(MENAFN - AFP) In the poor Tangiers suburb of Boukhalef, cramped apartment blocks house hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants dreaming of reaching Europe, but tragedy has turned it into a flashpoint for racial tensions in Morocco.
During a police raid earlier this month, a young Cameroonian called Cedric was chased onto the roof of one of the four-storey buildings and then fell to his death.
It was the second such death in two months, after a Senegalese man fell from his fourth-floor flat in October during another police raid.
The raids came despite a promise from the government of a new immigration policy to address concerns expressed by King Mohamed VI about the treatment of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
After the second incident, angry fellow migrants carried the Cameroonian's body through Boukhalef's streets protesting police "crimes" against their ranks.
Four days later, some 100 Moroccan residents staged a counter-demonstration under the gaze of police, chanting: "We are not racist, but we don't want blacks living here."
A former flatmate of Cedric, another Carmeroonian named Telly, said he and his friends were surprised and upset by the rising hostility.
"It's the first time this has happened. And we are really afraid now because we don't know what to expect," the 23-year-old said.
"We feel the police are trying to chase us out of Tangiers," a city that lies only a short boat trip from the southern tip of Spain.
Boubker el-Khamlichi of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights blasted the treatment of the migrants as "savage". He charged that it was a deliberate bid -- with backing from Europe -- to deter them from attempting the crossing.
"It's a policy. It really is a way of pressuring the migrants to leave voluntarily. Europe is giving money to Morocco to play the role of policeman," Khamlichi said.
"We don't know whether or not Cedric was thrown by the police. But the reality is, there have been three deaths as a result of raids by the police. They are responsible."
Tangiers police chief Abdellah Belahfid declined to comment on Cedric's death, saying the public prosecutor had ordered an inquiry.
But he denied his force was bowing to any European pressure to stop the flow of illegal migrants.
"The raids are a part of routine police operations, because among the immigrants there are networks involved in the trafficking of hard drugs," Belahfid told AFP.
In November, the government said that an "exceptional operation" would take place in the new year to sort out the status of some of the tens of thousands of sub-Saharans residing illegally in Morocco.
But the country is clearly struggling to cope with the tide of migrants hoping for a better life in Europe, most of whom arrive in Morocco through neighbouring Algeria.
In the first week of December alone, more than 200 migrants were arrested as they boarded boats along the Tangiers coast in their bid to reach Spanish soil, state media reported.
Rights activists say that to thwart attempted crossings, authorities have rounded up hundreds of migrants, sometimes violently, and bussed them hundreds of kilometres (miles) farther south to Rabat or Casablanca.
On a single day last week, 200 migrants picked up from Tangiers or nearby Nador were dumped on the streets of the capital Rabat, said Hicham Rachidi, founder of migrant support group GADEM.
Some had serious injuries sustained during the police operations, he told AFP.
"They drop them off next to the police headquarters, and tell them to go and ask the NGOs for help."
Rachidi called for urgent implementation of the government's promised immigration changes.
"We need a new approach, a new mentality and new officials, or a retraining of the officials who applied the old policies," he said.
"There are 65,000 members of the auxiliary forces. When you leave people like that to just round up illegal immigrants, without training, guidance or procedures, it's difficult to avoid abuses."
Other incidents have fuelled the fears of sub-Saharan migrants. Activists say a Congolese resident of Tangiers died in July after a police officer pushed him from a bus as he was being deported to the Algerian border.
And in August a Senegalese man was stabbed to death at the central bus station in Rabat.
In Boukhalef, meanwhile, dozens of migrants -- unable to work without any official status -- bide their time in the streets under the suspicious gaze of Moroccan residents.
"I left my country because of dictatorship," says Ibrahima, 36, from Gambia.
"For more than a year I have been waiting for refugee status. Without it, how can I survive?"
"If I go and ask for a job on that building site, they want to see my residency permit," he adds, pointing to a mosque under construction across the street.