The Roach Trap

Every year, tens of thousands of tanned roaches attempt to make the crossing of the world’s most ancient sea. They scuttle out of the darkness and crawl through a sea filled with boric acid. Even the deadly substance will not inhibit their ambitions for economic liberty, as they would rather risk the tragedy of a quick extermination than experience another day of hunger, lack of dignity, and oppression. The famous strait where the Atlantic Ocean mixes with the Mediterranean Sea is nothing more than the world’s most effective death trap.

Ten kilometers east of Tangier, there is a beautiful beach next to a very small fishing village. This summer, our family was on a trip to the north of Morocco and wanted to avoid the crowds at the beaches that were closer to the city. It was well worth the trip, because besides a couple of Moroccan families, the beach was mainly filled with fishermen and their boats, which were an even brighter shade of blue than that of the sea. The afternoon was approaching, so this would be their last attempt at a catch of the day. A group of five males of varying ages between their 10s and 50s were pushing the last boat of the day across the sandy beach towards the bright blue sea under a punishing African summer sun.


 I looked to my sides to see the other men who fixed their gaze at the strait of Gibraltar. Directly on the other side of our periphery was a mortally taunting dream; nine miles away, the hills of Spain were gazing right back at us.

Fishing is an important, booming sector in the Moroccan economy forming around 500,000 jobs and two thirds of Morocco’s agricultural exports. The efforts to help Morocco become a developed nation have ostensibly worked, as Morocco’s exports have been growing consistently since the surge in privatization efforts enacted by the Moroccan government, which finally started Morocco’s involvement in the global economy. International media has praised these economic policies as Morocco has within the last decade boasted constant GDP per capita growth, flourishing tourism and rising labor competitiveness.

A Moroccan beggar in a souk deep into Tangawi Medina
A Moroccan vegetable seller in Tangier’s medina

Beneath all the numbers is the reality of millions shackled by globalization. The privatization of the Moroccan companies has led to enormous negative social consequences. Due to the elimination of governmental support in the rural areas, Morocco has become increasingly urbanized. Millions flee the countryside to find themselves competing for low skilled jobs in the city with other older poor residents who already have it hard. For low skilled workers, a living wage is nearly impossible to find. The higher skilled workers have also been punished by globalization, as privatized companies are attempting to compete with the world market and are hiring fewer and paying less in order to secure their bottom line. This contributes to high unemployment and low wages amongst the educated and high skilled.

Many Moroccans desperately turn to other measures to make ends meet. The rise of privatization coincides perfectly with the rise of the informal economy which grew from arguably around 30% of the nation’s GDP in the 1980’s to over 40% in the present day. Many Moroccans are forced into demeaning marginal jobs to make up for their meager formal incomes. Evidence of this can be easily found throughout the Moroccan cities; illegal tourist guides, porters, black market construction workers, maids, and some of the fishermen at this very beach flood the nation.

International Journal of Economics and Finance; Vol. 8, No. 9; 2016
An Estimation of the Informal Economy in Morocco by Bourhaba is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Demeaning or not, these fishermen did not let their struggles inhibit their day’s work and continued to push their boat through the coarse beach. When the fishermen got half way there right next to where we were camped at the beach, they gave both my father and me a look. Although I was buried deep into The Grapes of Wrath, I felt their gaze and looked up at them, confused as to why they were looking at me. Strangely, I felt a sense of judgement when my eyes met those of the oldest man in the group. My father, however, immediately understood; they were exhausted and wanted some help. My father got up to assist, and I reluctantly followed suit. Although the boat was quite small, the friction of the coarse sand made pushing a boat into the sea a more arduous endeavor than it looked. Out of breath, I felt like my aid was artificial, unneeded, and forced. I definitely did not fit in with them the same way my father did, who immediately commented on the nice weather while I remained silent. I looked to my sides to see the other men who fixed their gaze at the strait of Gibraltar. Directly on the other side of our periphery was a mortally taunting dream; nine miles away, the hills of Spain were gazing right back at us.

These bright blue fishing boats can be found throughout the coast of the country
These bright blue fishing boats can be found throughout Morocco’s coast

For many, the temptation is too powerful to resist, as many of these small blue fishing ships are also used by smugglers to transport African migrants to Europe. Surveys show that due to widespread poverty, 70% of Moroccans wish to emigrate. An estimated 100,000 migrants cross this strait every year. Migrants save up for years to pay the $700 boat ride to former fishermen turned criminal human smugglers for a chance to make this dream a reality. Many of them fail. An estimated 300,000 people have lost their lives trying to cross the dangerous strait in these tiny boats that offer little security from the treacherous waters in this strait. Spanish officials give the estimate of around a thousand migrants die in the Strait of Gibraltar every year but the math does not add up. Among those who survive the trip, around 20,000 of them are intercepted by border patrol every year. Those who succeed to enter the “European Eden” meet reality with disillusionment, as they face additional obstacles as African migrants in Europe suffer from job, social, and structural discrimination.

Deep in Tanjier's Medina
Deep in Tangier’s medina

Later that evening, our family split up. I was going to the famous Café Hafa with my sister, while my parents went back to the rental home. The crooked alleyways of Tangier’s medina were similar to the ones in Marrakech, besides the upward and downward slopes that reflect the hilly aspects of Northern Morocco. Outside the café, two French tourists took a picture of the sign and decided to leave. Café Hafa is locally known for being a stopping place for the rebel artists of the West, including the Beatles, William Boroughs, the Rolling Stones, Paul Bowls, and Tennessee Williams. That day, however, the café was mostly occupied by locals who had come here to enjoy their Sunday evening enjoying each other’s company or playing parchis, a Spanish board game that is one of the many remnants of the short lived Spanish occupation in Morocco. The name of the location is misleading, as there was no coffee but only tea with a quarter of the local clients smoking hashish, the same drug that helped attract the many Western artists to the international city.

This drug is more than just a tourist attraction, however. For those who cannot stand another day of conventional marginal work but cannot afford the price and risks of illegal immigration, there exists a third option that reconciles the two: dangerous marginal work including cannabis resin production, dealing, and smuggling. Morocco is the world’s largest producer of cannabis resin. Close to Tangiers, in the Rif area of Northern Morocco, a plot of land half the size of Rhode Island, around 134,000 hectares is dedicated to Cannabis production. 10,000 tons of cannabis resin is produced in the Rif every year among which 1,000 tons get intercepted by authorities on its way to Europe. This forms a huge part of the informal economy in Morocco that makes over 40% of Morocco’s GDP. It is not without its harmful effects, as scientists note how this huge cannabis production has done terrible harm to an already fragile and arid ecosystem. Privatization has pushed many Moroccan men into this dangerous path in order to make ends meet at the expense of the environment and accelerating the widespread notion in Europe that Moroccans are nefarious drug smugglers. Environmentally, economically, and socially, globalization has taken its toll on the country and its people.

Locals relax and drink tea at Cafe Hafa

The café itself lies outdoors on a cliff and brags an amazing view of the strait of Gibraltar. On the descending terrace were small green tables and plastic chairs. Although the majority of the cliental at the café were overwhelmingly men, sitting on the table next to us were a couple of girls who were also unabashedly smoking hashish. Their names were Asmae and Salma which I would soon find out as my much more sociable sister would soon get bored of talking to me. She decided to inquire whether they were also “Moroccan” tourists or local Tanjawis. Interestingly enough, the answer turned out to be both. They were sisters who emigrated to Marseille when they were both kids and have come back to visit their extended family. I broke my silence by questioning whether they ever saw themselves coming back permanently.

“For what? What future would I have by coming back here?” the older sister, Asmae, responded as if I had asked a pointless and offensive question.

After ashing her roach on the ashtray and sensing some tension, Salma decided to clarify, “But that doesn’t mean we’ll ever forget where we came from”.

After all, had my father never braved the journey to America, I could have been the one serving mint tea for a feeble income.

They were certainly not alone. Remittances, money coming from former citizens living in foreign nations as immigrants, form a huge part of Morocco’s economy. Every year, $72 billion comes out from France, Spain, and other European nations and into the pockets of the financially burdened families of Morocco. Most of this aid has shown counter-cyclical tendencies; they are helping their families in their times of need. The remittances from the migrants who have braved the journey to Europe make up around a tenth of Morocco’s GDP. My father was one of them; for 20 years he would send his parents money from the United States in order to ensure their well-being. Although these remittances provide a safety to some of the most vulnerable of Moroccan society, they pale in comparison to the huge amount of welfare needed to alleviate the misery found throughout the country.

Moroccan mint tea forms an important part of the daily Moroccan diet

Our green tea stuffed in mint leaves had finally arrived on a metal platter. The server was around my age and scurried around the café going up and down the terrace to get the clients their drinks on time. Few seemed to tip, and if they did it would be in ten cent coins. Knowing there was no way he could provide for himself on this feeble income, I wondered what was the story that was behind his stubborn existence. Was he smuggler? A drug dealer? A fisherman? Did he still live with his parents? In fear of patronizing him, I didn’t dare ask. After all, had my father never braved the journey to America, I could have been the one serving mint tea for a feeble income.

While my sister was busy talking to our new acquaintances, I zoned out while watching the faded landmass at the opposite of the strait. It was for this very view that I asked my father to bring us to this city. Five centuries ago, my ancestors made the same crossing but in the opposite direction to escape the Reconquista. Although the shore clearly exists, there is something about the way fog blurred the landmass that made me think it is nothing more than an illusion. That illusion, however, suddenly seemed so real and close as I realized I also took part in this mortal dream of a better life. As I looked at around me and saw the other customers, I recognized the irony of the situation; I had come here to get closer to my homeland, while they had come here to dream of an escape from it. To most of these idle tea drinkers, the freedoms and opportunities I had been given since I was born are everything they envision one day having, maybe by risking their lives trying to attain it.

Another remnant from the Spanish occupation
An old, inoperative movie theater from the Spanish occupation in Tangier’s medina

This realization soon turned to horror as I came to the logical conclusion that I was also in part responsible for their suffering. This situation is not just present in Morocco but in the entire developing world. It is because of globalization that I can afford my food through the backs of the low wage workers in Morocco who provide the phosphates used to fertilize the world’s crops. It is because of globalization that I can afford the jeans made by mistreated workers in Bangladesh. As an American, I reap all the benefits. As marginalized workers from the developing world, they suffer. And when they try to escape their suffering, they are treated like pests. Like roaches swarming into the kitchen at night. Cast aside and ashed like the butts of hashish cigarettes.

In the era where immigrants around the world are demonized and discriminated against, it’s important to understand the root causes. These immigrants aren’t risking their lives for the simple thrill of it. They are pushed into it by the forces of poverty, globalization and the remnants of colonialism. In fact, globalization seems little more than a synonym for colonialism. The capitalist ideology of the Europeans has continued to benefit the West and disadvantage the workers and resources of Morocco. Through the need to modernize the country, public officials have lost sight of what real wealth is. Real wealth is a full belly, a decent job and an educated daughter. It certainly is not the rise of an arbitrary number like GDP that coincides little if anything with the status of the average Moroccan. The will to survive and thrive has forced many to either plan a way out or involve themselves in either demeaning work, illegal work or both. Scapegoating will not help, and if nothing is done to improve the situation, Europe will find themselves in a moral matrix. Europe is at the moral crossroads where their new liberal ideology is being brutally tested by the very same conditions they have created a century ago. Whether these ideals will stand up to this test remains to be seen.


Aksikas, Jaafar. “Prisoners of Globalization: Marginality, Community and the New Informal Economy in Morocco.”Mediterranean Politics, 2007, Web.

Amiar, J. From Morocco to Spain: A 10-Mile Boat Ride On a Moonless Night. Questia, 1992, Web.

Bouoiyour, J., & Miftah, A. The effects of remittances on poverty and inequality: Evidence from rural southern morocco. St. Louis: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis. 2014, Web.

Carling, Jørgen. “Unauthorized Migration from Africa to Spain.” Academic Search Premier, 2007, Web.

Chouvy, and Afsahi. “Hashish Revival in Morocco.” International Journal of Drug Policy, 2014, Web.

Fraerman, A. Immigration: Moroccan Migrants Try, Try Again to Enter Spain. Global Information Network, 2005, Web.

“Morocco Works to Ensure Future Economic Growth.” Oxford Business Group, 2015, Web.

Smolin, Jonathan. “Burning the Past: Moroccan Cinema of Illegal Immigration.” South Central Review, 2011, Web.

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    I am a Rollins College undergraduate Economics student. Although I was born in Kissimmee, I have lived half my life in my ancestral homeland, Morocco. I enjoy writing about travel and the differences between cultures across international lines.

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