speak Spanish when they first arrive. This increases your vulnerability as you cannot discuss conditions of employment, negotiate with the employer, or fight for your rights in case of abuse.

3.1 Forms of exploitation and sectors across the country

Precarious conditions and abusive labour relations are sadly an all too present reality. Lack of access to information regarding your rights and fear of being arrested and deported are the most common reasons why people will not press charges against labour exploitation.

According to a study carried out between September and December 2020 in Tenerife by Daniel Buraschi, Natalia Oldano y Dirk Godenau, more than half of the interviewees felt that they had worse labour conditions than the settled population. Working without a contract, longer hours, earning less money, and performing tasks that are not part of the job description are among the most common forms of abuse. Although the study’s findings reflect the reality of one specific place of arrival, other evidence shows the exploitation of (undocumented) migrants as a universal feature of the Spanish economy. Vulnerability is also more acute for women. The referenced study shows migrant women are routinely subject to humiliation, psychological and sexual harassment; an additional layer of vulnerability associated mostly with work in the hospitality and care economies.

Newspaper reports in recent months have shown concrete examples of how migrant women are exploited. Women in the domestic care industry have been forced to work without breaks or holidays, seven days a week. Another investigation uncovered rape and all-pervasive sexual harassement. In this case, the criminal employer was an agrobusiness owner who also served as a sort of agent for others and threatened the employees with deportation to make them return to the workplace after having raped them.

Another sector where migrant labour exploitation has been made visible by several studies and worldwide media investigation is agriculture and livestock production. Huelva, Murcia and Lleida are the three areas in Spain most infamous for their practices. In these regions, abuse and disregard for human rights and the environment can be considered systemic. The slaughterhouse industry all across the Spanish state is notorious for its disgusting, exploitative labour practices. The International Labour Organization estimates that 12 million out of all 169 million international migrant workers are employed by agricultural companies worldwide. It also believes that 61.2% of all agricultural workers in the EU are in informal employment. In the context of accentuated global competition, industrial agriculture has resorted to migrant labour as a cheaper and more easily exploitable workforce. It is estimated that 27% of the agricultural workforce in the Spanish labour market is of foreign origin, while migrants make up a total of only 11% of the country’s population.

A report by the ombudsman from 2019 on the migrant contribution to the Spanish economy finds that the migrant population is employed predominantly by the hospitality, agriculture, construction and commerce sectors. Migrants from poorer countries tend to be employed in low-skilled jobs where they earn on average 56% less than Spanish nationals. Evidence also shows that around half of the migrant workers (from poorer countries) in the Spanish state have finished high school or have an undergraduate degree and are in fact qualified to work in more skilled, better renumerated positions.

3.2 Changes in legislation and flawed discourses on migration

In July 2022, the Spanish government ammended immigration law with the aim of making it easier for employers to hire workers in their countries of origin and to regularise migrants who are already in the country for labour purposes. According to the Minister of Migration, José Luíz Escrivá, the goal of the reform is to make the “informal” economy formal and subject to taxation and labour legislation, as well as to tackle the labour shortages in certain sectors like transport, construction, hospitality and the digital market. One measure is the creation of a new mechanism that allows for those who have been in an irregular situation for over two years to be granted a residence permit on the basis of an apprenticeship in occupations that are in need of a workforce. This clearly shows that any government-led campaign towards regularisation only aims at fulfilling the needs of the labour market.

Legal efforts to address labour migration pragmatically were recently complemented by a migrant-based civil society led campaign in support of a Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP in Spanish) under the slogan of “Regularización Ya”. This constitutes a radically different approach than the one taken by the Spanish government with the recent changes in legislation. The goal of the initiative is to collect 500,000 signatures of Spanish citizens throughout the state, to regularise roughly the same number of migrants with irregular status regardless of their work skills or other criteria. The deadline to submit it is 23 December 2022. The proposed law would then have to be debated and considered in the parliament.

Regarding social security, migrants contribute more to the welfare system than they receive from it. This fact is ignored or manipulated by parties across the entire political spectrum. Studies from the workers’ unions CCOO and CGT conclude that immigrants contribute around 10% of all social security intakes. People who move tend to do so when they are young and tend to return to their country of origin before they retire. Not only do they do more than their share of the essential work, cooking, cleaning, caring, farming, waste disposal and so on; their wages feed into the state pension system that under 1% of the migrant population ends up benefitting from.

In times of economic crises, migrants are pushed into intensified vulnerability, because administrative status is determined by occupation. Besides, irregular migrants do not have access to social security and are often forced to migrate again when economic hardship turns into an existential threat.

By denying you the basic rights of a citizen, state legislation allows for employers to exploit you. The state acts as the goon squad that keeps you in line. There is the ever-present and often articulated threat of losing your housing, your chance to send remittances to your family, or the hope that your relatives might be able to join you at a certain point. Behind all of this is the menance and mechanism of deportation. Political discourse that seeks to portray migration as creating intensified labour competition or draining limited resources for public welfare is not backed by empirical data. Such populist debates tend to draw attention away from actual economic problems such as the low minimum wage and austere fiscal policies. Migrants are used as scapegoats. This distorts reality: due to the large-scale exploitation of migrant labour in European societies, the people on the move are not actually a “threat” to prosperity in European societies, but rather a commodity that Europe benefits from.

4 The exploitation of migrant labour in Morocco and around the Atlantic

People from sub-Saharan communities have a saying: “To eat Moroccan money, you must suffer”, in French: “Pour manger l’argent marocain, il faut souffrir”. Morocco is an extremely unequal society, with the elites being economically very well off, but large parts of the (especially rural) population living in poverty. Two thirds of all Moroccans who wish (or are considering) emigrating would do so for economic reasons. Evidently, the economic situation is even worse for Black African migrants, because they find themselves in vulnerable situations. They are thus easier to exploit and to control. Moroccan unions often do not have the capacity to fight for the rights of people on the move. The migrant labour union ODT-TIM (Organisation Démocratique du Travail – Travailleurs Immigrés au Maroc) was founded in 2012 for this specific purpose but seems to be inactive in most regions of the country outside the capital.

Migrant labour exploitation in Morocco and Western Sahara occurs in roughly five categories. It is worth noting how many individuals move between these different forms of employment as they navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of immigration and anti-Black racism in Morocco. For example, many individuals are now struggling to renew their residency card. One of the reasons for this is that a formal employment contract is required, but it is hard to access formal employment if you are racialised as Black. Black people, even with residency status, tend to work in the large informal economies of Morocco. But without legal residency status, it becomes even harder to get a formal job. This catch-22 situation creates the self-fulfilling prophecy that if you are Black, you are outside the law. It leaves ‘migrants’ especially vulnerable to exploitation. It is a prime example of institutional racism.

1) Employees without papers (informal labour)

Since workers do not have documentation, they do not enjoy labour rights or decent working conditions. You will earn as little as 50 – 100 DH (€4 – €9) a day (see Tangier, Oujda and Atlantic sections). Although employers are still liable for unpaid wages under Moroccan labour law even if they hire undocumented workers, many individuals fear losing their jobs or worse if they bring complaints to the authorities. Even if they do, many are sceptical about the efficacy of official complaints in improving their situation. For women, the situation is particularly dire. Women tend to work as domestic workers, where they often suffer from sexual abuse. This can in fact also affect young, male workers working as farmhands. The ALECMA report found that there are large gaps between the Moroccan labour code and the reality of domestic work. In general, work in this category is very poorly paid, very demanding and physically exhausting. Unsurprisingly, it is largely undertaken by those with fewest options.

2) Employees with papers (formal labour)

Only a small percentage of Black Africans manage to work in jobs with contracts and better salaries. This can mean a job in an association, usually connected to migration or social affairs (see Oujda and Tangier sections). Another widespread possibility especially in the bigger cities (Casablanca, Rabat) are call centres: Around 30-40% of all employees are from sub-Saharan communities; they often work for international or French companies. Some centres pay as little as 2000 DH per month, others up to 4000 DH. However, as local Alarm Phone members report, there is often no remuneration for overtime hours, no paid holidays, no contributions to social security. Salaries may also not be paid on time or paid at all, especially when your residence permit has expired. Another common form of exploitation is being made to work as an “intern”. In this situation you are kept at the bottom of the pile in terms of pay and conditions whilst doing the same work as your less exploited colleagues.

3) Self-employment in the informal sector

Many people on the move work in the informal sector, e.g. selling goods on markets, creating a small, informal business or as a street merchant. This is especially so in bigger cities such as Tangier, Rabat and Casablanca and tourist hotspots such as Fes, Meknes and Marrakesh. In this line of work, you are more than likely to experience police violence and racist attacks (see Tangier and Atlantic sections).

4) Begging

It is not always possible to find work in the informal economy (see Nador section). Begging in the streets is often the only option left. It is mostly done by women and is very hard work, prone to racist abuse and violence.

5) Forced labour and human trafficking

Some women are tricked into coming to Morocco under the pretence of being helped to travel to Europe. They are then housed together when they arrive. Isolated, they are forced to cook and clean during the day and to sell sex at night (see Oujda section).

4.1 Tangier: economic possibilities are rare

Person working as a street vendor on the markets of Tangier, October 2022. Source: AP Tangier

There are not many jobs for Black Africans without legal residency in Tangier, a hard situation made harder by ongoing street arrests and extra-legal deportations. But people on the move create their own self-employment initiatives: for example, reselling phones, setting up African-food stalls, working as artists. There are some formal financing initiatives for migrant start-ups through some of the NGOs in the city, but often this is only for people with residency status and/or legally registered as self-employed. As a result, groups and individuals or migrant community associations sometimes help one another out with financing or gifts in kind or by being regular patrons and customers. They also inform one another about local opportunities for work and business and for regularising legal status, especially as the two often come together.

Women often work very long hours in very strenuous domestic work (cooking, cleaning, housekeeping, etc.) for at most the official minimum monthly wage in Morocco, 2500 DH (€225). Wages often go unpaid. It is common to work more than 10-hour days without breaks. Sometimes domestic workers live with their employers and are effectively on call whenever they are needed. Many people do this work without a formal contract. Some women prefer begging to working under such conditions. Some women work in temporary so-called ‘trainings’. The work is branded as ‘charity’ to help Black African migrants with their own employability, they ‘learn’ to bake cakes from 08:30 until 17:00 every day. They are paid 500 DH for two weeks of full-time work, with penalties for late arrivals.

There is even less work for migrant men, and they generally make less from begging, too. Some visit construction sites in the morning to try to earn 60 to 80 DH for a whole day of hard manual labour. Some sweep the streets of central Tangier, hired by the local authorities. Some sell fruits and vegetables on behalf of Moroccans, but this requires you to be able to speak Moroccan Arabic. You hand over the profits and are paid 50 to 100 DH a day. Some work on and off in textile factories according to temporary labour needs. Often migrant men will beg and then they may be offered odd jobs for poor pay in return. For example, one man would walk a dog every day for 500 DH a month, only to then also be asked to do bits of gardening work with no extra fee. Another man would be called in from the street to clean a restaurant as and when needed, but they made him work so hard using toxic chemicals that he would leave with cuts and burns. “They only give the really hard jobs, the jobs Moroccans can’t do”, an Alarm Phone activist from Tangier explains. “It is the employers that benefit”, another Alarm Phone activist and ex-domestic worker insists. “Their salaries [i.e. of undocumented Black Africans] are not commensurate with their services. It’s a lot of work for little money here.”

4.2 Mass killings and labour exploitation around Nador and Melilla

87 people on the move are being criminalised after the bloodbath on 24 June that became known as the ‘Melilla Massacre’. According to our contacts, at least 40 people were killed and hundreds injured at the border fence of the Spanish colony of Melilla. (For more information see Caminando Fronteras’ in depth report).

The arrested are being divided into six groups and are being prosecuted at the court in Nador. So far, sentences have ranged from eight months to three years in prison. According to AMDH Nador (Association Marocaine des Droits Humains), who are closely monitoring the court sessions, the court has already handed down sentences totalling 221 years of prison. The high sentences are probably an attempt to deter future mass resistance at the border fence. But the real criminals are obviously the Spanish and Moroccan authorities whose close collaboration brought about the massacre of 24 June. It also allowed the illegal, so-called ‘hot deportation’ of 470 (!) people from Spanish territory back to Morocco. This is confirmed in the official report of the Spanish ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo).

Many people remain missing in the aftermath of the ‘Melilla Massacre’. Many family members still seek their loved ones but have difficulties in obtaining a visa for Morocco to investigate their fate locally. AMDH Nador is trying to help with the search by publishing pictures of the missing on their Facebook page and publishing the names of the people on the move who have been sent to prison. It is a sad state of affairs that families are relieved to find the name of their relative among the convicted, as the deeper fear is that your loved one is amoung those killed anonymously in the lethal events of 24 June. Only 23 of the people involved are named and acknowledged as dead by the Moroccan courts, but more were buried without proper identification and many more are still missing. This suggests that the actual number of deaths during the massacre was much higher.

Since the events of 24 June, the authorities have tried again and again to push the people on the move further away from the border to Spain. On 16 October, for example, they suddenly attacked a camp mainly made up of Sudanese nationals in the south of Gourougou. The Moroccan forces came at 4 in the morning, while everyone was asleep, and arrested 17 people.

Migrant labour in Nador

Unlike Rabat and Casablanca, the region of Nador is not a zone where Black Africans come in order to work. They come to cross the sea. And, as in all border zones, the repression of non-Moroccan nationals is much greater in an effort to deny people their right to move. There is barely any chance for someone on the move to find work in the formal economy in and around Nador. “Begging, that’s the most common work in Nador” (“La mendicité, c’est le travail le plus reconnu à Nador”) comments a local contact. He explains that official jobs are only possible with a valid residency permit issued by Nador city, which is very hard to get. Most of the people on the move live illegally around Nador, and begging is their way to survive in the area. Another informal option is to earn some money by selling goods from different African countries. Despite the above-mentioned difficulties, some people manage to find work in the formal economy through NGOs or in the hotel and restaurant industry. With NGOs, people can earn somewhere between 2500 DH (~225 €) and 8000 DH (~720 €), the restaurants pay 1800-2500 DH. If the work contracts are official, you can approach the workers’ unions to support you if you experience exploitation. If they are not, there is nothing you can do if you don’t want to lose your source of income, as low as it might be.

4.3 Oujda and the Algerian border zone: different economic models, similar forms of exploitation

In the region of Oujda and in the Eastern region of Morocco in general, there are two types of work for migrants. Those who have papers and are in a regularised administrative situation can have access to the formal sector. Those who don’t have to try to earn money in informal ways.

For people with papers there are a few jobs in local associations that work in the field of migration. This is mostly health work or community support work that involves accompaning people from migrant communities to hospitals or social services. Some people distribute donations. Finally, there are also jobs in social support and leisure activities. The majority of workers don’t have proper work contracts. Instead, they are contracted as ‘volunteers’. The renumeration is very low. You earn between 1500 DH (ca. 135 €) and 5400 DH (ca. 485 €). The higher levels are only found in a few very specific cases where someome has filled the same role for years. Lately, there have been accounts of positions with a good salary being found in local associations, but these are very rare occurrences.

You might also be able to find work in a call centre. To benefit from the cheap labour, many French companies subcontract their after-sales services to Moroccan companies. Many Moroccans nationals – depending on their social class, of course – have better options, so it’s mostly migrant students who do the work alongside their studies. The wages are very low, so in general people don’t work there for long.

Those who don’t have residency papers have to try to earn money in the informal sector. This can be by working in the markets, doing anything from selling vegetables to loading goods. It’s usually hard work that Moroccan citizens do not want to do if they have a better option – the same phenomenon that we observe in European societies. Women find work in cleaning houses and shops. Men might find work in the fields or washing cars, including washing carpets and carrying them to dry, which is very hard work. Others can work as mechanics, which is skilled and demanding work but not well paid. As with all informal working situations, you risk your boss refusing to hand over your pay. There is no legal mechanism to make your employer pay, and any interaction with the authorities carries the risk of arrest. Migrants are confronted with various forms of exploitation in their workplaces. Sometimes you agree on a salary and ultimately receive less than the amount you bargained for. Of course you have no grounds for a complaint because there is no contract to back up your word. Local Alarm Phone members illustrate this situation as follows:

“There were three migrants who got work in a field which is very far from the city centre, but there is no transport to get there. So they were driven by the boss and worked from 6am until 6pm without food, and in the end they were thrown out without money and had to walk back to the city centre by foot. There was another migrant who worked for a month in a car wash, and the boss gave him all the hard work like carrying the heavy wet carpets. Finally the boss refused to pay him and threw him out.”

Many women who work in houses work in very hard conditions and for a very low salary, and most of the time they don’t receive their salary at the end of the month.

A third aspect of labour exploitation is forced labour. Although this is not the prevailing model of economic exploitation, it does still occur. It is mostly organised by people who are part of the informal border business, people who are part of a trafficking network or just exploit people made vulnerable by the need to engage with the smugglers. As we previously reported, women and minors have to pay more to get over the Algerian-Moroccan border. This makes you particularly vulnerable to forced labour, though anyone who can’t afford the crossing is open to this form of abuse. Some people trapped this way, especially (pregnant) women or women with children and unaccompanied minors are forced to beg in the streets. You can earn between 100 and 200 DH per day, but all of that must be given to your exploiter for what they claim to be payment for rent and food and the debt incurred for your trip to Morocco. In short, it is a form of indentured labour. The bosses have enormous power, which makes hiding some of your earnings and keeping them for yourself barely an option, since personal belongings can be searched at any time.

Another severe form of exploitation is forced prostitution. Again, it is mainly women who are the victims. We don’t have much information on this matter because the women and the structures behind them are always well hidden and the women being exploited in this way don’t stay in Oujda for long. We can say that that there is a large and dangerous market for people, and particularly female people. There are women who beg in the morning and have to work as prostitutes at night, but all that they earn goes to the person exploiting them. It is in no sense a life that the women have chosen for themselves. Especially the youngest women are forced to work as prostitutes, and they do not stay for long in Oujda. Soon after their arrival in Oujda, they are taken to Marrakech, Rabat, Casablanca or Agadir to work, and then some leave for Europe, but through the same networks of exploitation.

Other people are indentured as cleaners or doing housework. It is mostly unaccompanied minors who do this. You will be forced to do all the housework, wash the dishes, go shopping, prepare food for everyone, clean the house and wash clothes. In exchange, you eat and do not pay rent, but there is no salary. These minors live in atrocious conditions. Sometimes they live in a room with more than 10 people and work all day.

4.4 Migrant labour exploitation around the Canary route

Sea crossings/general situation

According to the UNHCR figures, by 30 October 2022, 14,206 people had successfully made it to Europe on the Canary route since the beginning of the year. Alarm Phone accompanied 17 boats in July, 21 in August, 22 in September and 15 in October on this dangerous journey. Welcome to the Canary Islands to every single person who arrived! From July to October, the number of arrivals has oscillated between no arrivals at all in some weeks and nearly 800 arrivals in the third week of September.

Arrivals in the Canary Islands have now mainly shifted to the islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. There is a tendency for departures to now occur in the south of Morocco (e.g. Tan-Tan, Guelmim) or Laayoune, rather than further south in Western Sahara (Boujdour, Dakhla). 57% of all people now arrive at these two eastern islands of the Canarian archipelago, whilst it was only 46% of all arrivals in 2021 and 10% in 2020. The infrastructure in Lanzarote is not equipped to accomodate a large number of people and was quickly overwhelmed when, for example, in mid-October more than 700 people arrived on the island within a few days. This lack of resources has been denounced by Manuel Capa, Salvamento Marítimo crew member and union organiser. He repeats the longstanding union demands: more rescue vessels need to be moved to the Canaries, and more resources are needed in preparation for the winter months, when arrivals are usually high. As Alarm Phone, we fully support these political demands!

Another shift that seems to have occurred is an increase in departures to the Canary Islands from the far north of the route, cities like El Jadida, Casablanca, Salé or even Kenitra. According to Moroccan researcher Ali Zoubeidi, this is due to the securitisation of the existing departure places further South. In our experience, the people leaving from those cities further north are nearly exclusively of Moroccan origin.

If we look to Senegal on the other side of the thousands of kilometres of beaches that constitute the departure zone for the route, we can observe another tendency: there are frequent departures, but often they are intercepted by the Senegalese navy (with the help of Frontex). Members from Alarm Phone Dakar have learnt of joint manoeuvres between Frontex and the Senegalese and Mauritanian navies. According to their source, Frontex is chartering private vessels to patrol the Senegalese and Mauritanian coastlines. As a result, several boats were intercepted in July, August and September.

Boat intercepted by the Senegalese Marine Nationale on 12 July. Source: AP Dakar

One boat with approximately 200 people even made its way to Western Sahara, only to find itself without the fuel to reach the Canaries. They then returned to Senegal, where the last 19 people were picked up in Saint-Louis. Yet, despite the many interceptions, there are still boats from Senegal which arrive on the Canary Islands. 109 people on one such boat were rescued and brought to Tenerife on 22 September.

Migrant labour exploitation on the Canary Islands

On the Canary Islands, just like in any other tourist hotspot, the exploitation of migrant labour is very common in restaurants and hotels. There are countless reports of people on the move who have not been paid for their work in this sector. Construction and agriculture are the two other sectors that are the most implicated in the exploitation of people on the move. We can also find a few people selling goods on the streets or beaches. The ports are also places where illegalised or informal work can often be seen (loading or unloading cargo ships, on the fishing boats, etc.). Finally, the care sector is a big exploiter of women who have moved. Often they are in a dire situation because they have children or dependent adults at home and thus have to accept any kind of work, even in the worst of circumstances. The invisibility of their situation makes them especially vulnerable to any kind of abuse.

A lawyer working in Tenerife sums up the current situation as follows:

“We are reaching levels of exploitation close to slavery. I am having more and more cases of people who are basically working in exchange for a roof and some food. I have the current case of three young men who are working many hours in a bakery every day, from 4:00 AM to whoever knows what time. One of them has papers, so he has a contract, but the working conditions are the same as for the two others. Their employer gives them 180€ per month. But because they let them stay in a small living room next to the bakery, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, all in the same room, a part of those 180€ is withheld as rent payment.”

While working conditions on the Canary Islands may be difficult for many different communities or groups of migrants, Black people often experience a specific form of discrimination, as the lawyer illustrates with another example:

“I talked to a man from Senegal, a qualified construction worker who has been living here for thirty years. He was working in the construction of a shopping centre. The company needed to rush the opening, so the workers had to work many extra hours for weeks, much more than the officially permitted forty hours a week. Those extra hours were compensated, not officially of course, but they have been paid for all the workers except the three Black people on the team.”

Migrant labour exploitation in southern Morocco/Western Sahara

The economic situation in Western Sahara and the south of Morocco is dire for large parts of the population. For instance, unemployment in Laayoune is at around 60% – and is much higher within migrant communities. Members of Alarm Phone Laayoune estimate that only 5% of all migrants in the area have a regular income. Wages are low, migrant workers do not earn more than 100 DH/day, which amounts to 9€. In comparison, Moroccan workers are paid 120-130 DH/day. Furthermore, bosses sometimes withhold wages, and it is generally hard for workers to fight for their rights, since there is no union in the region representing migrant workers’ rights. Sometimes, the mediation between employer and employee has to be taken on by cultural or community associations.

Working conditions are harsh, especially in the areas that migrants are working in: construction, agriculture, animal husbandry (e.g. herding camels in the desert), and freezing and packaging fish in factories.

Since employment is rare, most people who intend to travel work in the informal sector. This means itinerant trading, selling goods in markets (paintings, body lotions, jewellery and accessories, mobile phones). In this situation, they are even more exposed to continual police violence. Members from Alarm Phone Laayoune emphasise that the frequency of raids keeps growing. Police raid migrants’ houses in the middle of the night or pick them up on the streets and markets in order to forcibly displace them. In Tan-Tan, there have been some success stories of preventing the police from entering migrant apartments with the help of neighbours, but migrants are still exposed to police when working in the streets.

Women often work as beggars, asking for money in public squares, in front of mosques, etc. Alternatively, they work in households as cleaners or carers for very little compensation, only 1500 DH/ month (135€). When women work as sex workers, they may earn as little as 50 DH (4,50€) per client.

5 Algeria: Between the need for cheap labour and racist policies towards Black Africans

5.1 General situation

As we reported in previous analyses, the repressive Algerian legal frame (the 2009 law against ‘illegal departure’) has not prevented the number of crossings between Algeria and Spain from increasing – instead, it is just increasing criminalisation. These last four months have seen spikes in crossings from Algeria in very short time spans. For instance, in only 48 hours, on 20-21 July, 200 people who had left from Algeria were rescued off the coast of Andalusia. Despite the greater distance between the Algerian coast and the Balearic Islands, the Spanish archipelago also saw many arrivals of Algerian nationals in the same period (around 50 people).
Less than two months later, between 10 and 11 September, more than 500 people arrived in the Spanish state from Algeria, either in Andalusia or in the Balearic Islands. While all of these people were able to reach the Spanish state safely, disappearances and deaths occur regularly on this migration route. In August, two boats leaving from Algeria were shipwrecked and 13 people died at sea. Our thoughts go to their loved ones.

5.2 Deportations of Black Africans

Alarm Phone Sahara often reports “unofficial” deportations of migrants from Algeria to Niger. The people targeted by these massive deportations are mainly Black Africans working and living in Algeria, including those who have been doing so for years. The people expelled in the “unofficial” convoys are always left at “Point Zero” in the border area between Algeria and Niger, in the middle of the desert. The deportees have to walk 15 kilometres through the desert to reach Assamaka, the first Nigerien town beyond the Algerian border. With this practice, the Algerian security forces always put the lives of deportees at risk.
According to descriptions of deportees and drivers, transport in “unofficial” deportation convoys takes place under very harsh and violent conditions, for example from detention centres in the northern cities of Algeria, such as Oran or Algiers, to Tamanrasset in the south, in buses escorted by the national police.
“From Tamanrasset to Point Zero on the border with Niger, people are loaded into trucks where they have to stay in the back of the truck for hours, squeezed together, with no opportunity to sit properly, with very few breaks, with insufficient food and water supplies, and no possibility of going to the toilet. Violence by security forces is common in detention centres and also during transport.” [Source: AP Sahara]

During the months of August and September 2022, at least 4,747 people were deported from Algeria to Niger, according to AP Sahara’s warning team at Assamaka. The number of people deported since the beginning of 2022 totals at least 17,105.

In the face of repression and violence, the people on the move organise and resist. It is important to report on the protest movement that broke out in late August in the IOM migrant camps of Agadez and Arlit in Niger (IOM: International Organization for Migration). This has been well documented by our comrades at AP Sahara. Besides denouncing their appalling living conditions in the camps, the protesters were largely demonstrating against IOM’s so-called “voluntary” return programmes from Algeria. They explained that the organisation had stopped, at least in part, bussing people back to their countries of origin, notably Mali. There were also claims of unequal treatment of groups of different origins in the organisation of return transport. In addition, the payment of funds for so-called “voluntary returns” after arrival in countries of origin is reportedly not working as promised. For more details about these protests, see the Alarm Phone Sahara article.

Migrants protest at Agadez IOM camp, 28 August 2022. Source: AP Sahara

Alarm Phone Sahara also reports a demonstration on 19 September: a group of over 100 Senegalese migrants from the IOM transit camp in Agadez marched from Agadez to Niamey on the Agadez-Tahoua road. They were protesting against the management of their situation by the IOM and were demanding their return to Senegal after months of delay and blocked in camps.

Source: AlarmPhone Sahara

5.3 Migrant labour in Algeria

Algeria has been known since 2016 as a strategic place for Black Africans coming from Central and Western Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria, Mali, Guinea-Conakry, Senegal). Traditionally, Algeria was a transit country for these populations on their way to Europe. Over the past decade, the country has become a destination for people from surrounding countries in search of better wages.
Estimates suggest that between 150,000 and 225,000 Black Africans were living in the country in 2017, according to IOM. It is notable that from 2016/2017 on, migrant labour became a crucial issue for public authorities, and many articles and NGO reports can be found in the press from this period. This can be explained by the tension between the Algerian economic need for cheap labour and the xenophobic policy of arresting and deporting Black Africans, which took on a systematic dimension since those years.
According to our comrade and activist Fouad Hassam from the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LAADH) Oran:

“The overwhelming majority of sub-Saharan migrants come from Guinea-Conakry, Mali and Cameroon. The presence of migrant workers is relatively low compared to 2018, the year of the great raids. This is due to the endless raids and deportation operations that have not stopped during the period from 2019 to 2021, including the period of the coronavirus pandemic. Thus, even though these deportations have decreased in number and scale, they still remain the primary fear of sub-Saharan migrants in the country.”

In an article by Jeune Afrique from 2016, Abdelmoumen Khelil, general secretary of LAADH, summarises:

“At times, the authorities have recognised that they [migrant workers] were necessary for the development of the economy to cover the lack of a labour force in public works and agriculture. This labour force has benefited the cities of the interior and the Sahara, and this is something that is not recognised politically.”

As a matter of fact, Black Africans have become a labour force that accounts for a large part of the workforce of many employers in Algeria (see same article). In some cases, occasional work permits were issued and in regions such as Oran and Ouargla, informal agreements have been passed between companies and local officials in order to let the migrant labourers work.
Since Algeria has become a transit and later on a destination country for many people from sub-Saharan countries, the members of these communities have suffered heavy repression, tracking, arrests and deportations. We have repeatedly documented these racist policies in our reports. For example, in the Algiers region, arrests are made in the streets, in people’s homes as well as in their workplaces, reports journalist Leila Beratto in this radio report. Foreign workers have no right to social security coverage. Yet Algeria ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers in 2004Law 08-11 of 25 June 2008 specifies that “a foreigner wishing to reside in Algeria in order to engage in a salaried activity may only receive a residence card if they hold a work permit, a temporary work authorisation, or a declaration of employment of a foreign worker.”
The 2008 law criminalises “irregular stay on Algerian territory”, with the risk, in case of conviction, of a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine. The law makes migrants more vulnerable to abuse. They cannot file a complaint when they are subjected to abuse at work, violence or assault without risking prosecution on charges of “illegal immigration”. Besides, Algeria has no proper framework for the right to asylum, although the state has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention. The constitution was amended in 2016, but no legislation was subsequently enacted. Overall, the inaction of the legislative and administrative system has proved the lack of political will to improve the situation of non-Algerian nationals, which results in even more difficult access to legal work for them.
According to local contacts, Black African men work mainly in agriculture and construction . Women usually earn money as domestic workers, house cleaners or sex workers (in this case, the women experience a specific exploitation, with barely any access to healthcare and rights). They also find ways to make a living within the community, as explained in this article by French newspaper Le Monde: 

“For women, work within the migrant community has become the norm: cooking traditional dishes sold for 200 dinars to other migrants, hairdressing and reselling traditional products bought in their country of origin such as depigmentation lotions or loincloths.”

Black African men usually work on construction sites. It should be noted that the harsh working conditions are recreated by multinational companies based in the country that benefit from the lack of labour protection and discrimination against people on the move. For example, a Guinean man explains that he worked for several years for non-Algerian companies: first a Spanish company that subcontracted part of its activities in Algeria, then a Chinese company. He says that despite the dreadful working conditions he and his colleagues encountered (he compares them to slavery), the Algerian authorities never protected them. Their only interest, he says, is the same as that of the companies: “to make money”.

In 2017, the Algerian government allowed for a partial regularisation of those in the country without papers but on the other hand has continued deport sub-Saharans to the Niger desert in massive numbers. The politics of persecution towards the migrant workers accentuates their vulnerability in the Algerian society.

6 Shipwrecks and missing people

In the period of this report (July to November 2022), Alarm Phone witnessed seven cases of severe distress in the Western Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic. Many people died because assistance arrived with delay. We count more than 130 deaths and around 400 people missing in these four months, being aware of the much bigger number of undocumented cases.

Shipwreck near Dakhla of a boat that had left Senegal in mid-July. Source: AP Dakar

We are stunned by the open violence that has taken place in three cases of interception when the Moroccan police and the Algerian navy – border guards trained by the EU – opened fire to prevent people from moving. (See cases of 21 July, 12 September, 22 October.) Our condolences go to all people who die along the borders and their relatives. The lack of safe passage, visa restrictions and lack of freedom of movement are the causes of these deaths. Forced into exploitive and dangerous work conditions, just in the Spanish state alone, a significant proportion of the half million irregularised workers suffer severe harm or lose their life. One example occurred on 22 April 2022, when a person who was asleep in his shack died when it went up in flames.

We want to commemorate all people who die silently and invisibly because of the neocolonial exploitation of migrant labour in the plantations, greenhouses and factories.

On 8 July, Alarm Phone is contacted by a boat in distress which left Akhfenir, Morocco with 71 people on board. One day later, the martitime coordination centre MRCC Rabat confirms that the boat has been found and brought back to Morocco. The people were at sea for two days, and for two people, rescue came too late; they had already drowned.

On 14 July,  two boats are rescued ~90 kilometres southwest of Lanzarote, with a total of 78 people on board. On one of the boats, a woman and a girl are found dead according to the Canary Islands Emergency and Security Coordination Centre.

On 16 July, a dead body wearing a neoprene suit is found floating a few metres off the shore of La Almadraba beach, Alicante, Spain. It is presumed to be a young man of Moroccan origin who was trying to swim to the Spanish coast.

On 20 July, Alarm Phone is called by a boat in urgent distress with 29 people on board which left from Tan-Tan, Morocco. The rescue authorities are informed immediately, but rescue is delayed. When they finally arrive, four people are missing.

On 20 July, a lifeless body (again, wearing a neoprene suit) is found in the vicinity of the ancient women’s prison in the Spanish colony of Ceuta. The dead body has been identified as being of Moroccan origin and is believed to be a victim of the deadly border regime.

On 21 July, Kamal is killed by the Algerian navy. He had migrated to Spain but wanted to return to Algeria to visit the grave of his mother who had recently died. He was shot on the beaches of Oran, Algeria.

On 26 July, a shipwreck occurs between Tan-Tan and Tarfaya, Morocco. Relatives report to Alarm Phone that 29 people survived and 19 died. 16 bodies are found. According to the survivors, there were 55 people on board, not 48 as initially reported. This means that between 3 and 10 people are missing.

On 27 July, a shipwreck occurs in international waters. The boat with 14 people on board had left two days before from Mostaganem, Algeria. Only two people can be rescued, 12 people remain missing.

On 4 August, a person dies on board a Mauritanian military ship after it intercepts a boat with more than 100 people on board. The people are taken to the coastal city of Nouadhibou, Mauretania.

On 9 August, six people drown off the Algerian coast. Six people survive, and several people are still missing.

On 10 August, a boat with 63 people on board is intercepted on its way to the Canary Islands. According to the rescue authorities, one man is found dead.

On 13 August, three people are found dead in a boat with 45 people that was rescued near Fuerteventura, Spain.

On 16 August, according to relatives informing Alarm Phone, a shipwreck with 54 people occurs off the coast of Tarfaya, Morroco. MRCC Rabat does not respond to calls for confirmation and more details on the shipwreck.

On 18 August, four comrades in the struggle for the cause of migrants and human rights die in a road accident near Diffa, in southeast Niger: Éric Alain Kamden, Moustapha Moussa Tchangari, Dan Karami & Djibril Diado Amadou. This information is shared by Alarm Phone Sahara.

On 19 August, a boat with at least 62 people on board is reported missing to Alarm Phone by relatives and friends. The boat left Tan-Tan, Morocco for the Canary Islands on 10 August. Salvamento Marítimo informs us that they haven’t found them.

On 21 August, five people die when a rubber boat with 56 people on board capsizes in the Lamsid area, 60 km north of Boujdour province.  According to online news sources, 13 people are still missing. The shipwreck occurred close to the coast due to bad weather conditions: the waves exceeded two metres in height and reached 50 kilometres per hour.

On 22 August, two bodies are found on the beach in the Spanish colony Melilla.

On 25 August, we learn from a Senegalese website that a boat with more than 100 people on the move which left from Rufisque, Senegal in July has disappeared. Since then there has been no trace of the boat and its passengers.

On 27 August, a man is rescued in Xàbia, Spain and is probably the only survivor. He reports that a boat with 16 people on board from Algeria capsized. So far, eight lifeless bodies have been found along the coast south of Alicante, Spain.
On 27 August, a woman dies in an attempt to enter Spain. The body of a 25-year-old Moroccan woman was found by the Guardia Civil in the trunk of a car in the port of Algeciras, Spain.
On 28 August, a boat with 14 people on board shipwrecks. It had left Chlef, Algeria making for the Spanish mainland more than eight days before. Only one person is rescued, several bodies have been recovered and some people remain missing.
On 30 August, three bodies are found near the coast of Alicante, Spain. Investigations suggest that they were travelling in a boat that left Oran 10 days before with 14 people, and only one person survived. Seven more bodies are recovered along the southeastern coast of Spain. It is unkonwn if they are a result of the same tragedy.

On 4 September, the Alarm Phone is called by a boat with 54 people who left from Tan-Tan, Morocco which is in severe distress. When the Moroccan Navy arrives, two people have died. The survivors are taken back to Morocco.

On 7 September, a dead body is found close to Chefchaouen, Morocco. It is suspected that the person died while trying to reach the EU by sea.

On 10 September, a dead body is found in the water off the coast of the Spanish colony Melilla. The corpse is identified as that of a young man of Maghrebi origin, It is supposed that he drowned in his attempt to reach the Spanish city.

On 12 September, 52 people try to leave by boat for the Canary Islands from Akhfenir, Morocco. The police spot them trying to depart and open fire. A young woman is killed, and two men are injured. Two others are run over by a car. Those who aren’t injured are detained and will be sent to the border to Algeria, to Oujda or to the desert.

On 12 September, a dead body is recovered two miles off the coast of Roquetas, Almería, Spain.

On 14 September, a dead body is found off the coast of Ceuta.

On 16 September, a dead body is recovered off Ribera Beach, Ceuta.

On 18 September, the remains of a person are washed ashore at Lamsid, 60 km north of Boujdour, Western Sahara. Two days before, the dead body of a young man had been recovered by fishermen off the coast of Laayoune, Morocco.

On 25 September, a boat shipwrecks off the coast of Murcia, Spain. Three survivors are found in the following days, but at least three people are missing.

On 1 October, a merchant vessel finds a rubber boat with one survivor and four dead bodies, 278 kilometres south of Gran Canaria, Spain. According to the survivor, their boat had left with 34 people 9 days earlier.

On 3 October, a dead body is found floating in the waters of Cartagena, Spain. According to the media, it was a person on the move from Northern Africa who had tried to reach Spain.

On 5 October, the Violations Documentation Center observed the deaths of at least 18 people who die in a shipwreck in Algerian territorial waters. The boat left from Oran, Algeria on 2 October. Only one young man survives the shipwreck.

On 08 October, we give up hope for two boats carrying about 100 people missing along the Atlantic route. They have been missing for about two weeks in terrible weather conditions. The Spanish authorities also do not have any information about the people.

On 11 October, a boat with 56 people on board is rescued on its way to the Canary Islands. One woman is found dead.

On 11 October, a body is recovered on the shore of the Tamaya area, about 28 km north of the city of Dakhla, Western Sahara. The person likely died trying to reach the Canary Islands, Spain.

On 13 October, Alarm Phone is alerted by a boat with 56 people in distress. Due to the delay of the rescue operation, only 30 people survive.
On 20 October, 21 people in two boats are rescued in the Alboran Sea. The body of a person is found floating in the water.

On 22 October, Faouzia Baccouche dies after being shot by the Algerian navy during an interception of a rubber boat with 13 people on board in the Ain el-Turk area, close to Oran, Algeria. AMDH Nador states that the woman was shot when the people on the boat refused to comply with the instructions of the Algerian authorities during the interception.

On 31 October, two people die before they reach the coast of Almería, Spain. The people were probably violently forced to jump from the boat and drown. Another person is seriously injured and is taken to the hospital.