The economic crisis in Spain has dealt a heavy blow to Moroccan emigrants, forcing some to return to their home country to escape unemployment and poverty, writes Clair Riviere.
Driving in his little yellow taxi, Abdel Majid, wearing sunglasses and with a moustache, carries around the memories of his past eight years in Spain. It has been two years since he returned to the Moroccan city of Beni Mellal, “due to the crisis,” he says. In Catalonia, he worked as lumberjack before losing his job, just like many other fellow Moroccans in Spain. Today, without any regret, he speaks about his departure from the Iberian Eldorado. “Spain is in ruins, Spain is khaiba (disappointed),” he says.
From 1994 until 2008, Spain experienced a phase of continuous economic growth and attracted millions of Moroccan workers. Then the economic crisis erupted, leaving in its wake soaring unemployment, which rose from 8.3% in 2007 to 25% in 2012. According to Colectivo Ioé, a social sciences research center in Spain, this increase affected migrant Moroccan workers more than others, with the unemployment rate among this demographic rising from 16.6% to 50.7%.
In Spain today, in one in three Moroccan households, none of the family members are employed. This is in large part due to the unskilled, manual and seasonal nature of jobs worked by migrant Moroccan workers.
The situation has pushed many of them to take refuge elsewhere, in countries whose economies are in better shape, while others have even decided to return home.
In January 2000, 173,000 Moroccans were residing in Spain. By January 2012, this number stood at 783,000.
It seems, however, that the situation has been reversed. In the past few years, the number of Moroccans settling in Spain has decreased considerably, while the number of people returning to Morocco slightly increased. In a statistical study published in May 2012, Colectivo Ioé noted “an unprecedented decrease in migration between Morocco and Spain in recent decades.” In 2011, around 41,000 Moroccans came to Spain, while approximately 63,000 left.
Habib el-Ammari is an emigrant who has returned home. After arriving in Spain in 1999, he decided to return to Beni Mellal at the beginning of 2012, due to the economic crisis that ruined the business he was running in Alicante. He owned a grocery shop coupled with a cybercafé that “did quite well” until the end of 2009, when sales began to dip. Ammari said, “In 2010, we were living on the edge. We could just barely pay the expenses. In 2011, we couldn’t face the situation anymore. Even some Spaniards used to come by the shop to ask for food.” Ammari owned a house in Beni Mellal, where he opened a snack shop. He can feed his family and can even send money to Spain to keep up with his mortgage payments.
Reconversion into peasantry
Ammari is managing well. His story resembles that of all Moroccan residents formerly abroad who have returned to their country to invest in a gas station, a restaurant or a café. Not all of them, however, have the same success story, especially after having landed in their hometown with no savings to invest. Brahim Chahbani, president of the Mellalia Association for Development, an organization that helps migrant workers returning willingly to their country or expelled from Europe to get reintegrated into Moroccan society, said, “Today, we are experiencing the negative side of emigration. Families have returned with no hope of finding work or anything else.”
Likewise, 31-year-old Fouad returned to Fqih Ben Salah last April and became a peasant once again. He currently takes care of arid fields and some cows that his mother owns. Does he think of going back to Spain? “Well, if there’s no work, what for?,” he answers, while remembering the decade he had spent working as a salesman in the markets of Palma de Mallorca in the Balearic Islands. This was before the crisis occurred and “people stopped buying.” He spent his last years in Spain in the northern province of Rioja, where he tried to work in agriculture. Fouad said, “It was difficult. I worked for only 15 days in two months.”
Decline in money transfers
At Beni Mellal, the impressive concentration of Western Union counters stands witness to the importance of money transfers of Moroccan residents abroad in the economy of this traditional region of emigration. At the onset of the crisis, the amount of incoming transfers from Spain plunged from 8.4 billion dirhams [$985 million] in 2007 to 5.8 billion [$680 million] in 2009. Today, it is sometimes the emigrants who ask their families for help. In Beni Mellal, several local Western Union counters confirm that the families of the region send money to Europe to help their loved ones in paying rent and managing their lives on the other side of Gibraltar.
At Fqih Ben Salah, 44-year-old Tarek, who just returned from Spain, is benefitting from living with his family. He explains, “The fees here are less. I don’t have to pay the electricity and water bills. Rather than spending one month in Spain, jobless, with rent to pay, I prefer to spend time with my family.” Although he is tired of “deceitful bosses who make you work for ten Euros a day,” he is still not sure whether he will be staying in Morocco for good. “If the situation in Spain improves, I might go back,” he adds.
The dream is not dead
Since the crisis, other Moroccans from Europe have increased their visits between Spain and Morocco. On Thursdays in Oulad M’Barek, a village located 10 km or so from Beni Mellal, dozens of people drive their cars or vans registered in Spain and Italy, to sell a ragbag of varied merchandise, bought or picked up from Europe. From toasters to television sets, shoes to drills, soup spoons to clothes, Aziz has it all. He explains, “I used to work in construction before, but now, there’s no more work.” He explains that he owes his ability to pay rent and provide for his wife and kids, who are still in Spain, to this shaky business.
This sad situation is very far from the traditional image of an emigrant returning home like a rising star, with his fancy car and a bunch of gifts. Does it, in fact, indicate the end of the European dream that deprived youths of the region have long chased after? With a firm “No,” Guilia Pezzato, a member of the Italian NGO Progetto Mundo, which works in the region to prevent the illegal and irresponsible immigration of minors, replies. She adds, “I don’t think that the crisis has changed much. The school dropout rate is still high, and the impression of not being able to escape persists.”
At Beni Mellal, the dream of leaving is much stronger than the Spanish crisis.