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Moroccans dream of being 'far away'

An African migrant at a short stay immigrant center in Melilla, Spain.

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Kai Ryssdal: The United States isn't the only country trying to figure out how to cope with tricky immigration issues. German officials are considering easing up on requirements for work visas. Businesses there have been pushing hard for it as a way to plug holes in their labor market.

Here's another case in point: For the past year the European Union has been spending $5,000 an hour for air and sea patrols of the African coast. They're trying to stop illegal immigrants heading north. The E.U.'s also spending money trying to persuade people to just stay home.

John Laurenson reports from one popular point of departure for many illegal migrants leaving Morocco.

John Laurenson: A train full of rock rumbles through from the mines on its way to the port at Casablanca. But Khouribga, Phosphate City, is also a center of illegal migration — that desperate lunge for a better life that they call, in Arabic, the "hrig."

In the dusty streets the kids play skipping games. Their elder brothers, even those with jobs, dream of escape. Ahmed is 21 years old.

Ahmed [interpreter]: I'd like to leave but I can't afford it. I'm a mason. I earn $40 a week, which is what I need to live on. To get to Europe you need $1,300 for the frontier runners. My father's dead. There's only my mother left and my little brothers. They need me to emigrate. It's the only way they can get a better life.

Ahmed shrugs when I ask him about the dangers. But 5,000 people have drowned these past eight years trying to cross the sea to Europe. Fatima-Zarah is 22 but she already looks old.

Fatima-Zarah [interpreter]: I'm from a village outside Khourigba. One day a people smuggler came offering to take people to Italy in an inflatable boat. We found the money. We paid him $4,000. But the boat sank. My husband and 54 others drowned.

Khouribga Migration Radio, set up last year to try to stop these casualties. Part of a $2 million joint E.U.-Italian aid program that also helps illegals who've been sent home. With its broadcasts on the Internet, Migration Radio set out to break a taboo and talk about the dangers and disappointments of illegal migration.

Paco, one of the presenters, got his Spanish nickname from his first trip to Europe. It was the name of the coastguard who fished him out of the Straits of Gibraltar. His boat had sunk. He was drowning. The Spaniard saved his life. Then sent him home. Back in Morocco, this former street vendor joined the Association of Families of the Victims of Illegal Immigration, AFVIC by its French acronym, and became an inspiration for young people in Khouribga and beyond. But now Paco has gone.

Leila El Maqass, his co-presenter, says she still can't believe it. Paco went to Europe on a tourist visa. It expired. Weeks ago. And he's still not come home. The star of the struggle against the "hrig" has done what he's spent the past years telling other Moroccans not to do: migrate illegally to Europe. For AFVIC's president Khalil Jemmah, Paco's departure is the last straw.

"We've failed," he says. "There's just too much stacked against us. Pick tomatoes all day in Morocco and you get $4. In Spain, you get $40." And, he says, it's not just the wage gap that's driving migrants out of Africa but corruption, nepotism, and lack of democracy.

Even the songs encourage people to emigrate, like this one called "Leave For Far Away."

The trouble is, says Khalil Jemmah, the people best qualified to build a better country are the first to go. That's why he's got to keep fighting the "hrig." But differently this time. In September, he's launching a new section of AFVIC called Morocco Watch — $120,000 of E.U. backing. A human rights and corruption watchdog. Instead of just trying to persuade people to stay, they're going to pressure the people in charge in Morocco to make this a country worth staying in.

In Khouribga, I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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