Tangier, Morocco – Saber first decided that he wanted to live in Spain when he was 10 years old. Hoping for a better life on another shore, he began to think of migration and of leaving his family behind in Morocco.
Now 13, rosy-cheeked and rustling in a thin yellow windbreaker, he stands with his friends at a stone lookout nestled high in Tangier’s medina, watching the sprawling ferry port across the street.
“I have been trying and still am trying,” Saber said of his attempts to illegally breach the port’s entrance, secure a hiding place on one of its boats, and cross to the other side. He added, “My parents know and they tell me, ‘May God help you.'”
Human Rights Watch estimates that of the 3,000 to 5,000 unaccompanied foreign minors in Spain, the majority are Moroccans. They arrive in Spain alone, having left their parents behind to embark on clandestine journeys considered illegal by the Moroccan government.
Many cross through Tangier, and part of the reason is proximity: All that separates the city from Spain is a 14km wedge of blue sea.
UNICEF has estimated that 33 million migrants worldwide are aged 19 or under, many of them travelling alone on dangerous journeys to escape poverty, violence or, in Saber’s case, a perceived economic crisis in their home country.
At Tangier’s ferry port, hiding spaces on ships and passing vehicles offer hopeful young migrants, most between the ages of 11 and 17, clandestine passage to the other side. Those who can fit will tuck themselves into crawlspaces beneath tour buses boarding ships between Morocco and Spain.
Ironically, the same buses carry European travellers back to the very country these youths attempt to flee.
“You know this is migration; it has no precise strategy,” said Reda, 17, another migrant who made it to Spain several times but was apprehended and sent back each time. Despite knowing that Spain is still shambling its way out of an economic crisis, he believes the country will offer him a better future.
“There, regardless of the [economic] crisis, you can make your way through life,” he said. “Here, when the crisis strikes, it is a real disaster.”
When there is no school or work – a situation facing almost half of all Moroccans under the age of 29, according to a 2012 World Bank survey – migration presents a literal way out, even for those still legally children.
Many Moroccan minors visit Tangier’s two ports every day, as if they are checking in at a job. They memorise the policemen’s shifts. They try to sneak onto buses leaving from hotel parking lots. They compare notes.
Envisioning futures cushioned by stable salaries and luxury cars, they are encouraged by friends, who migrated young and returned to Morocco with success stories and designer brands to share.
“You go because all your friends do,” said Zakaria, 22, another migrant who is now back in Morocco. “The thought of crossing the border keeps turning in your head.”
Zakaria left his hometown Khouribga for Tangier at age 16, without his parents’ knowledge. There, he climbed on board a ship carrying construction supplies to Spain and hid, buried inside an industrial container of sand. He had brought with him a bag of peanuts and a water bottle. A typical tourist’s ferry ride lasts a couple hours; Zakaria’s languid Mediterranean trade route lasted four days.
“I tried not to think about where I was,” he said as he recalled being submerged in the sand. “There was nothing I could do. I just had to wait.”
When he finally reached the Spanish port, at which point he jumped from the ship and swam to shore, he was caught by policemen who asked for a passport he did not have. He was then taken into custody and sent to Casablanca, where he had to figure out a way home.
Officials point out that the millions of children attempting to migrate every year are putting themselves at grave risk. “You have children who are incredibly vulnerable to physical violence [and] sexual assault,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, executive director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. In many countries, these minor migrants are often locked up when caught, or sent back to their homelands, she said.
Morocco’s Ministry in Charge of Moroccans Living Abroad and Migration Affairs did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
For Moroccan minor migrants, part of Spain’s allure is a law stipulating that any unaccompanied migrant under the age of 18 will not be deported if caught. Instead, he or she will be taken to child protection facilities, permitted to live and study in government centres and eventually acquire permanent Spanish residency.
Yet the law is not always enforced. Zakaria was sent home, despite his minor status, giving him a legal right to stay. The same was true of another Moroccan migrant, Abdullah, 17, who jumped the fence at Tangier’s port, waited out the night inside, and then climbed on board a morning ferry to Tarifa, Spain.
He was immediately sent back to Tangier after being caught on the Spanish shore. Now, all he wants is to return.
He maintains that his growing despair, compounded by conflicts with his parents, has led to substance abuse. “Because of our unceasing attempts to cross, we get addicted to glue-sniffing,” Abdullah said, gesturing to the orange tubes of liquid glue that litter the ground of the lookout.
A 2001 UNICEF study reported that most homeless youth in Tangier are not street children, but rather “children waiting to cross or children who have been returned from Spain and are trying to cross back”.
Yet, even when minors migrate successfully, the Spain they encounter is far different from their dreams.
“The obstacles that minor migrants face in our country are very big,” said Lourdes Reyzabal, founder of Fundacion Raices, an organisation that seeks to protect foreign minors who believe their rights were violated.
Reyzabal says minors in Spain, once discovered by authorities, often find themselves wading through bureaucracy and legal procedures they are not equipped to handle. One common abuse of rights, she says, is a government medical test, which Spain’s Supreme Court has denounced, that is meant to establish a minor’s age. The test can have a margin of error of two years.
For Moroccans who have undergone gruelling physical ordeals to get to Spain, it can be shocking not to be able to fully integrate into society when they arrive.
“A minor who reaches the age of 18 [here], and reaches that age mentally healthy is a genuine survivor,” said Reyzabal.
Still, Moroccan adolescents go every day to their country’s ports, not caring if it is grass-is-greener glory or a lukewarm half-existence that lies on the opposite shore.
Abdullah attends to his portside perch every day, and his strategy remains the same. “Once we see a bus heading into the port,” he said, “we follow and try to hide under it.”
Zoë Hu and Eloise Schieferdecker spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organisation that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Maha Naami contributed reporting.