1st July, 2000
This month Moroccans commemorate
the first anniversary of their king Mohammed VI's accession.
But while many celebrate, Nick Pelham outlines the plight of
homeless children and child slaves
child dangles on a rope strung to the top of a six-metre high
bulwark of cement that keeps Casablanca port free of its poor.
For Omar, a street-child aged ten, the rope is a lifeline. Over
the ramparts, scores of tankers hold the promise of stowing
away to Europe.
Dozens of children climb the rope every night to flee the misery
of street-life in Morocco. In a country where the king has 23
palaces, the child charity, Bayti, Arabic for home, estimates
more than 10,000 children in Casablanca alone are now homeless.
Until recently, all were male. Now girls stalk the street with
the gangs - a motley crew of abandoned children, runaway child
maids, and the rejects of broken homes. Children as young as
six live a life on the run from police hunting for children
to dump in borstals run by the Ministry of Youth and Sports.
The lucky find refuge in the fishing harbour, a safe haven from
police round-ups. Sleeping on the roofs of makeshift huts, or
under the counters of the fish market, at night the foul smell
of 'solution', or glue, competes with that of rotten sardine.
Children stumble like drunks at the quayside, sniffing sobs
laced in glue. Morocco - better known for its tourist-luring
beaches and medieval sites - is hardly alone in facing the problem.
It is estimated that in Africa as a whole, two in five children
under 15 are working. And around the world the total is likely
to be some 250 million. But in few Muslim countries has urbanisation
reaped such a toll on traditional family values.
are raising their children for sale. They send them
to work in the towns, and never see them except
to collect their pay-packets'
The neglect of Morocco's street-children is just the tip of
the iceberg of Morocco's child crisis. Across the kingdom, I
encountered dozens of children treated as commodities, just
as the slave trade of old.
'Parents are raising their children for sale,' says Bashir
Nzaggi, news editor with the respected Moroccan newspaper, Liberation.
'They send them to work in the towns, and never see them
except to collect their pay-packets.'
According to a recent government survey, 2.5 million children
aged under 15 drop out of school, and more than half a million
work. Many pursue the tradition of toil in the fields. But in
exchange of $30 a month, tens of thousands of parents are now
contracting their children to urban families to work as domestic
servants in conditions of near slavery. Dealers earn up to $200
per child. It's so institutionalized that kitchens are still
designed with low counters for child-maids to wash and cut vegetables.
of Moroccans live in regions where state services
fail to reach'
Social Services Social workers say most parents regret the loss
of their children, but argue they had little choice. Millions
of Moroccans live in regions where state services fail to reach.
There are no accurate figures for the numbers of child maids,
but social acceptance ensures the practice is widespread. Non-Governmental
Organization's say the state must regulate the trade, ensure
children and parents receive 'security guarantees' from their
employers, and perform regular inspections. 'In Morocco,
a home is considered a castle,' says Najjat Majid, the founder
of Bayti. 'We have no right to enter homes, even when we
know maids are being abused.' Sixty per cent of the children
in her refuge, she says, are victims of sexual abuse. Under
Morocco's strict Islamic family law, the state treats pregnant
child-maids as the accused. Abortion is illegal, and single
mothers giving birth in hospital are reported to the police.
As the numbers of child slaves grow, so does the clandestine
trade. A mere eight miles from Europe in Tangiers, brokers direct
the cross-water traffic. Children are dispatched to climb onto
the chassis of trucks loaded with hashish for southern Spain.
Minors are preferable - if they're caught they're harder to
prosecute than adults. Moroccan immigration officers say each
year they uncover children frozen to death in refrigerated lorries.
But the organisation is not just at ports. Across Morocco, cottage
industries seek to cut costs by replacing adults with child
workers. Shoe-shining seven year-olds hire their shoe-shine
boxes from Fagin-types for seven dirhams [70 cents] a day. And
prostitution is often a step-up from penury. The US State department
report says there are tens of thousands of child prostitutes
in Morocco, serving the cities and military barracks.
Increasingly, Morocco's reputation for child sex is luring an
international clientele. Sex tourists from the West tout the
old slave markets of Marrakech to buy sex with children. But
now an export market has also begun to emerge. Last year, police
in a market town in the plains north of Marrakech, bust a network
trafficking in 13-year old boys destined for brothels in Italy.
Police arrested the dealer, who had - said reports - paid parents
$3,000 per child.
'We are determined to pursue a course of progress and development
for all Moroccans, in particular the poor,' King Mohammed
VI promised his people in his first speech on the throne. Crowds
hailed the young monarch as 'king of the poor'. But after a
year on the throne, the problem has only got worse. His prime
minister, the leftist leader Abderrahmane Youssifi, was elected
on a ticket of social reform, but has failed to change the law
where vagrancy is treated as a crime, not a social disease.
And the credibility of both king and his prime minister are
suffering, as they fail to protect the very communities they
promised to save.
magazine lists the King of Morocco as one of the
richest men in the world. And yet more than five
million Moroccans live on less than a dollar a day.