After a long, 32-hour bus journey, a chaotic ferry crossing squeezed between hundreds of Moroccan families on their way home and another two days in the port city of Nador during Eid, R. picks me up in his shiny new Volkswagen Passat and we head for Tafersit, a town high in the Rif Mountains. It is summer but at this elevation the temperature is pleasantly cool. Tafersit is less a town and more a collection of villages scattered across the valley that form an administrative whole. An asphalt road runs through the valley like an artery, connecting the dirt tracks with each other and Tafersit with the rest of the world.

Tafersit is located in the centre of the Rif range and is the heartland of the Rif Berbers. They have lived in the mountains for centuries and consider themselves Morocco’s original inhabitants. Tafersit is also the home of the Moroccan street sellers on the Kuregem market (Kuregem is an area of Anderlecht-Brussels, which acts as a springboard for many migrants arriving in Belgium). I know the sellers well and in the evening, at the pavement cafés, I see a number of familiar faces. Their look of surprise when they recognise me is priceless.

A kind of invisible corridor links Tafersit with Kuregem, which is maintained and strengthened by a continuous flow of people, money, goods and ideas. Not only with Kuregem, incidentally, but with Almeria and Madrid, Paris, Rotterdam, Dortmund and a number of other European cities.

The region has a long tradition of migration. For decades, young people flocked to Algeria to work as seasonal labourers and fruit and vegetable sellers. But Algeria’s bloody fight for independence from France in the early 1960s and a civil war in the 1990s drove subsequent generations northwards to Europe. Those pioneers now serve as a bridgehead for other fortune seekers, providing a vital network for new arrivals to find their first job and a place to live. Wherever their subsequent ‘careers’ as migrants take them, they remain attached to their homeland by a sort of umbilical cord.

Similarly, lifelines run between Kuregem and Romania, Senegal, Turkey, Poland, Central Asia, China and Mongolia… Over the last 20 years, a global web has developed around which people are constantly moving. And arrival communities like Kuregem are the connecting points in this intricate system.

Yet arrival communities are often deprived and not without their pitfalls. In Tafersit, almost every 30 and 40 year old has a personal migration story to tell, but only a handful have managed to claw their way up the social ladder. Tafersit is a living library of broken dreams, rotten luck, strange twists of fate, crushing despair and, very occasionally, resounding success.

Success or failure in the arrival community is only partially determined by the ambition or abilities of the migrant. Structural obstacles such as poor education, exploitation, racism and discrimination are often so intractable that only a few manage to overcome them. And herein lies the danger. A well-functioning arrival community can be a jumping-off point for migrants to realise their dreams. A poorly functioning arrival community, on the other hand, effectively becomes a holding area for young, frustrated migrants with no way out. Experience has shown that little is needed for that frustration to boil over into violence. 

In absolute numbers, we are currently experiencing the largest migration in history. This has taken the Western world by surprise, which explains its rather restrained response. Migration is not a problem to be solved, however, as we would often like to think, but an inherent human trait that demands our urgent acknowledgement. The worlds of migrants and hosts meet in arrival communities, making our choice really quite simple: we can invest massively in education and social mobility for migrants or let the situation slowly deteriorate and risk conflict and violence.