Moroccan immigrants die crossing Strait of Gibraltar
ABI JAAD, Morocco - A month ago, as vacationing Europeans were baking on their southern beaches, Said Maarouf and a companion boarded a jet ski on the African side of the Strait of Gibraltar. They were dreaming of a new life in Spain, just half an hour away.
He came back to his Moroccan hometown in a coffin. Maarouf's friend and fellow migrant is still missing at sea. A third man on the jet ski, an immigrant smuggler acting as their guide, has also disappeared.
And so has passed one more small episode in the migrant tragedy unfolding between Africa and Europe, a tragedy that has claimed hundreds of lives in the treacherous waters that lie between the two continents.
In this poor, dusty Moroccan town of 60,000, it's not hard to see what would drive a 34-year-old man with a pregnant wife and four children to gamble his life on an overloaded jet ski. Here, those with relatives sending money from Europe have cellphones, cars and satellite dishes. For the rest, it's a life of joblessness, grinding poverty and slothful bureaucracy among goats and unpaved roads.
The funeral two weeks ago of Maarouf was the fourth in a week for a migrant from Abi Jaad who never made it. His body, so bloated his brother could only recognize him by his hair, was found off the Spanish town of Tarifa, floating near a beach popular among surfers.
According to Friends and Family of Clandestine Immigration Victims, a Moroccan support group, more than 4,500 bodies, mostly of Moroccans, have been recovered in the Strait of Gibraltar since 2002. In August alone, 17 died and 40 went missing, said the group's Abdelhilal Belgacem. Among them two men and a woman from Abi Jaad, who had set out separately for Spain.
In recent years radar stations on both sides of the strait have diminished the numbers from Morocco, heading off their boats before they hit the open seas. But this has made the voyage much more perilous for those still willing to risk it.
Increased fines on traffickers make the criminals more likely to abandon their passengers at sea if detected. That may be what happened to Maarouf and his companion, whose surname is unknown. And as the Moroccan option has narrowed, the new launch pads are the west African countries of Mauritania and Senegal and a much longer, riskier route to Spain's Canary Islands in the Atlantic.
So far this year more than 22,000 people have been caught trying to reach the islands, the highest total ever, and hundreds are believed to have died along the way. Italy and Malta also lure Africans.
But Spain, visible from the Moroccan shore, remains a tantalizing destination.
Maarouf was one of seven children and worked in construction, earning the equivalent of 0 a month when he had work at all. Four of his brothers had already made it to Spain in small, crowded boats, and were sending money home from their jobs in greenhouses.
Maarouf's parents begged him not to go, reminding him that while his brothers were single, he had four children and a fifth due next month.
But he wouldn't be swayed. He and his friend paid the equivelant of ,800 to the trafficker and set out in daylight from the beach at the Moroccan port city of Tangier on Aug. 10.