Miguel tells me he still lives at home. So does his twin. They are 28 years old. Both brothers began working a decade ago, but have not been able to save up enough for their own apartment. Barcelona is expensive. Their parents live on the outskirts, near the airport. Miguel recites an array of numbers; unemployment figures that seem magical and unreal. Twenty-five percent of Spain’s working age population is unemployed, he says. Near three quarters of Spain’s young are unemployed. Four of five Spaniards between the ages of 16 and 29 live with their parents. The numbers define their lives.
One of the most striking aspects of unemployment in Spain is that one in four of Europe’s unemployed live in that country. It is the center of European unemployment.
Across the Mediterranean Sea, in Fez, Morocco, Mohammed tells me he cannot afford to get married. Money comes in for the jobs he does, but it does not accumulate. It vanishes to settle the bills of everyday life. We were talking the day after Eid al-Fitr, in late June. Neither of us mentioned the outbreak of violence in the town of al-Hoceima, north of us in Fez, in the area known as the Rif. This violence goes back to an incident last October, when a fish seller, Mouhcine Fikri, was crushed to death in a garbage compactor. He had gone to recover 1,000 pounds of swordfish that had been confiscated by the police. The demonstrations spread rapidly across the country. What motivated people was frustration with the hogra or police abuse, but also unemployment, poverty and inequality. On Eid, the police went after protesters with vehemence. Slogans for decent jobs and steady livelihoods were met not with understanding, but with police violence.
Miguel tells me that his fiancé, Isabel, had studied at university and now works at one of the tourist hotels on Las Ramblas. A college degree did not help her. Nor did it help Mohammed. Both are buffeted by the same kind of insecurity that strikes Miguel.
Mohammed, Miguel and Isabel, on two sides of the sea, represent a common reality: an undignified future produced by an unequal economic and political system.
Recently, the World Bank released a report in Rabat (Morocco’s capital) about the unemployment situation in the country. The report provides evidence of the indifference of the global intellectuals who staff such institutions as the World Bank. Moroccan youth, the World Bank analysts noted, should reduce their ambitions and take less paying jobs than they would expect. Because Moroccan youth have high expectations, the World Bank suggests, and because they are ‘overcome by a feeling of hopelessness,’ more than 28 percent of Moroccan youth wish to migrate.
But in Spain and other parts of Europe, the Moroccans discover people like Miguel and Isabel, and through them the harsh reality of joblessness even in Europe. Colectivo Ioé, a Spanish think tank, found that the unemployment rate for Moroccans rose astronomically from 16.6 percent before the current economic crisis to 50.7 percent today. One in three Moroccans are unemployed in Spain. Moroccan migrants have now been returning home. But the situation they find there is equally perilous.
Earlier this year, the International Labour Organisation released a report that showed the endless trends of increased unemployment. The number of unemployed globally will increase this year to total 201 million, an increase of 3.4 million unemployed people from last year. These are deflated numbers. They are merely an indication of reality. It is impossible to know actually how many people are unemployed or barely employed.
The numbers of the working poor are set to increase even more dramatically, by five million people over the next two years. ILO reports that half of the workers in South Asia live in extreme or moderate poverty, while two thirds of the workers in Sub-Saharan Africa live in extreme or moderate poverty. These are the people with jobs. Having a job is not sufficient as an indicator of being outside poverty.
Morocco’s Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani hastened to call for development projects in the Rif to undercut the agitations. ‘We should meet our citizen’s expectations,’ he said in late June after the Eid unrest. But these dramatic development projects do little to provide jobs or hope for people. A full year before the demonstrations of last year, King Mohammed VI launched the al-Hoceima Manarat al-Motawasit development project. The plan includes an increase in tourism through better infrastructure and by the creation of health and cultural facilities. None of this has come to fruition. Tourism and real estate bubbles will not provide a sustainable future for the unemployed and the working poor. Certainly health centers and cultural centers are valuable additions to the social life of the people, but they will not be sufficient. More is needed.
Barcelona’s Mayor Ada Colau, a housing activist of the left is, on the other hand, committed to cooling down her city’s tourism industry. The massive growth of the sector has overheated housing prices and set adrift the city’s working residents. No wonder Miguel and Isabel cannot find an apartment. ‘If we don’t want to end up like Venice,' Colau told El Pais, ‘we will have to put some kind of limit in Barcelona.’ Limits to tourism could protect housing prices, but do not answer the problem of poverty and unemployment.
African and South Asian migrants sell trinkets on the street, laid out on blankets that can be hastily gathered up when the police come to arrest them. These men are known as mantero because their blanket (la manta) is their most important instrument. They want to create a cooperative with rights to sell in the city. Good intentions are necessary, but the hard realities of business interests and property rights suffocate Colau’s agenda.
Migration is one option for the desolate unemployed. Another is to enter the subterranean economies such as the production of drugs or the traffic of weapons and people. The Sahara Desert is illustrative of these choices. From Gao (Mali) to Agadez (Niger) upwards to Sabna (Libya) runs a circuit that absorbs young men into the jobs of traffickers who cart other young men and women along dangerous routes to futile destinations. These are all young people leading each other up into dead ends.
Battered trucks leave Gao for the Libyan coastline, taking a week to travel across dangerous terrain held by gunmen from rival gangs and al-Qaeda. One area of Gao is known as Cocainebougou, Cocaine Town, from where caravans of Colombian coke move across the desert. Employment is available here as gunmen, carters, drivers, sex workers. Growth is evident; money is there to be made. But dignity is absent. Hardness is in the faces.
Neither Miguel, Isabel or Mohammed would thrive here. There are no futures here, merely an endless, torturous present.
Mohammed is not interested in migration. He is content in Morocco. When I ask him about the Moroccans who go to Europe, he smiles. ‘Europeans came to Morocco without a visa,’ he says. I have heard this line many times. It is a bitter reminder of the colonial conquest. Malcolm X used to say, ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,’ where the English pilgrims landed in North America. Of the enslaved Africans, Malcolm X said, ‘Plymouth Rock landed on us.’ European colonizers came to Morocco without a visa, now it is the turn of the Moroccans to go to Europe without one. But the one came with a sword and took by force. The other comes with great vulnerability, as dispossessed as the people they find in Europe. People such as Miguel and Isabel.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.