Sitting in his tiny real estate office decorated with framed verses of the Koran on a side street in the Moroccan town of Khouribga, Miat Filati complains that times are tough. Few of the local emigrants returning for holidays – who normally make up half the property market – are buying properties.
“Real estate is in crisis,” he says. “There is plenty of supply and little demand.”
The local property market is not the only challenge facing the mining town of some 180,000 people. Like many other communities across Morocco, Khouribga relies on money sent home by emigrants in Europe. Remittances are Morocco’s second largest source of foreign currency coming after tourism.
But the downturn in Europe has meant that the flow of remittances from Moroccans abroad has shrunk. Transfers from Moroccans abroad dropped last year by 5.3 per cent to 50.2bn dirhams ($6bn, €4.55bn, £3.95bn), although the economy grew by 5.1 per cent on the back of good rains and plentiful crops.
There are up to 4.5m Moroccan emigrants around the world, according to government estimates. Most are in Europe. With 1.2m Moroccans, France has the largest number, but there are also sizeable Moroccan communities in Spain, Italy, Holland and Belgium.
The money sent by emigrants supports families at home, drives the real estate market and more generally it strengthens domestic demand.
“More than 70 per cent of the money from emigration is spent on consumption,” says Mohammed Bernoussi, secretary-general for the Ministry of Moroccans Abroad. “Only seven per cent goes to investments in Morocco, which is very little. [And] in Khouribga, everything has been built by emigrants.”
Khouribga lies in a barren upland plateau in north-western Morocco. Its streets are dotted with coffee shops serving Moroccan green tea and espresso and bearing names such as Venezia and Bella Roma, attesting to a strong link with Italy.
The main employer is the state phosphates company, the Office Cherifien des Phosphates, the world’s largest exporter of the mineral. Those who do not get a job in the mines have few other options for making a livelihood. The best choice, say local young men, is emigration to Italy and more specifically to the industrial city of Turin.
“If I were to start making phone calls to all my friends in Turin, it would take all day,” said Hassoun Abdallah, an electrician who spent four years there as an illegal immigrant. “There are so many Khouribgans there that walking around Turin is like walking around the town here.”
Abdallah al-Harit, a car mechanic, who spent three years in Turin as an illegal immigrant, says it takes 10-12 years of work abroad to be able to afford a flat in Khouribga.
He describes his trip to Turin, first aboard a rubber boat which sailed across the choppy Straits of Gibraltar from Tangiers on the Moroccan side to Malaga in Spain, and then hiding in trucks all the way across Europe to northern Italy. He was eventually deported after the authorities found out he had no papers.
“I still have a brother working in a tyre factory in Turin,” he said. “He is our only source of help whenever we need anything or there is an occasion which requires extra spending. For instance, he pays for the ram we sacrifice every year during the Eid al-Adha Islamic holiday.”
For young Khouribgans, going to Italy is still a dream, though there is a growing awareness that making a living in Europe is no longer easy.
“Of course I would like to go if the chance comes,” said Abdulaziz, a 21-year-old student. “But most emigrants now do not have work. I have cousins there, but I would only go if I had a contract.”