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Sub-Saharan African migrants invisible in Morocco

Moroccan government reforms have failed to end the suffering, racism and abuse endured by sub-Saharan African migrants.
Immigrants sit with bare feet and bloodied hands after scaling a border fence to enter the Spanish enclave Melilla from neighboring Morocco, February 24, 2014. Over one hundred immigrants successfully entered Melilla according to a statement Spain's Interior Ministry.  Spain has two enclaves in the north African country, Ceuta and Mellila, and migrants regularly try to reach them either by swimming along the coast or climbing the triple fences that separate them from Morocco.  REUTERS/Jesus Blasco de Avella

RABAT, Morocco — After years of pressure to reform its migration policy, Morocco announced last September a new migration and asylum system that would adhere to international standards, examine cases individually and offer legal status to some undocumented migrants — thousands of whom lined up in Rabat to file their application last month. But a recent Human Rights Watch report claims that despite some improvement, Moroccan security forces still “commonly beat, otherwise abuse and sometimes steal” from sub-Saharan migrants. A couple of weeks ago, nine sub-Saharans, including one woman, drowned while trying to swim to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Migrants claimed police fired into the sea where other migrants were swimming, as Moroccan and Spanish security forces tried to ward them off from Ceuta.

But in the capital Rabat, miles from the Moroccan border between the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla — the gateway to the European Union — some migrants are in transit to Europe. They remain in the administrative center because they wish to settle in Morocco; they have kept up with government efforts to “regularize” migrants and applied for legal status to live and work in Morocco. They took this decision despite the circumstances under which they left their homeland and the institutional neglect of their reluctant hosts.

Angie and Fevo met in Morocco, and together they beg outside a mosque adjacent to a vegetable and fish market in working-class Sale, outside Rabat. They claim they fled Boko Haram in northwest Nigeria and expected some assistance when they arrived in Morocco. After seven months, they have not received anything. Fevo is pregnant and says that she has given up on hearing back from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after filing an application.

She also applied for legal status with the Moroccan government last month, along with thousands of others, but was told to return when she had her passport in hand. When she went to the Nigerian Embassy, she discovered that she could not cover the cost of her passport application. “So, I am here begging to eat and get money for a passport,” she says to Al-Monitor as she pats her pregnant belly. “And the associations we have been to could not help. We don’t speak the language and they just tell us to leave. They insult us,” she adds. Fevo jumps into a store as soon as a passerby gives her enough to buy fruit.

Fevo did not identify the associations she claims rejected her. Nongovernmental organizations such as Fondation Orient-Occident, Action Urgence and GADEM try to assist migrants in accessing social services, but have limited capacity — as evidenced by the fact that none of the other migrants interviewed had heard of them. While the government’s lack of cooperation with organizations forecloses on formal means of establishing semi-permanent settlement for the migrants — a residence card, for instance — the invisibility of the organizations speaks to a certain lack of outreach to populations having trouble getting the most basic of needs met.

With an estimated 25,000 sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco, hailing from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds in western and central Africa, it is difficult to speak of a collective experience. In Rabat’s traditional medina, a Senegalese network of migrants have mitigated the consuming, hectic daily labor of mere survival required of Morocco’s poor and undocumented, like Fevo. Even though the migrants are quite visible in Rabat — many Rabatis can identify where the refugees live, gather, sell wares on the street and beg — they occupy a clandestine existence. Relegated to legal obscurity, they resort to informal channels to survive.

Amid the medina’s crumbling buildings and bustling markets sits Ousmene, a self-identified “businessman” who sells used phones on a box that he deposits in his bag when he runs to get a soda. He calls over Mustapha, who has taken a break from selling electronics on the street across the medina — what he calls “hustling.” Outside the medina walls, they run into Mamadou, a 57-year-old musician whom they regard with respect as an elder and call “Baba.” As Senegalese nationals, they automatically had permission to stay in Morocco for three months upon entry. The men have been here for two to five years, but it was not until last month’s government initiative offered legal status that they have been able to even be considered to obtain their papers — their applications are still being processed; in the meantime, they continue as they did before. Since they have encountered the same institutional neglect as others who fled to Morocco, they have had to tap into an existent network of other migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to share housing, contacts and experiences.

In fact, the network runs so deep that another undocumented Senegalese migrant, Ibrahim, started an association called Aresmar that he says, “advocates on behalf of Senegalese migrants.” From his stall in the medina — where he sells Senegalese ointment, bracelets and shea butter — Ibrahim explains that the association is not registered with the Moroccan government but acts as mediator between migrants and the Senegalese Embassy. It provides aid by collecting funds for health care, transportation and homeland return, as both Senegalese and Moroccan governments have left a void in providing social services.

While there’s a relative calm in the country’s administrative center, in the northeast, the brutality of the police toward sub-Saharan migrants is more immediate. Nevertheless, Mustapha has had enough and is willing to travel north to prepare to go to Europe, once the weather is more stable. He has collected money for a boat with friends to cross the Mediterranean — many of whom have shared stories of the brutal treatment they experienced at the hands of Moroccan security forces. Many have been rounded up and deposited at the Oujda border crossing with Algeria without transportation or food. Like his compatriots, Mustapha brings up the racism he encounters: “Of course there are good and bad people everywhere. … But 'les pays Arabes' [Arab countries] are very difficult.” He points to the gap between the theory and practice of racial equality in Islam, “I am a Muslim. The people who call us names on the street … these are Muslim? They are not Muslim!”

The lack of a migrant network and a language barrier for migrants from anglophone African countries — such as Frank and Musa from Ghana, and Wisdom from Uganda — have made the journey to Europe a desirable alternative to Morocco, where an estimated 30% of youth are unemployed.

The journey via a forest into the Spanish enclave of Melilla in northern Morocco is fraught with the risk of brutal treatment at the hands of the Moroccan police. In addition, the migrants risk drowning on flimsy boats while crossing the Mediterranean — now known as a “sea cemetery.” 

Frank, a mechanical engineer from Ghana, looks for work on some days and on others he treks from the working-class neighborhood of Taqqadum to beg in upscale Agdal. He says that he is glad he can take his degree with him everywhere. Security forces burned the makeshift migrant encampment where he stayed briefly in Oujda before coming to Rabat, along with some of his other documents.

Despite all this, he still wants to stay and persists in looking for work, even without the documentation to live and work in Morocco. He is wary of traveling and wants to settle down and marry a Moroccan woman, he says. “But the racism, the hatred here … it is like they don’t want to look you in the eye to see that you are human,” he says, while gazing in the distance. 

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