NADOR — Papa Africa carefully wraps his only possession, a cooking pot, in a cover. He then climbs up to the top of a tree to hang it. “It’s because of the police. When they come, they burn and break everything,” he explains as he jumps back to the ground.

Next stop is the "Tranquilo,” a safe place to hide, a rock wall with narrow cavities where it is possible to stow yourself away for a few hours, about the time it takes the Moroccan police to leave the Gourougou forest. Hundreds of clandestine sub-Saharan Africans — more than 700, according to various estimates — are subsisting in this northeastern corner of Morocco, among the pines and the rocks.

Papa Africa has been here for three years. He comes from Mali, from the region around Kayes. He is 26 and, like all the people here, he has one dream: making it into the nearby Spanish town of Melilla, hemmed in this northwestern Moroccan region. It is the gateway to Europe. To the right, there is Morocco’s Nador, one of the region’s largest towns. To the left is Spain’s Melilla, surrounded by three tall metal barriers, the highest one reaching seven meters. Between both towns, on the road, huge billboards announce a Moroccan land settlement and the construction of a high-class tourist complex. The golf course, with its neat lawns, is already finished.

To get to the Gourougou forest, atop which we can see everything, we take byroads, trek a long time among steep rocks and prickly pears before reaching the forested area at the top. The first “residents” of the woods appear: They are lookouts keeping an eye out for police sweeps. “They do two raids per day, one in the morning and another in the evening,” says Wilfrid, a 23-year-old Cameroonian, without taking his eyes off Melilla. “Everybody has his chance. Everyone has his own star.”

Taking on the fence

On Sept. 17, more than 300 men left the mountain at dawn to rush Melilla’s tall fences, which they climbed within minutes, sometimes with makeshift ladders made out of branches. Many fell and injured themselves. Others were pushed back. That day, 98 of them made it to the Temporary Reception Center for Refugees.

“Twelve arrived the following day, 10 on the third day,” the center’s director Carlos Montero Diaz says. The Spanish Civil Guard broadcast horrible footage taken by helicopter of this “assault,” the third one since the beginning of the year. On Sept. 19, 200 other illegal immigrants tried again. Wilfrid promises himself that he will succeed next time.

Originally from Douala, he and his companions in misfortune completed a long journey to get here, passing through Nigeria, Niger and the north of Mali with great difficulty and after paying the equivalent of 38 euros. It was right in the middle of the conflict between the central government in Bamako, the Tuareg and the Jihadist groups. He then travelled from Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria, to the Moroccan border, 70 kilometers away from Nador. It was a journey punctuated by the smugglers’ violent acts and extortions, but his goal now lies before him, and he is determined. “Where I come from, there’s no money, no work. In Europe, you can live.”

A few pots, covers, sparse supplies 

Swadogo Seydou, 19, comes from Burkina Faso. “I tried swimming there through the sea, from Tangier, but I got caught and it’s very dangerous.” Next time, he will try to get there by land. There are also men from Guinea-Conakry, the Ivory Coast, Somalia and dozens of others, from Mali and Cameroon, all around 20 years old, scattered around the bushes. “The ones who speak English are further away, in other camps,” says Papa Africa, vaguely pointing towards another part of the mountain occupied by Nigerians.

The men who speak French stay together, in complete destitution. A few pots, covers and scarce supplies. Market scraps, chicken legs, a bit of rice, a handful of potatoes, water containers brought back painfully by those whose turn it was to go “shopping.” The most precious possession that the men keep is the cellphone. It allows them to stay in contact with their family, but most importantly with those who made it into Melilla. That is, of course, when they have enough battery.

The living conditions of these migrants has worsened since the March departure of Doctors Without Borders (DWB). In a report entitled “Trapped at the gates of Europe,” the organization condemned as “institutional violence” the migratory policies that “favored security criteria” at the cost of “fundamental human rights.” DWB adds that “since 2004, our teams have witnessed an increase in the number of police raids during which the migrants’ personal belongings are destroyed, and in the number of deportations towards Algeria.”

Racism on the rise 

“They arrive illegally, they’re pushed away illegally,” says Adil Akid, an activist with the Moroccan Human Rights Association in Nador. The mobile DWB tent has been replaced by a garrison of Moroccan police forces. The Africans claim that they are victims of police brutality when they are caught, before being released into the wild. Several bear traces of beatings on their arms and legs. Many also say that they were violently forced back behind the barriers, even though they managed to set foot on Spanish soil.

In Morocco — which has become not only a “transit country” but also one where migrants are forced to stay and on which Europe puts a lot of pressure, according to DWB — acts of anti-black racism are increasing in number. A few months ago, a Moroccan magazine headlined a front page story “Black peril.” In July, real estate posters calling on landlords not to rent to Africans were criticized on social networks. In August, a Senegalese, Ismail Faye, 31, was stabbed to death during an altercation with a Moroccan in Rabat, the capital, which started after a dispute about a bus seat.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI finally stepped in. After the Moroccan National Council for Human Rights submitted a report on the topic, he called for a “more human handling of illegal immigrants.”