African migrants climb over a fence between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. (2014 photo by Santi Palacios/AP)

She had heard of African migrants being enslaved and imprisoned in war-riven Libya as they tried to escape to a better life in Europe. So Fanta Soumahoro decided to travel through Morocco instead. It would be a safer route, she thought.

But as the 21-year-old Ivorian was preparing to board a boat to slip across the Mediterranean, she recalled, the smugglers ordered her group at knifepoint to hand over their money and possessions. She thinks they would have raped her if not for a passing car.

Over the past year, efforts by European governments to stem the flow of sub-Saharan Africans through Libya toward Europe, for instance by funding Libya’s coast guard, have helped reduce the number of migrants reaching Italy by nearly 80 percent, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM). Many are also afraid of being detained by local militias in Libya or otherwise becoming caught up in the chaos of the civil war there.

Now, there is a surge in the number of those passing through Morocco bound instead for Spain, with more than 8,250 arriving there by sea in the first five months of this year. That is nearly double the figure in the same period last year and close to 60 percent of the number reaching Italy so far this year, long a favored destination.

“They are seeing that Libya is dangerous,” said Ana Fonseca, the head of the IOM for Morocco. “Migration is like water. You cannot stop it. You close one part, and another route will open.”

But the route through Morocco is proving to be perilous, too. At least 240 people have died at sea this year trying to cross to Spain, an increase of more than 400 percent from the same period last year, according to the IOM.

Moroccan police and security forces, meanwhile, have repeatedly raided the migrants’ camps, beating them and removing them to southern Morocco, according to witnesses, aid workers and human rights activists. Families have been divided, and migrants say they have been sexually harassed, even raped, by security forces.

In the northern town of Nador, which borders the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the rim of North Africa, Moroccan authorities are working with the Spanish government to keep the migrants from reaching European territory. In the first five months of this year, more than 2,200 migrants have crossed into Melilla and Ceuta, a neighboring Spanish enclave, according to the IOM.

“They cannot step out of the forests,” said Omar Naji, the head of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights in Nador. “The moment they do, they will get arrested. They are not allowed to rent apartments, to live with dignity.”

The office of the commander of the auxiliary forces attached to Morocco’s Interior Ministry, which carried out the raids and removals, did not respond to requests for comment.

On that November night when Soumahoro’s would-be saviors shook down her traveling party, she recalled that a friend had tried to hide her cellphone, tucking it inside her bra. One of the smugglers frisked her and found it. Gripping his weapon, he took the petrified woman behind a bush.


A migrant detention center in the Spanish territory of Melilla in North Africa. (Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)

“She was crying,” Soumahoro recounted. “I heard her say: ‘Please, sir, don’t kill me. I’ll take off my pants. Just don’t kill me.’ ”

At that moment, a car passed and flashed its lights. Most of the smugglers scattered, as did the migrants, leaving the other woman behind with her assailant. The migrants eventually waved down another car. Soumahoro asked the driver to call the police, but the driver was too frightened, so they returned to their forest encampment.

“The following morning, our sister came back,” Soumahoro said. “She’d been raped.”

Long trek to Gourougou

When Soumahoro was 8, her mother died. By then, her father had abandoned the family in Ivory Coast. It eventually fell upon her to care for her three siblings and pay the rent. She dropped out of school and began to sell her body.

“With the money I saved from prostitution, I paid for my journey,” Soumahoro said.

She had initially considered traveling to Libya and on to Italy. But she changed her mind after reading Facebook warnings from other migrants and speaking with friends. “I was told that things are much worse there,” she said. “They would enslave Africans and force women to have sex with them in exchange for nothing.”

In October, she traveled by bus to Mali and Mauritania, and then in a smuggler’s caravan through the Algerian desert and on to Morocco. “The Arabs would treat Africans, especially the women, like slaves,” Soumahoro said. “The smugglers would force us to have sex with them.”

But at least, she said, the smugglers held up their end of the transaction.

She made her way to Nador, a sprawling city with a boardwalk facing the Mediterranean Sea. The city stretches to the edge of Melilla, which is encircled by four fences, one topped with razor wire, to prevent migrants from entering the Spanish territory.

On the streets of Nador and in its markets, the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa would stand out, and the possibility of arrest or removal was high. So Soumahoro joined several thousand other sub-Saharan migrants in the Gourougou forest outside the city.

'We were always afraid'

Under the canopy of trees, there was never a peaceful night of sleep.

The migrants lived in tents made of bedsheets or plastic bags, as many as six people crammed into each dwelling. They slept on the bare ground and drank rainwater.

“It would rain heavily. The wind was strong,” said Ousama Diallo, who came from Guinea. “We didn’t have any blankets to shelter us from the cold.”

“We were always afraid in the forest,” said Amidou Salam, 25, who was from Burkina Faso. “Wild animals would attack us.”

The migrants pooled their money to buy food, with volunteers going to a nearby village to buy supplies. They avoided Nador, fearing arrest. And they never left the forest after 6 p.m. — unless it was time to attempt the crossing to Spain.

Two or three times a week, the migrants said, Moroccan police and other security forces would raid the camp early in the morning, rounding up and abusing the migrants. The police, migrants said, would destroy tents and remove blankets. Some would confiscate phones and punch the migrants.

“There were some who broke our arms, and others our legs,” said Abdakar Bara, 18, from Burkina Faso.

“If you run and try to escape them, they would beat you,” Diallo said. “If you don’t, they’d put you in a bus and send you very far away to discourage us from coming back again.”

Arrests and sexual violence

Naji and other aid workers in Nador corroborated the migrants’ accounts. Migrants, some even with residency permits, have been bused more than 200 miles away to the south of Morocco.

“These arrests are abusive,” said Naji, adding that he has investigated reports of security officers assaulting and trying to rape migrant women.

Soumahoro said she had such an experience. One morning, during a police raid in the forest, an officer demanded that she hand over her phone, but she said she did not have one.

“He responded saying that I have something much more valuable, and he started ripping my pants with a knife,” Soumahoro said. “I began yelling and screaming, and the other men who were in the forest came running my way. When the policeman saw them, he ran away.”

Helena Maleno, a Spanish human rights activist, said rapes by both the military and police are common, as well as by fellow migrants. “There are many pregnant women in the forests,” she said.

With no assistance from police, doctors or psychologists, many migrant women have internalized and accepted the sexual violence, Maleno said. “They see it as the price to pay for going as a migrant to Europe,” she said.

'I will never forget'

To reach Spain, Soumahoro had several options. She could try hopping the fences into Melilla or get smuggled into the enclave in the trunk of a car for $1,200 to $1,800. Or she could try to take a boat to southern Spain, about 20 miles away from some parts of Morocco, for about $2,400.

Soumahoro opted for the sea journey and nearly died.

The boat she took in mid-December capsized in Spanish waters with 37 people on board. The survivors were taken to Melilla. At the hospital, Soumahoro learned that several of her companions had drowned.

For the migrants who make it to Spanish territory, there are more steps to take.

On a recent day in Melilla, a migrant group was meeting in a church-sponsored program to help them adjust to living in Spain, discussing job opportunities and Spanish culture. Some were there to learn Spanish.

But even on this day, there was a reminder of the precariousness of their quest. The mood was somber. They had learned that 12 migrants had died a day earlier when another crowded boat capsized. Three survivors were in the hospital with burns suffered when the boat’s motor caught fire.

Today, Soumahoro lives in a migrant center run by the Spanish government, along with Diallo, Salam and Bara. She is seeking asylum, and hopes to receive a residency card soon.

But she says not a day goes by without the memory of the rape of her friend. From the front gate of the migrant center, she can see the forest of Gourougou.

“I will never forget what happened,” said Soumahoro, looking at the trees on the hills of Nador. “I still dream about it today.”