Morocco has been a popular stop on the migration road to Europe for decades, in part due to its proximity to continental Europe and its land borders with the Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla, and the kingdom has continuously received large numbers of transiting sub-Saharan African migrants. Yet for many of these emigrants Morocco turns out to be the final destination, as they find themselves forced to remain in the country after being denied entry to the European Union. More recently, however, Morocco has begun to receive a different type of migrant, the ‘deliberate immigrant’. Thanks to the country’s recent rapid development, funded by a wealthy middle class and hefty foreign investment, Morocco can offer various opportunities to migrants within its own borders and, as a result, thousands of young people are traveling to Morocco, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, to work, study, and hopefully settle permanently.
Given that immigration is a relatively new issue for Morocco, it is particularly interesting to observe how the nation’s government and society choose to deal with it. The Moroccan government is currently in the process of formulating and refining its immigration policy under the watchful eyes of the European Union and various international human rights organisations, whilst the native Moroccan population has had to consider the same, and often controversial, social and economic questions relating to immigration that developed nations currently face. Consequently, as Morocco adjusts to its new status as an ‘immigration destination’, immigrants continue to face a multitude of issues, including whether they are in the country legally or illegally, and whether they are in transit or staying long-term (either intentionally or not).
The most serious of these issues is the lack of legal protections for irregular migrants. The majority of irregular migrants in Morocco come from sub-Saharan West Africa and have attempted to reach Europe through the Spanish autonomous enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, many seeking asylum. According to Human Rights Watch, the majority of sub-Saharan African migrants are not offered any advice or explanation of their rights and how to apply for refugee status, or how to appeal an expulsion order. It is possible to obtain advice from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organisations, but in order to do so the migrants must present themselves at the offices of these organisations, the majority of which are located in Rabat, Morocco’s capital. This can prove difficult for sub-Saharan migrants as their ethnicity means that they are more likely to be stopped and questioned by police en route. Furthermore, there have been reports of the unofficial deportation of irregular migrants, often carried out by simply forcing the migrants to walk across the border to Algeria in the middle of the night under threat of violence. This kind of expulsion is justified under the 2003 Moroccan law that permits the ‘return to the border’ of irregular migrants. However, the distinction between a ‘return to the border’ and a forcible expulsion to Algeria is difficult to define, as the Moroccan-Algerian border is officially closed, making any crossing undocumented, and allowing the authorities to deny any responsibility for unlawful deportation with no official account stating that the individual was made to cross the border.
However, as Morocco’s immigration policy develops and responds to criticism, the rights of all migrants, including irregular ones, are slowly gaining greater recognition under the law. For example, last year new legislation was introduced to facilitate the regularisation of irregular migrants, allowing them to apply for a one-year renewable residency visa. Additionally, Morocco is in the process of setting up a formal asylum system, which has officially awarded refugee status to hundreds of sub-Saharan African migrants since its beginnings in late 2013. This has allowed these migrants to gain access to basic government services including health care and schools.
Unfortunately, although the legal stance towards sub-Saharan migrants has changed, it does not appear to have affected the general social perception of these immigrant populations. Integration into Moroccan society is often extremely difficult, if not impossible, due to what can be described as “institutionalised racism” towards people of Black African origin, and there have been minimal efforts made to change historic attitudes, reflecting the often strained relationship between Morocco and the rest of the continent. The Moroccan media (at least half of which is government-controlled) tend to focus on the negative aspects of sub-Saharan Africa, including AIDS and extreme poverty. For example, in November 2012 the popular Moroccan magazine Maroc Hebdo published a controversial cover story called “Le Péril Noir” (The Black Danger), which portrayed sub-Saharan migrants as criminals, drug dealers, and prostitutes, and stated that their presence in the country posed a ‘human and security problem’. They experience verbal abuse in the streets, often being referred to as ‘hartani’, a Moroccan Arabic word that translates to ‘second-rate man’. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africans are often the targets of violent racist attacks, such as the widely reported murder of Senegalese immigrant Charles Ndour in Tangier in August 2014 in a racially motivated attack. On a less severe level, according to the Human Rights Watch report, entitled Abused and Expelled: Ill-Treatment of Sub-Saharan African Migrants in Morocco, police are known to arrest sub-Saharan Africans ‘indiscriminately’ for immigration offences, even if they are in possession of the correct documentation. In addition, many sub-Saharan migrants face similar levels of resentment from the general public to those faced by migrants in Europe on the subject of issues such as employment and housing, suggesting that migrants make it more difficult for local people to gain access to services.
On the surface, Morocco is fast becoming a land of good opportunities and a viable alternative to Europe for migrants fleeing instability and danger in sub-Saharan Africa. However, societal attitudes must change if immigration is to be recognised as a benefit to the country’s economy and culture and not as danger to the country’s peace. The Moroccan government must encourage grassroots anti-racism campaigns as well as promoting its own to offer the safe and equal environment that migrants seek, and to ensure that their human rights are not disadvantaged solely because of the colour of their skin.