African migrants facing deportation on Monday angrily accused Moroccan police of stealing from them, while Algeria rejected Morocco’s claims that it was using the immigration drama as a propaganda tool in their decades-long territorial dispute.
The 129 Cameroonians, some cursing and removing their shirts and shoes in protest, were flown to Cameroon’s southwestern port city of Douala from a military airport in Goulimine, 400 miles south of Morocco’s capital of Rabat.
Their flight was the last of seven that have deported 970 people from Goulimine in recent days. Nearly 1,600 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were deported last week from the northeast city of Oujda, near the Algerian border.
Migrants habitually use this North African kingdom as a transit point while trying to reach two Spanish enclaves in the north that would give them a foothold in Europe. The mass deportations were in response to migrants storming across barbed-wire fences around the enclaves, Melilla and Ceuta, and a decision by Spain to return to Morocco those who managed to scale the barriers.
International battle over Western Sahara territory
The immigration crisis has provoked sharp exchanges between Morocco and Algeria, threatening to complicate long-standing international efforts to resolve a dispute over the Western Sahara territory. Algeria supports the Polisario Front’s struggle for the independence of the Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1975.
The Polisario has accused Morocco of abandoning African migrants in the Western Sahara — allegations that Moroccan Prime Minister Driss Jettou claimed were invented by Algeria as a “propaganda tool.”
Algeria’s Foreign Ministry lashed back Monday, calling the Moroccan leader’s claims “fallacious and outrageous” and “deplorable escalation of malicious and defamatory words against Algeria.” The ministry said Morocco, not Algeria, was making an “inappropriate and unjustified mixture” of the immigration problem and the Western Sahara dispute.
Migrants, too, had angry words for Morocco.
“I don’t have any money! Why did the Moroccan authorities take our money?” Herve Zamba Achry, 26, shouted from a bus. He took off his shirt and shoes in protest.
“We didn’t sign a (release) form” and the deportations were not voluntary, he added.
One deportee complained of losing two cell phones to authorities. Another spit as he climbed aboard a bus.
Morocco has been negotiating with more than a dozen countries to get them to take back their citizens. Most of those deported so far come from Senegal and Mali.
‘Voluntary departures,’ governor says
“Everyone says what he thinks, but I assure you that the majority want to return” home, said Mugnol Amoungam, first secretary of the Cameroon Embassy.
Ahmed Himdi, governor of the Goulimine region, dismissed claims that police stole money from the migrants.
“I certainly deny it,” he said. “These were voluntary departures.... We’ve conducted them based on humanitarian principles. We are treating them with the utmost dignity.”
It was not clear how many more people Morocco would be deporting.
Officials said 206 other Africans of more than a dozen nationalities remained in the Goulimine area.
Himdi noted that Morocco undertook the deportations alone even though it has said that the problem of migrants is an international issue that requires broad participation to solve, including from the European Union.
Morocco has singled out Algeria for particular complaint, alleging that the country has done nothing to stop migrants from crossing into Morocco and has even allowed them to set up camps on the border.