How the gentrification of Morocco's coastline could fuel migration

Imsouane Morocco
5 min read
01 May, 2024

In February, residents of Belyounech in northern Morocco awoke to the sound of bulldozers entering their village accompanied by security forces.

Over a dozen homes and villas in the coastal community - home to 5,000 people - were subsequently destroyed.

Three days prior, residents had received evacuation notices saying their properties were illegally occupying “public maritime space”.

Reportedly part of a campaign by the state to recover, and develop, coastal areas, demolitions like these have been reported across Morocco since December, including in the fishing village of Imsouane and the island of Sidi Abderrahmane near Casablanca.

"Part of a campaign to recover, and develop, land in coastal areas, demolitions have been reported in several seaside Moroccan villages since December"

In the aftermath of Belyounech’s forced evictions, forty young residents displaced by the demolitions swam to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, located just 1km away.

Morocco’s Association of Human Rights (AMDH) reports that many others are considering similar actions due to worsening poverty and unemployment in the region.

“Recently, seven more people have attempted to swim to Ceuta. Thankfully, there were no casualties, but the youth in the region are more desperate than ever,” Achraf Mimoun, a member of AMDH Tetouan, told The New Arab.

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Belyounech: Desperate Youth 

Nestled between picturesque cliffs and the Mediterranean's azure waters, Belyounech was once dubbed 'heaven on earth'. For many of its residents, however, it has become a living hell.

“There's nothing to do here. Whether you work for very little as a waiter or a guide, or take your chances in the sea,” Mehdi, a resident who recently failed in his attempt to reach Ceuta, told The New Arab.

In recent years, the village has benefited from some tourism-oriented rehabilitation projects, but locals note that they rely heavily on tourism during the summer months while visitors tend to avoid the area during the colder winter.

“We are still recovering from the debts of the Corona (Covid-19) pandemic,” remarked another resident to The New Arab.

The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are the only land borders between Europe and Africa, making them popular routes for migrants. [Getty]

Sporting a knock-off AC Milan jersey and playing a loud Rai song from his phone, 24-year-old Mehdi sat at a local cafe in Tetouan, some 25 km south of Ceuta, recalling his failed attempt to reach Spain.

A month after the evacuation in Belyounech, Mehdi and four friends decided to swim to Ceuta. With only 15 kilometres of the Strait of Gibraltar separating Morocco and Ceuta, migrants must swim between five and 10 hours to reach the other side.

Mehdi and his friends, like many other migrants, were intercepted by the Moroccan navy midway through their journey. “They put us on a bus back to Tetouan,” he recalled.

"There's nothing to do here. Whether you work for very little as a waiter or a guide, or take your chances in the sea"

Today, Mehdi is jobless, penniless, and desperate in Tetouan. “Lharga (Migration) or death,” he declared.

Belyounech has long been a major launch pad for Moroccan and Sub-Saharan migrants attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, with many boarding small boats or even using jet skis.

According to locals, the Melilla massacre in 2022, which saw at least 23 migrants killed by border authorities, prompted many African migrants to choose the Belyounech route to avoid aggressive policing tactics.

However, there is currently no official data on migration flows from the region. “We cannot address the problem without concrete data," stated AMDH Tetouan.

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Demolitions, immigration, and the World Cup

“The demolition of homes near the beach began several months ago in other towns. The demolition in Belyounech is being carried out in two phases,” explained Khalid Mouna, a Moroccan migration expert, adding that the second phase will take place in the coming months.

Recently, The New Arab has covered demolitions in Imsouane near Agadir, Sidi Abderhamane in Casablanca, and Belyounech.

Most evacuated residents claim they were unaware of the legal status of their residences and businesses, having lived and operated there for decades without receiving official permits from authorities.

The majority have decided to comply, stating that they have no means to contest the legal orders, but they are demanding compensation - a request that authorities have yet to respond to.

Belyounech has long been a major launch pad for Moroccan and African migrants attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. [Getty]

There has yet to be any official comment on the details of the evacuation process or any timeline for future actions.

“We are only following orders,” apologised an authority figure to devastated individuals in Imsouane as bulldozers carried out demolitions.

When asked if this process could lead to a stronger wave of irregular migration, Moroccan activist Achraf Mimoun stated that it is too early to discuss numbers. One thing is certain, however, post-evacuation, new migration attempts are becoming more dangerous and desperate than ever.

“I have never witnessed such disorganised and perilous attempts in my life in this region,” Mimoun added.

"Amid a lack of official clarification, many locals speculate that Morocco's strategy in coastal areas is part of the country's preparations for hosting the World Cup in 2030. Rabat has neither confirmed nor denied this"

According to Moroccan migration expert Khalid Mouna, it is unclear whether the increase in immigration can be directly linked to Morocco’s maritime policy, but “the state has implemented this policy in a very forceful and public manner,” he noted without specifying the reasons behind it.

Amid a lack of official clarification, many locals speculate that Morocco’s strategy in coastal areas is part of the country’s preparations for hosting the World Cup in 2030. Rabat has neither confirmed nor denied this.

While currently just an urban theory increasingly discussed in Tetouan and Casablanca's cafes, evacuating locals to make room for an international sports event has become a global phenomenon over the years – from working-class communities and local businesses in London’s 2012 Olympics to homeless communities in Los Angeles ahead of the 2028 summer Olympics.

“We will not stand in the way of our country's organisation and excellence. However, they must respect us, communicate with us, and compensate us,” declared Mohamed, a 60-year-old from Belyounech, amidst nods of agreement from other patrons in the cafe.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma