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October 13, 2017 was a busy Wednesday evening at the regional police depot in Al-Hassani, a south-western suburb of Casablanca. Officers were busy filing a slate of missing persons reports: 15 children between 13 and 15 years old had vanished, and as parent after parent flocked to the station, they all recounted ominously similar stories.
According to Moroccan news outlet Assabah, the 15 missing children had organised an exodus together. Many had sold their clothes, watches, and phones to raise money for a journey to Europe. And all of them had the same online connection – they were following a popular vlogger going by the moniker ‘Didi’, whose posts, the reports alleged, were inciting young people to leave for Europe via the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. The Moroccan police department did not respond to a request for comment about Assabah’s report.
Didi is a young Moroccan from the northern city of Meknes. (Only the YouTubers’ first names or nicknames have been used throughout this article, to avoid publicising their channels). He had been posting videos on YouTube since early 2017, many of them focused on irregular migration. Didi himself went through the Ceuta gateway and, after travelling through much of Europe, ended up in Sweden. There, he forged a life with support from fellow migrants and an older Swedish friend who helped him navigate the Nordic bureaucracy and language. Many of Didi’s videos covered the mundane, such as discussing the cost of living and his dating life – but they were also frequently peppered with detailed operational information about crossing into Europe from Morocco.
In one video, with more than 40,000 views, Didi nonchalantly walks across a Swedish car park while describing his passage into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. In front of several big lorries, he points to where in the truck you can hide and likely survive, how much time crossing takes and which vehicles are better as hideouts for people hoping to enter Europe. Didi currently lives in Spain, where he found refuge with a fellow countryman after Sweden rejected his asylum application. He says he had no interest in instigating people to migrate, and that he just wanted to make videos.
Since 2017, we have come across over two dozen accounts like Didi’s on YouTube – of people from North Africa migrating to Europe and beyond using irregular and often dangerous means, and passing that knowledge onto other users, while blogging about their lives. As this virtual community has grown, online platforms have fostered an ecosystem for migratory networks, central to which are personalities such as Didi and their relatively unfiltered content, standing in contrast with Morocco’s heavily state-dominated media landscape. Some of the most popular accounts have 100,000 followers on YouTube and 40,000 on Instagram.
Like influencers capitalising on their following and engagement, migrant vloggers sometimes monetise their channels through YouTube. Brazil-based “Mourad” tried to make his YouTube channel more sustainable through regular recommendations, occasionally charging fellow YouTubers 50 Euros for a referral, an in-video mention, and a direct link to their channel as a pinned comment. Unlike other influencers, however, whose clout might win them endorsements from fitness or fashion brands, the stakes are much higher when what you’re promoting is irregular migration.
Barring some anecdotal evidence, such as the Casablanca case, it is difficult to ascertain how many people have acted upon this information, which has the risk of making a perilous journey sound much easier than it is. On the other hand, academics, social media platforms and migration agencies believe that sharing information and experiences could sometimes be a powerful tool for migrants and save lives.
Anyone following Didi’s YouTube channel may have also come across “Zizou”, a carefree and charismatic fan of Moroccan rap with a penchant for languages – attributes that have come in handy during a journey that captivated an online community. “You know that movie Prison Break? That’s a reality for me,” he jokes on a WhatsApp call as he travels through South America.
Zizou’s decision to leave Morocco was encouraged by love. He’d grown close to a Texan girl he first met online. They eventually arranged to meet in Brazil – a visa-free destination for Moroccan citizens – to spend more time together, but when they arrived there in September 2017 their relationship broke down. With the romance over, Zizou decided to stay in Brazil – overstaying his 90-day waiver period.
That is when Zizou’s follower base started gathering pace. Most of his videos were apolitical and largely documented daily life in Brazil. His wit and exploits distinguished him from his peers, earning him more views as he manoeuvred around Rio de Janeiro’s gangs and officials. In March 2019, however, when local authorities towed the fast-food cart he used to sell shawarma, a typical Middle Eastern street food, he announced to his followers that that was the last straw for him. Instead of going back home he decided to head north toward the US for a second chance.
Ten countries later, Zizou would arrive at the US-Mexico border, but not without trekking through the notorious Darien Gap, a deadly expanse of forestry between Columbia and Panama, where he would have to disconnect from his followers. However, he gained a companion in “Hassan”, a friend from his hometown Meknes, who watched Zizou’s videos and followed him to Brazil and then on to the US-Mexico border. Hassan made his own videos which often featured him and Zizou going through dangerous experiences. They fell into the hands of Colombia’s largest rebel group the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and lost each other in the Darien Gap. Once out of the jungle, they lasted six days before being captured by the Panama military. They tried to escape, only to be caught again six hours later. Hassan says the journey was worth the dangers. “There is no life back home.”
Like Hassan, other Moroccans have followed Zizou to South America, while a number of Algerians and Tunisians, who speak a similar Arabic dialect, have expressed interest in following in his footsteps. In a video, Zizou introduced a young Moroccan whom he said followed him after watching his posts, and spoke of others that also planned on doing so. Zizou, like Didi, however, is adamant that the perilous journey is not for everyone and that he does not incite people to migrate illegally
We first came across Didi, posting from the Swedish car park, in early 2019. After watching some of his videos, YouTube’s algorithm started suggesting similar videos by other North Africans who had migrated to different countries in Europe, including Italy, Germany, Spain, and Greece. Many of these accounts maintain cross-platform presence, engaging followers on Instagram and Facebook with pieces of advice on how to plan their passage. (For instance one account’s Facebook post explained – with visuals – how to smuggle into a cargo ship by climbing a rope anchor.)
The videos are accompanied by deep comment sections populated by users from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria asking follow-up questions – such as which crossing points to use, or where police are cracking down – and weighed in with the granular details of how to enter Europe through irregular methods. In some cases, comments include people smugglers’ phone numbers. After some time, videos posted by Algerian and Tunisian YouTubers started to emerge, pointing out that the visa waivers between Maghreb countries are useful tools to reach the North African Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melila, a de facto European territory. Algerians travelling to South America can fly to Ecuador, while Tunisians can also fly to Brazil visa-free. Those back-and-forths gradually create detailed, although unstructured, “how-to” guides to migration.
The medium used to exchange information on migration might be new, says Mattia Giampaolo, a researcher at think tank CESPI (Centre for International Political Studies), but informal and friendly networks to facilitate such an exchange have existed in one form or another since restrictions on movement between North Africa and Europe have increased. Social media is a “vehicle to move and give information and establish an immediate contact to the country of arrival,” and is just accelerating something that would happen anyway, says Giampaolo.
“[It’s a] powerful driver,” says Matt Herbert of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, who’s investigated this trend with one of the authors of this article. “Videos of young men in the process of migrating, and successful migrants answering questions demystifies the process. Youth in Tangier or Tunis or Tlemcen can readily visualise what their journey could look like, removing some of the fear of the unknown [that] holds some back.”
Such content created by migrants on migration for an audience of their peers has only emerged to a significant degree in the Maghreb so far, Herbert says. But its appeal and low-production costs may make it pertinent in areas where irregular migration is socially significant.
YouTube says it supports migrants’ rights to bear witness to hardships and challenges, as long as it didn’t encourage illegality. “YouTube’s Community Guidelines prohibit any content encouraging dangerous or illegal activities. We routinely remove videos flagged by our community that violate those policies,” a YouTube spokesperson says.
Facebook’s stance is similar. “People smuggling is illegal and any ads, posts, pages or groups that co-ordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook,” says a company spokesperson.
“However, we do allow people to share information on how to leave a country illegally if this is done so without offers of smuggling services or payment. We do this because the sharing of this information in some instances, could aid escape from life-threatening situations.” The company says it is working with authorities such as Europol to remove and report evidence and revise their policies.
Migration agencies are more concerned about people-smuggling than migrants sharing information.”Social media can be used effectively to give factual and useful information to migrants,”says Annis Cassar, a spokesperson for the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).
The UN-backed International Organisation for Migration also facilitated the “Migrants as Messengers” programme in 2019 for the wide dissemination of migrant voices to their peers. “In the past we have indeed engaged with leading social media companies in an effort to educate them about the issues, the vulnerabilities and to request their direct intervention in specific cases to close social media accounts we know are directly linked to criminals intent on exploiting the dreams of migrants,” agency spokesperson Paul Dillon says. The organisation doesn’t engage in “deterrence” messaging designed to get people to “stay home,” but instead focuses on empowering people to make informed choices.
And some influencers, like Zizou, actually show quite vividly what that choice might entail in some cases. In July 2019 in the middle of the Colombian jungle, he filmed a harrowing scene: a group of migrants crossing a river, forced to navigate past the dead body of a person who had apparently drowned and had been left behind.
“I don’t want anybody to experience what happened to me,” Zizou says. “Maybe you don’t have a life in your country, jobs or a future. But you have a life. You may lose it on this journey.” The video attracted over one million views on YouTube.
Sophia Akram is a freelance journalist. Amine Ghoulidi is a geopolitics researcher at King’s College London
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