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Morocco's biggest European export: people

Thousands flood Spain annually, fueling the economy and raising security concerns.

Omar was 17 when he stole aboard a freight truck in Tangier, Morocco. Determined to find a different life, he burrowed into the truck's cargo - piles of women's underwear - to hide.

Soon, he discovered another boy, also seeking passage out of Morocco, hiding there. As the truck boarded the ferry to cross the straits of Gibraltar, border police caught that young man. Omar went undetected. Within hours he was in Murcia, where he joined the hundreds of thousands of Moroccans who have immigrated illegally to Spain.

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Just eight watery miles from Tangier, Spain is the primary entryway to Europe for the approximately 30,000 Moroccans who emigrate each year. Around 4 million Moroccans live abroad - roughly 12 percent of the country's population. Spain is home to Europe's second largest Moroccan community.

The reasons for this exodus, says Mehdi Lahlou, a professor of economics at Rabat's National Institute of Statistics and Economics, are readily apparent: poverty and unemployment. "Thirty years ago, when the economic levels of Spain and Morocco were the same, Moroccans didn't emigrate there," says Mr. Lahlou. "But now the economic difference between Spain and Morocco is 20 to 1."

Morocco's gross national product per inhabitant is just $3,600 - barely a sixth of Spain's. Its unemployment rate, nearly 20 percent in urban areas, is more than twice that of its northern neighbor. And differences in healthcare and social opportunities echo the countries' economic gap: Moroccans, on average, live 10 years less than Spaniards, and barely half can read, while 97 percent of Spaniards are literate.

For Spain, Morocco's emigrant tide is both boon and threat. It bolsters the economy by bringing countless workers who will take jobs Spaniards no longer want, but it also raises concerns within local Spanish communities about security, unemployment, and social stability.

Despite the perception in Spain that Moroccan immigrants tend to be impoverished illiterates prone to crime, Moroccans who emigrate are not that country's most destitute citizens. "It costs 5,000 or 6,000 euros to emigrate," says Lahlou, "so they tend to come from the mid-skilled classes, not from the poorest."

More than anything else, it is a perceived lack of opportunity that encourages citizens to leave their country. In his recent film, "Tarfaya," Moroccan director Daoud Aoulad Syad chronicled one girl's perilous attempts to gain illegal passage to the Canary Islands. "Most of the people in Tarfaya dream of being somewhere else. That's why they all have satellite dishes. They're not watching Moroccan TV, they're watching French and Spanish, aspiring to be somewhere else," says Mr. Syad.

The fact that so many Moroccans dream of leaving significantly threatens Morocco's economic development, social well-being, and political stability. "Every year Morocco loses two to three percent of its GNP to brain drain," says Lahlou. "Every year we lose between 3,000 and 5,000 professors, doctors, and engineers annually."

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This loss means fewer well-educated, ambitious citizens who could help lead their country. But there is an irony here, for if through emigration Morocco loses capital in some forms, it gains it through the money its emigrants send back to their families. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund reports that a full 9 percent of Morocco's GNP comes from remittances - a percentage far greater than the 1.66 percent sent home by Mexicans working in the US.

This dilemma may help explain why the Moroccan government can seem ambivalent about its policy on illegal emigration. "We don't have oil," says Nouzha Chekrouni, Minister for Moroccans Living Abroad. "Our greatest resource, our most valuable export, is our human potential. Europe needs our emigrants."

At the insistence of many European countries, however, Morocco has stepped up efforts to control what it terms "clandestine emigration." Chakri Draiss, Morocco's civil governor in Laayoune, notes that in his region alone, 4,000 illegal emigrants were captured in the first six months of the year. "We've also created mixed patrols with the Spanish Civil Guard so that the Spanish can see our efforts."

Ms. Chekrouni, however, sees economic development as the key to curbing illegal emigration, and she says that Europe's crackdown is counter-productive. "Security is not the only answer," she says. "It only increases the efforts of the mafia who traffic in immigrants."

For its part, Spain recently adopted a policy of returning to Morocco within 24 hours all apprehended illegal immigrants. But since the policy applies to adults only - minors can stay - the number of Moroccan immigrant minors in Spain has skyrocketed.

On his first day in Spain, Omar was picked up by a lawyer who drove him to an immigrant asylum center. Eventually he landed at La Merced, a center in Madrid supported by a religious order and run by Father PĂ©rez, who ensures the home's residents - immigrants under 18 - learn Spanish, acquire vocational skills, and achieve the ability to navigate Spanish culture.

Today, Omar (who didn't want his last name published) has residency papers and works as a gardener. He is not wholly enamored of his job and hopes one day to have his own business. Now 21, he appreciates the freedoms that Spain offers - especially when it comes to going out at night and meeting girls. But he misses his family, and he often wonders if he made the right choice.

"If I knew then what I know now," he says wistfully, "I wouldn't have come. I would have stayed there and finished my studies."