Migration policy in Morocco: A stable part of the EU border regime

For a long while, Morocco played the role of border guard to Europe. Liveable prospects for migrants emerged here temporarily. Since that time, repression has again become the order of the day.

A glove hangs from a broken barbed wireat the spanish exclave Ceuta in Morocco Foto: reuters

On 7 June 2013, the Moroccan government and the European Union signed an accord on a so-called mobility partnership. At issue was one of the bilateral agreements that currently exist between the European Union and eight states: the Cabo Verdean islands, the Republic of Moldava, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Tunisia and Morocco. Morocco was the first Mediterranean state to enter such an agreement; Tunisia followed on 3 March 2014.

On the EU side, these bilateral agreements deal chiefly with the offer of visa facilitations for certain categories of citizens of Morocco, Tunisia, etc.; the central counter-offer on the other side is the respective state's obligation to “take back“ migrants who have been deported from Europe, or who are not welcome there. For the latter side, the obligation of re-acceptance applies not only to citizens of the receiving state itself, but also to citizens of third states who have verifiably traveled through Morocco.

As human rights activist Ramy Khouili observed in an article in the Huffington Post on 27 October 2015, with regards to visa facilitations, the agreement offers nothing more than statements of intent, whereas the objectives in the section on “taking back“ migrants rejected from Europe exhibit a concrete, compulsory quality.

Morocco has long been a country whose citizens attempted to emigrate. Many of them have resettled, for instance, in France, Belgium, and Spain, and in part, in the 1970s, in the Rhine-Ruhr region of West Germany as well. Continuing to the present, young people lacking opportunities in Moroccan society are still trying to leave its territory and head toward Europe. On 1 December 2013, the Moroccan online newspaper Bladi.net issued a report based on data from Spanish Minister of the Interior Jorge Fernández Díaz, stating that in the period from 2002 to 2012, about 47,000 Moroccan citizens had entered Spain “illegally“.

Ceuta and Melilla

Currently, in any case, when this country on the north-western tip of Africa is broached as an issue in regards to migration policy and EU relations, the discussion revolves not around its own citizens, but around citizens of third states who are entering Europe, or trying to reach the EU-Europe, by crossing Moroccan territory.

One of the European Union's external borders runs through Morocco. Not between Morocco and the EU, but through Morocco itself. Two Spanish enclaves – that is, territory belonging to the EU – are located on Moroccan soil. For historical reasons rooted in the colonial past, the two cities of Ceuta and Melilla – which have a population of around 170,000, taken together – are still regarded administratively as part of Spain, and therefore, of the EU.

During the night between 28 and 29 September 2005, and again between 5 and 6 October 2005, massive attempts to cross this border occurred, at the external border of Ceuta in the first attempt, and at that of Melilla in the second. Several hundred migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, tried to storm the guarded border fence and knock it over with the sheer force of their combined weight. Their chosen tactic has been used repeatedly, and is still being applied today. The suppression of this collective attempt to cross the border left 14 people dead. To this day, not one person in authority has ever been convicted in this matter; Moroccan and Spanish border officials passed the blame back and forth between each other for years.

Raids as the answer

The fatal incidents in Ceuta and Melilla catalysed a discussion in many EU countries about the EU's external borders, their alleged protection and the tacit acceptance of sacrificing human lives to this end. There were protest demonstrations in several EU countries, as well as campaigns, public discussion events and books published on these topics. Awareness increased – at least within certain circles open to the subject – about the issues of the sometimes lethal regime along the EU's external border.

In Morocco itself, however, the outcomes of the incidents were utterly different. Shortly afterwards, massive organised raids and arrests were carried out among sub-Saharan Africans.

3,000 people were forcibly loaded onto buses and hauled away from the zone near the border. At least 1,000 of them were abandoned in the desert in southern Morocco – somewhere in the vicinity of the border to Algeria or Mauritania (in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara). Moroccan authorities have consistently denied that this action took place. However, once they had come under international pressure, these very same authorities called for search parties to locate those abandoned before they could die of thirst. Observers consider it extremely likely that there were also fatalities in this case. Still, Moroccan authorities categorically deny this as well.

Some time later, further push-back actions occurred in the desert border region of southern Morocco; for instance, in December 2006. But in this case, 42 migrants, 36 men and six women, – who had already been officially granted recognised refugee status by the UN refugee aid agency UNHCR – filed charges afterwards. With the help of the Spanish non-governmental organisation “Commission for Refugees“, they brought the case before the UN Committee Against Torture. On 8 April 2013 , the Moroccan online newspaper Ya biladi (translated: “You, my country“) announced an investigation of the occurrence by that committee.

On 2 July 2013, another massive raid on sub-Saharan migrants was carried out in northern Morocco, in Tangier – particularly in the city district of Boukhalef. 700 people were arrested, packed onto buses and taken, this time, not to the desert in the South, but instead “only“ as far as Oujda, several hundred kilometres away to the East. On this occasion, a 39-year-old Congolese man named Toussaint-Alex Mianzoukouta, a French teacher at a private school in Rabat who held a legal residence permit for Morocco, was thrown from a moving bus during a violent conflict with the police. Severely wounded, he was admitted to a hospital, where he lay in a coma for several days. On 5 August 2013, his death was publicly announced.

Rabat “is sleeping“

In 2006, Morocco's involvement in the border regime of the EU began to intensify. On 10 and 11 July 2006, at a ministerial conference in the capital city Rabat entitled, “Euro-African Ministerial Conference on Migration and Development“, the so-called “Rabat Process“ was initiated. Over fifty West and North African states and EU member states took part at this meeting. The participating states hold joint conferences at which causes of flight and migrations are debated, purportedly leading to recommendations on how, through “improved development co-operation“, irregular emigration in the area can be put to a stop. In practice, this intention has proven to be a mere fig leaf.

With over fifty states participating, the “Rabat Process“ may be too cumbersome to yield concrete results. At follow-up conferences on 25 November 2008 in Paris, in the context of the French EU council presidency at that time, as well as on 23 November 2011 in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, attempts were made to intensify the co-operative work. In any case, essential decisions about the transnational migration regime continued to be made most often within bilateral relationships between states, or between the EU and individual states in the global South, rather than within this multilateral framework. In 2015, the media of record in France referred to the “Rabat Process“ as having “gone to sleep“. Presently, however, driving forces in the EU are trying to reactivate this process and to involve further African states in the migration control regime, through measures including the “Khartoum Process“ since 2014 and the Valletta Conference of November 2015, among others.

In some parts of Moroccan society, conspicuous problems of racism persist in connection with the presence of migrants. In part, this phenomena is closely related to religious resentments, especially against African non-Muslims.

In an interview on 14 July 2103 for the Moroccan information portal H24info, Hicham Rachidi, general secretary of the anti-racist, Rabat-based human rights association GADEM, stated that his group had observed since 2006 that, “in many cases, sub-Saharan migrants who went to police stations to file charges of discrimination or racist expressions were then arrested“. He also criticised the police for planned actions with the supposed objective of halting “illegal“ immigration: in certain city districts in Rabat, Casablanca, Fes, Nador and Oudja, police apparently organised the actions with the aim to “absolutely hunt black people down“.

Violent racism

On August 12 of the same year, in the wake of a dispute with a “native“ Moroccan man over occupying space on a bus, thirty-year-old Senegalese citizen Ismaila Faye was stabbed to death at the Rabat main bus station. Afterward, many Moroccan media sources referred to the crime as “anti-foreigner“, whereas Cameroon citizen Eric Williams – an activist with a refugee association – stated that within a single week, fifteen racist attacks against migrants in Morocco had occurred, and evidently the murder was only the tragic climax. In the following week, on 19 August 2013, about 300 people demonstrated in the Moroccan capital of Rabat to do honour to Ismaila Faye. On social networks, as well, many Moroccans denounced racism against black people in their country. Late in the afternoon of 14 September 2013, a sit-in protest against racism was held before the Moroccan Parliament, following a conference on 11 September at the premises of the bar association.

Then for the first time in Morocco's history, from 21 March to 20 June 2014, a broadly conceived anti-racism campaign was mounted, offering cultural activities and events. Its official slogan was the phrase, “Je ne m’appelle pas Azzi“(“My name is not ‚Azzi‘“, referring to a racist slur), and it was supported by an alliance of civil society organisations called the “Coordination Centre for Universal Rights of Residence“. A number of intellectuals also supported the campaign. It seems that it did contribute toward changing the mentality in the country in some measure, or at least toward questioning racist certainties. Hardly any open displays of racism in the raw, such as those that flared up in the summer and fall of 2013, have been recorded since then. The campaign also had a stroke of luck, in that it ran concurrently with the Moroccan government's operation to legalise illegal immigrants, though this had not been the initial intent. Against this backdrop, at least for the time frame in question, the campaign could reckon with a certain measure of tolerance from the authorities.

Legalisation and deportation

On 21 March 2016, the Coordination started a similar campaign together with partner associations in Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania, entitled “Maghreb-Wide Campaign Against Racial Discrimination“, demanding the introduction of anti-racist laws in all the Maghreb countries.

A particularity of the development in Morocco was that in late 2013, the country's authorities introduced a more or less broadly-based “legalisation policy“ for migrants living on Moroccan soil. The term used within the official, French-language documents was régularisation, which is also used in France to describe a measure by which those who have previously been sans papiers, or “undocumented immigrants“, are granted residence permits. In the first half of 2013, by the account of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), a total 6,406 migrants had been deported from Morocco. Even as late as 23 September 2013, an article in the daily newspaper El Pais reported that the Spanish government had offered to help Moroccan authorities deport “illegal“ migrants from northern Morocco – in order to remove them from regions close the Spanish border.

What accounted for Morocco's ensuing decision to legalise migrants' residency status could ultimately have been the fact that the lives of tens of thousands of migrants have been centrally based in the North African country for years. It is where they work, receive medical care, and send their children to school.

In the months just after the start of the “operation“, the residencies of 6,000 people were legalised. In total, during the year and a half of this policy, around 14,000 residency permits were issued. This predominantly affected sub-Saharan Africans; however, the palace government also explicitly included Europeans who were illegally residing in Morocco within the measure. Coming primarily from the South of crisis-ridden Spain, in recent years, not a few people had emigrated to North Morocco to try their luck there.

A sudden end

Still, from the very start, the entire policy was marked by great ambivalence as well. On one hand, it brought significant relief to people who often had been living, and also steadily working, in Morocco for years – for example, to travellers who had become stranded long-term in the Maghreb state, although the original goal of their journey may have been Europe. On the other hand, from the policy's inception, the EU – which generally puts substantial pressure on Morocco, aiming to move the state toward its own migration policy specifications – had linked the operation to its objective of barring the door against further travel or entry to Europe, with the tactic of offering migrants an alternative opportunity “along the way“.

On 9 February 2015, the Moroccan regime cancelled its prior legalisation policy: directly, immediately, abruptly. Its end was announced by State Secretary of the Interior Charki Draiss at a press conference.

Two hours later, massive raids began in the migrant camps and multiple arrests occurred in the forests near the city of Nador, especially around the now-famous Gourougou Mountain. Between 1,200 and 1,250 people were arrested and dispersed to cities far from the border, often in the South of the country. Ten days later, 450 persons were still being held in police detention or deportation centres. Attempts began to deport entire groups to ten different countries of origin; these attempts were not always successful, since not all of the states‘ consulates spontaneously “co-operated“.

The practice of apprehending migrants in northern Morocco – with the intent to distance them from the exterior borders of the EU – and transporting them to the desert in the South of the country was also reinstated. On 5 November 2015, about 100 refugees in Tangier were arrested and taken to a location near the southern Moroccan town of Tiznit. Similar actions had been undertaken in early October.

After several approaches that had seemed hopeful, including the “legalisation operation“ of 2013, the situation for migrants in Morocco has again become visibly and drastically worse. This will not prevent the European Union from treating Morocco as a leading “partner“ in the area of migration control.

In the meantime, on 12 December 2016, Moroccan authorities announced that a second “legalisation period“, similar to that of 2013-14, would supposedly begin before the year's end. A communiqué from the Moroccan minister of the interior, dated 12 December 2016, makes reference to the fact that in the week prior, during King Mohammed VI's tour of West and East Africa (including Senegal, Mali, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia), the respective heads of state had apparently acclaimed his country's legalisation policy.

The touring visit had served predominantly to prepare for Morocco's return to the African Union (AU), which Morocco had left due to the conflict over the occupied Western Sahara; and also, to set in motion an expansive Moroccan economic policy on the continent. Morocco's migration policy is now to be elevated as a component of these new political relationships.

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