Nahrain Al-Mousawi

Khouribga, Morocco: Urban Limbo of European Dreams

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The Italian-style Avola Cafe in Khouribga, Morocco, a town with a growing population of migrants who have returned from Italy. (Photo: Nahrain Al-Mousawi)

Recent news stories and images of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean – what has come to be called a “sea cemetery” – is not new. It’s a recurring, albeit shocking, representation in the archive of clandestine migration.

Clandestine migration has been on the rise since 1995, when several European Union nations enacted the Schengen Accord to soften internal EU borders and fortify external ones. For example, Spain ended Moroccans’ privileged status of entry into Spain without a visa in 1985. But, with clandestine migration, entry into Spain guaranteed passage to nearly any other EU nation – hence the appeal for many Moroccan migrants. Migration to Spain is attempted either through Ceuta and Melilla enclaves on the North African Mediterranean coast, or the Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain.

Buildings in Khouribga, Morocco, a town experiencing urban development as a result of return migrants from Europe. (Photo: Nahrain Al-Mousawi)
The number of Moroccans working abroad, mostly in France, Italy, and Spain, has shot up to more than 3 million from 634,000 in 1992 after the Moroccan economy failed to create enough jobs. But since the EU’s recession, remittances from Moroccans living abroad have been fallingsince 2009. While Moroccans who immigrated to escape widespread poverty are returning from recession-hit Europe and becoming street traders to make ends meet, wealthier migrants who have taken stock of the recession have also returned as entrepreneurs.

In northwestern Morocco, the town of Khouribga, located in the barren phosphate plateau, and the surrounding region are well known for their contribution to the migration flow to Europe, mostly Spain and Italy (Turin, in particular), and their remittances have developed the neglected phosphate-mining and agricultural town despite its isolation from the economic centers of Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangier. “More than 70 percent of the money from emigration is spent on consumption,” saidMohammed Bernoussi, secretary-general for the Ministry of Moroccans Abroad in 2010. “Only seven percent goes to investments in Morocco, which is very little. [And] in Khouribga, everything has been built by emigrants.”

Although migrants have typically returned to build in Khouribga and return to Europe to work and live, the return is more likely to be permanent or open-ended as migrants await the end of the EU’s economic crisis. While return to the homeland – a return migration – has been a key engine of social, political, and economic change in Khouribga, the impact on urban development has been the most visible marker of European influence from its return migrants.

Khouribga’s streets are littered with coffee shops serving not only Moroccan mint tea but espresso, while bearing names such as Cafe Moro and Bella Roma, attesting to a strong link with Italy. Souq Torino is a market of new and second-hand goods from Italy, and in the car market of al-Borj one can find much-coveted foreign and used cars shipped across the Mediterranean from Italy. In terms of material development and rejuvenation, migration has allowed households to invest in housing, agriculture, and other private enterprises.

On the impact of migration in Morocco, well-known migration scholarHein de Haas claims that “migrants’ consumption and investments have stimulated the economies of migrant-sending regions as a whole, from which non-migrants and ‘reverse’ immigrants to emigration areas have indirectly profited through increased employment and income.”

“Through household relocation and increasingly urban-based real estate and business investments, international migrant households simultaneously capitalize on, and actively contribute to, the accelerated urban growth and concentration of economic activities in urban centers mostly located inside or nearby migrant-sending areas.”

A horse and carriage in Khouribga, Morocco. (Photo: Nahrain Al-Mousawi)
In addition to the traditional investments in real estate and agriculture, investments in all kinds of urban service enterprises have become relatively more important. Certainly, local surges in land and real estate prices might have been spurred by migrants’ investments, and migration has contributed to the creation of a new social stratification, with international migrant households forming a new kind of “migration elite.”

The effect of return migration on Khouribga’s public space is not only material, but also symbolic. While for the return migrants, enterprises like cafes and restaurants with Italian names signal the heroic narrative of self-made migrants, the cafes also contribute to the migration culture thriving in Morocco. In Khouribga, they are a visually charged local reminder for others of the material and social prestige potential attached to migration.

The town appears to exhibit reverse enclaves, but rather than revealing the architecture of their homelands, it reveals the architecture of migrancy, one that has reversed its path on the diaspora and returned home, still bearing the marks of its journeys. As opposed to ethnic enclaves, which are perceived to shelter and isolate migrants and ethnic communities from the outside world, Khouribga, as a reverse-enclave town in the making, rather proudly displays its residents’ migrations as a mark of cosmopolitanism. Khouribga’s urban displays of cosmopolitanism and migration exhibit a transnational community in the homeland, displaying the enduring hostland-homeland relations.

The social capital associated with the staging of cosmopolitanism is not always a benefit, since the increase of crime rates associated with migrant return suggests a contestation of the benefits of transnationalism in the community. However, the increase of restaurants and cafes with names like Moro and Venezia and the thriving markets selling Italian goods continue to represent the diffuse markers of mobility upon which aspiring migrants gaze and see themselves reflected elsewhere.

Imagination plays a great role in the process of migration – not only seeing yourself reflected in the place you desire to be, but “polishing …the place of destination in order to see oneself reflected in it.” The structures and sites of migration return ironically facilitate the transformation of Khouribga into a “desiring place” for aspiring migrants. But in the face of Europe’s long-standing crisis, the return to Morocco appears permanent, if not an open-ended enterprise of waiting until the EU economy picks up, and for those who have never left, the EU, compared to Morocco, still appears as a viable working place—one worth waiting for.


This entry was posted on November 27, 2013 by in .