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African Arguments | 01.2014

Morocco trials a ‘radically new’ politics of migration for sub-Saharan Africans

By Sebastien Bachelet

2014 could be the year that significant advancements are made in the way that Morocco treats ‘irregular migrants’ within its borders. After last year’s events, which saw Morocco come under pressure for taking steps to address human rights’ abuses, on 1st January, offices for the regularisation of migrants finally opened; however, migrants and NGOs remain cautious.

According to controversial estimates by the Moroccan Home Office, Sub-Saharan Africans are the most numerous amongst the 25 to 45 thousand irregular migrants present in the country. Heralding from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds in western and central Africa, migrants have already undertaken a perilous journey, but the last leg of the journey to ‘Fortress Europe’ can prove even more hazardous.

To better some light on recent major changes concerning migration in Morocco you need to go back to March 2013, and the death of a Cameroonian migrant we shall refer to as ‘Clément’. On 11th March, along with another approximately 150 sub-Saharan migrants, Clément attempted to cross the border between the Moroccan city Nador and the Spanish enclave Melilla. Waiting for the prayer call at 4.30am, migrants prepared for what they call the ‘shock’ (le choc), or ‘hitting the border’ (frapper). This is no euphemism as they climb on makeshift ladders over the razor-topped fences. This was the start of the ‘apocalypse’ routinely described by migrants as they were subjected to the violence of both Spanish and Moroccan forces. The harrowing accounts of how events unfolded have been collected in a report by the Moroccan migrants’ rights association GADEM.

Clément was admitted to hospital with a broken leg and suffering from a head wound, along with 24 other people. After having received no sound medical care, he was discharged on the same day. On 16th March, he died in the forest of Gourougou from the injuries inflicted by Moroccan and Spanish forces. The ambulance called for by his friends never arrived.

This was not an isolated incident. NGOs and migrants’ associations in Morocco and beyond had noted some improvement since the infamous 2005 Ceuta and Mellia events where at least eleven migrants died, and hundreds were wounded, during some of the first major group attempts at crossing the border to the Spanish enclaves. However, since the end of 2011, those same associations decried a significant escalation of violence against migrants.

Before ceasing its activities in northern Morocco, Doctors Without Borders released its “Violence, Vulnerability and Migration: Trapped at the Gates of Europe” report, highlighting the use of violence by Spanish and Moroccan authorities. The NGO interviewed 190 migrants in Nador and Oujda and 63 percent affirmed having been victims of violence. 64 percent of those acts of violence were attributed to the Moroccan authorities and 7 percent to the Spanish forces.

What was significant about Clément’s death was that it did not join the long list of unaccounted for acts of violence. Previously, migrants had been reported to have been killed at the borders, but bodies disappeared and witnesses moved on. On 16 March, Sara Creta, an Italian filmmaker and Sylvin Mbarga, a Cameroonian journalist and member of the migrant association ALECMA (Association lumière sur l’émigration clandestine au Maghreb), were present in the Gourougou forest. As part of an initiative by ALECMA and migrants’ rights association GADEM (Groupe antiraciste d’accompagnement et de défense des étrangers et migrants), Sara and Sylvin initially set out to document the latest attacks; however, they found themselves filming Clément’s agony and death. This video received international coverage by major media such as La Republica, Mediapart, El Pais and Yabiladi. It also formed the basis of the ‘Number 9: Stop police violence at the borders’ campaign.

The campaign denounces the violence that migrants face when they attempt to access Europe via the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla without the proper documentation necessary to enter by legal means. Migrants routinely face beatings, theft or destruction of their possessions, confiscation of their identification documents, illegal refoulement back to Morocco when they have already crossed to Spain, or deportation to the desert between Algeria and Morocco. These are the most common offenses, but represent only a few of the numerous other violations of their physical integrity, dignity and human rights.

The Number 9 Campaign and Clément’s tragic death also highlight the growing significance of migrants’ own voices, through migrants’ associations such as ALECMA and CMSM (Conseil des migrants sub-Sahariens au Maroc), within Moroccan civil society. Through connections with NGOs and activists on both shores of the Mediterranean, sub-Saharan migrants have engaged in a counter-discourse which condemns infringements of human rights at the Moroccan-Spanish border and the complicity of the EU. MIGREUROP, a network of researchers and activists that denounces the externalization of Europe’s immigration controls and policies, decried the hunt for migrants in an August 2013 press release.

On 7th June 2013, Morocco and nine EU member states signed in Strasbourg “a joint declaration establishing a Mobility Partnership between the Kingdom of Morocco and the European Union and its Member States.” While several initiatives exist pertaining to Morocco-EU migration (such as facilitated visas for businessmen, students and researchers,) the question of a readmission agreement stands up as the key objective. Indeed, the text crucially entails a return to negotiations over the readmission agreement. Sub-Saharan Africans are pawns amidst treaties and negotiations over drugs, fishing rights and the status of Western Sahara. Like the majority of Moroccans who are not endowed with an easy mobility, sub-Saharan migrants are on the losing side of such negotiations. As migration scholar Abdelkrim Belguendouz points in an article denouncing the joint declaration:

“In other words, Morocco is asked to take on the role of the gendarme of Europe to stop migration flows. A role Morocco has always refused to assume (officially) and, according to us, should continue to reject in respect for human rights.”

As noted above, Clément’s death was not an isolated incident. Following the launch of the campaign, other deaths and violent incidents were reported on both sides of the border. In fact, the summer of 2013 was marked by a crescendo of intertwined institutional violence and civil society mobilisation. This peaked with the death of two other migrants. On 24th July, hundreds of migrants were arrested in northern Morocco, including numerous migrants in the marginal neighbourhood of Boukhalef in Tangiers. Once loaded onto buses, they were deported to the Algerian desert; others were abandoned along the roads around Fez. Toussaint, a Congolese migrant was thrown out of a bus and died in hospital. He had valid immigration papers. On 14th August, in Rabat, Ismael Faye, a Senegalese pilgrim, was stabbed in the face on a bus by another passenger, a Moroccan soldier, and died from his wounds.

The racist character of this latest aggression shocked many in Morocco. Chouki El Hamel’s pivotal study ‘Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam’ is a vivid illustration of this. As he puts it, ‘blacks in Morocco have been marginalized for centuries, with the dominant Moroccan culture defining this marginalized group as ‘Abid (slaves), Haratin (a term that generally meant freed black people or formerly enslaved black persons), Sudan (black Africans), Gnawa (black West Africans), Sahrawa (from the Saharan region), and other terms which make reference to the fact that they were black and/or descendants from slaves’.

Institutional racism towards sub-Saharan migrants, regardless of their legal status, is pervasive and has repercussions in many aspects of their lives, including access to health and education. Morocco’s reluctance to respect migrants and enforce the human rights guaranteed by the treaties (such as the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families) it ratified, created a dangerous climate whereby racism has become ordinary. Racism against sub-Saharan migrants and dangerous stereotypes are pervasive in Moroccan media too. In November 2012, Moroccan weekly magazine Maroc Hebdo caused outrage with its ‘black peril’ headline.

The death of Ismael brought about a resurgence in mobilisation of NGOs and migrants ‘associations. A ‘stop racism – respect migrants’ rights’ campaign was launched in protest. International media such as the Guardian and the BBC reported the harrowing conditions migrants live in. GADEM, in partnership with numerous other organisations, compiled an unforgiving report which highlighted Morrocco’s shortcomings in matters of migrants’ rights.

The ‘Report on the Application in Morocco of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families’ was to be presented at the 19th session of the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in Geneva. A large delegation of Moroccan officials was to uptake the difficult task of defending Morocco’s position during the early September 2013 meetings. However, this confrontation between the Moroccan civil society and government in plain sight of the international community took another turn with the release of another report.

The CNDH (National Council of Human Rights) released its own report, Foreigners and Human Rights in Morocco, quickly endorsed by a communiqué from the royal cabinet. The report disavowed and heavily criticized Morocco’s politics of migration, deemed too security-oriented. The recommendations, deemed pertinent by Mohammed VI, were in line with those of the civil society: recognition of the right of asylum, regularisation of irregular migrants, ending the recourse to violence.

Shortly after this coup de théâtre, King Mohamed VI chaired a working-group meeting with members of the government during which he gave instructions for the elaboration of ‘a new vision for a national migration policy, that is humanist in its philosophy, responsible in its approach and pioneering at a regional level’. Several of the CNDH report’s recommendations have started being put into place. The dormant Bureau de protection des réfugiés et apatrides (Refugees and Stateless Protection Office) has been (re)opened in September 2013. In October 2013, a circular of the Ministry of Education aimed at facilitating access to state schools for migrants’ children was released. Finally, in November, Anis Birou, Minister for Moroccans abroad and (its newly acquired function) migratory affairs announced in conjunction with Mohamed, the Home Office and Human Rights Minister an ‘exceptional’ operation of regularisation starting 1st January 2014 until the end of that year.

These long-awaited developments in Morocco have been met with appraisal and encouragements from United Nations and European Union officials. Official responses have been enthusiastic; ironically, shortly after the first royal declarations, Spain quickly announced its willingness to help Morocco in enforcing ‘voluntary returns’ which guarantee ‘the preservation of [migrants’] dignity and the humanitarian situation’. In November, Gonzalo Benito, Spanish foreign minister, announced that Spain was giving advice to Morocco regarding the regularisation process.

As mentioned above, the ‘issue’ of migration is pervasive in the relations between Morocco and the EU. The decisions taken in Rabat are closely examined on the other side of the Mediterranean. A statement by Rupert Joy, EU ambassador in Rabat, in the EU delegation’s September newsletter illustrates what is at stake: ‘The [CNDH] report has not only recognized infringements to the rights of migrants which have worried us for a long time, but it has formulated a list of ambitious recommendations for a politics of migration more just and efficient’. The fate of sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco remains entangled in negotiation processes.

First of all, at national level, the disavowal of the Moroccan politics of migration by the king occurred at a time of tension and disagreement between Mohamed VI and the Prime Minister Benkirane over a wide range of issues, as well as the formation of a new government. Most importantly, the regularisation process grants Morocco more negotiation leverage with the EU, especially in relation to its long-standing refusal to sign a readmission. This treaty – a major tool in the EU ‘border externalisation’ – would force Morocco to readmit on its territory migrants who can be proven to have entered Europe illegally through the country.

Morocco also asserted its influence on the African continent by pleading in favour of an initiative called ‘African alliance for migration and development’ at a UN meeting last October. Getting closer to sub-Saharan countries has also become a priority for Morocco’s foreign policy agenda. Recent changes have also helped Morocco secure a place at the UN Council of Human Rights, though not without sparking outrage. Nurturing a better international image is essential for conducting negotiations over several issues. Morocco has just secured a series of loans, amounting to 4 billion US dollars from the World Bank. New deals have also been signed between Morocco and the EU for a total of 166 million Euros.

Overall, Moroccan civil society responded with enthusiasm to recent announcements from the royal cabinet and the government. A genuine interest in the conditions of migrants in Morocco is starting to emerge in various domains. For instance, in a recent report the Economic, Social and Environmental Council recommended access to basic health services to migrants in an irregular situation.

The issue of regularisation has long been on the agenda of migrants associations. In fact, as described above, they have largely contributed to the advent of such unprecedented changes, but they remain cautious. In a recent communiqué, GADEM acknowledges the government’s efforts and good will, but asks for more efforts into devising a ‘genuinely new’ politics of migration. Most notably, they have called for a moratorium over deportations and readmissions of migrants. Organisations have also called for more consultation and the involvement of migrants’ associations in the regularisation process, which remains shady. The criteria have also been decried as too restrictive.

Furthermore, for its reforms to be successful, Morocco will have to address the underlying racism nourished by violent abuse of ‘blacks’, indiscriminately perceived as ‘illegal’ by the police. Maroc Hebdo released a controversial front page in response to Moroccan government’s initial announcements – illustrated with pictures of sub-Saharan migrants, the headline reads ‘Morocco caught in a trap’. Recent news reports of demonstrations against sub-Saharan Africans by Moroccan inhabitants of Tangier neighbourhoods are also a great cause for concern.

In the midst of Morocco’s announcements for radical change, Moussa Seck, a Senegalese migrant, died in suspicious circumstances. Similarly, as Spain recently refurbished the barriers around its enclaves with barbed wire, there have been notices about the erection of a barrier at the Moroccan-Algerian border to prevent migrants from passing through. Other worrying news also includes the deportation of migrants caught in northern Morocco at the Mauritanian border.

It is then with cautious hope that NGOs and migrants’ associations are preparing themselves for further announcements regarding Morocco’s ‘radically new’ politics of migration. There is a need for renewed scrutiny over developments unravelling in Morocco as it prepares to carry out its regularisation process, a task it has not undertaken before. As such, it is important to ensure Morocco does not repeat the same mistakes in its treatment of migrants.

Sebastien Bachelet is a PhD student in social anthropology at the univerity of Edinburgh.

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