TANGIER, Morocco (Reuters) - African emigrants are defying a campaign by Morocco to keep them away from land and sea crossings to Spain, which has become the main entry point to Europe for migrants and refugees following crackdowns elsewhere.
Moroccan police conduct regular raids of areas popular with people from elsewhere in Africa and have bussed thousands to the other end of the country since 800 people stormed a fence to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in northern Morocco in July.
The transports drew criticism from human rights groups after two men from Mali died en route and Reuters has found that many people have simply returned, hiding in forests or back streets of the main city of Tangier and planning their escape to Spain.
"We came to Morocco to stay in the north until the time was right to force our way through the Ceuta fence. We have no other choice," said Aboubakar, a 25-year-old sociology graduate from Guinea who withheld his surname for fear of repercussions.
His account and those of his companions sleeping in a forest overlooking the poor Tangier neighbourhood of Mesnana show how hard it is to stop people who are determined to cross to Europe.
The number of people fleeing war or poverty in Africa, the Middle East and Asia who cross to the European Union has dropped to about 80,000 this year from more than a million in 2015, but the issue is divisive and has bolstered far-right and other anti-establishment groups.
And as Italy closes its ports to most asylum-seekers, more are entering Spain. So far this year 38,852 people have followed that route, U.N. data shows, at least twice as many as the same period of 2017. More than 310 have died at sea.
The vast majority come via Morocco, which foiled a further 54,000 illegal migration attempts by August, Khalid Zerouali, migration and border control director at the Interior ministry, told Reuters.
"We received tip-offs that trafficking networks were emboldened after the July crossing into Ceuta and were preparing large-scale assaults on security forces at the border this summer," he said.
The North African kingdom is a destination in itself and has granted 56,000 residency permits to foreigners, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, since it reformed its migration policy in 2013.
Some of these people now say they have been forced from their homes, caught up in the campaign to stop illegal migration. Zerouali said Morocco was under enormous pressure.
While some migrants try to reach Ceuta and another Spanish enclave, Melilla, others pay smugglers to put them on boats, as Spain is just 14 km across the western end of the Mediterranean.
Countries can return people arriving irregularly if asylum requests are refused. Yet when the fence was stormed again in August, Spain returned more than 100 people en masse, drawing criticism from rights groups; Madrid said it followed protocols.
The incident held echoes of an earlier spike in border stormings in 2005 accompanied by expulsions from Spain. Human rights groups accused Morocco of bussing people into the desert.
The new mass return is a sign of the sensitivity of the migrant issue in Spain, one of a dwindling number of European countries where the public has not turned against immigration.
Opposition politicians said the expulsions clashed with the tone set by new Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez when he welcomed a ship full of migrants turned away by Italy in June.
No far-right party has been in parliament since Spain's right-wing dictatorship ended in 1975 but the nationalist Vox party has criticised Sanchez over migration and his government's minority means a new election may come before it is due in 2020.
Morocco, which other Africans can visit without visas, became the main launchpad for Europe in July after Italy's tougher line and EU aid to the Libyan coastguard stemmed flows from Libya, where people-smugglers had thrived.
"The presence of some nationalities that in the past had mainly passed through Libya indicate that some migratory flows may have shifted to the Western Mediterranean route," the European border agency Frontex said on Friday.
Reuters found a dozen migrants hiding in the forest near Tangier some 70 km from Ceuta -- sleeping rough on blankets.
Some had entered Morocco legally and either worked as day labourers or farm hands or begged on the streets to save enough to pay smugglers for the boat trip.
"We were arrested in our houses early in the morning in late August, taken for identification at a police station and then handcuffed and forced into a bus," said Aliou, a Guinean national, asking like others not to use his full name.
He had to leave all his belongings in his rented apartment in Tangier. "We were given just one sandwich on the 10-hour trip before being abandoned near the city of Tiznit," he said.
Six days later he and other migrants managed to return to the forest near Tangier but they expect authorities to come back any time in what migrants call a "black man hunt", because it excludes Moroccans and Syrians who also try to cross to Spain.
At a much larger makeshift camp opposite the bus station of commercial hub Casablanca, some 300 km south of Tangier, people said they were on their way back north after being bussed south.
Mamadou, a young man from Cameroon who came via Algeria, said he had tried to scale the Ceuta fence in July, but had hurt his leg. He was bussed to the southern city of Agadir, but scraped together enough money for a bus ticket to Casablanca.
"Now, I will stay here until I get a ticket to go back to the north to pursue my dream of reaching Europe," he said inside a tent made of remnants of wooden boxes and blankets.
Authorities described the bussing of people from the border as a crackdown on trafficking gangs, and called on the European Union for more help. The European Commission promised more money to help Spain and Morocco cope last month, but declined to give a figure, saying funds were limited.
Morocco, like other North African countries, rejects an idea suggested by some European officials that it should host centres to decide on asylum requests outside the EU.
"When we find a paperless Sub-Saharan who is preparing to cross the border illegally we just remove him from the north to other cities," Zerouali said. "It is better for them to be sent to a city such as Marrakech than stay in the forests surrounding Tangier."
Seventy-four trafficking networks had been dismantled since January, he said, adding that the kingdom spends at least 200 million euros annually to keep its borders safe. He dismissed reports of human rights violations, saying that sending migrants to the south "takes place in full compliance with the law".
Human rights groups say the campaign is an indiscriminate and forcible displacement violating freedom of movement.
Citing figures from local groups, Amnesty International said some 5,000 Sub-Saharans had been put on buses without checking their legal status, and abandoned in remote areas.
A coalition of Sub-Saharan community associations in Morocco (ASCOMS) said "excessive use of force" during expulsions caused the deaths of two Malians last month. Officials reject this account.
In the Tangier district of Branes where many sub-Saharans live, Aissatou Barry, who has been in Morocco for eight years after fleeing Ivory Coast, said police raided her house at 5 a.m. on Aug. 9.
Even though she has a residency card, she said she and her children were taken with others to a police station and only let go later in the day. When she returned to the house she rents for 410 euros per month, her valuables had been stolen.
She said she filed a complaint about the raid to the regional human rights council; the council said it had received complaints from Barry in the past, but declined further details.
Barry, who founded the Ponts Solidaires association to help migrants integrate in Morocco and give up the idea of the risky sea crossing, said she felt humiliated.
"I have always considered Morocco my home, now after this raid I no longer feel so," she said.
(Additional reporting by Isla Binnie in MADRID and Gabriela Bacynska in BRUSSELS; editing by Ulf Laessing and Philippa Fletcher)