Immigration in Morocco
The long road to integration for immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

Morocco officially declared itself a country of immigration in 2013, responding to the growing number of immigrants arriving from sub-Saharan Africa. Since then, tens of thousands of illegal aliens have been given residence permits, making them legal residents of the country. Despite this progress, however, Morocco's immigration policies remain inconsistent, and society has yet to truly accept the newcomers. By Claudia Mende

Christopher Agbaye and Gargar Barchure left their home country of Liberia five years ago. Their odyssey took them through Mali and Algeria and finally to Morocco. From there they had hoped to reach Europe. But it didn't work out. "We were arrested twice by the Moroccan police," says Agbaye, a 40-year-old medical technician. The travails of the flight engraved deep lines in his face. "On our third attempt, the traffickers just took off with the money." He has an injured leg and needs surgery. "It wasn't possible to make the crossing. So now we have to stay here."

Like the two men from Liberia, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have long regarded Morocco as a mere transit country. No one planned to stay here. But as Europe continues to bar its doors, more and more Africans are forced to accept the prospect of a life in Morocco.

Nobody knows exactly how many immigrants live in Morocco today. Some estimates put the number at around 70,000, including people from Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Nigeria, Togo, Cameroon and South Sudan, as well as about 4,000 to 5,000 refugees from Syria and Yemen. Syrians and Yemenis can obtain refugee status from the UNHCR and hence financial aid. Christopher Agbaye and Gargar Barchure applied for refugee status too, but the UNHCR rejected their claim.

Art produced by migrants at the Fondation Orient Occident in Rabat (photo: Claudia Mende)
The Fondation Orient Occident in Rabat supports immigrants, helping them assimilate into Moroccan society, find jobs or set up small businesses. It also seeks to build a bridge between the locals and the newcomers by defusing conflicts and facilitating greater intercultural understanding. Pictured here: art produced by migrants at the Fondation Orient Occident in Rabat

Yearning for a better life elsewhere

They are immigrants in a society that itself produces many migrants. According to surveys, most young Moroccans would like to leave their country sooner rather than later. Like the immigrants, they are struggling with massive unemployment, poverty and social inequality. Some five million Moroccans have already emigrated in recent decades, most of them to Europe.

But at the same time, the country has had to come to terms with a growing number of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa since the 1990s. Morocco has already officially acknowledged this reality. With its "Stratégie Nationale d'Immigration et d'Asile" (National Immigration and Asylum Strategy), it is the only country in North Africa to pursue an immigration policy that is not based on simply closing its borders, as is the case with its neighbour Algeria.

Since this policy came into effect in 2013, around 20,000 migrants per year have been granted residence permits (cartes de séjour). This gives them the right to send their children to public schools (as long as they speak Arabic) and to take advantage of the basic benefits of the state health-care system, just like Moroccan citizens. Numerous civil society organisations have been set up to help immigrants exercise their new rights and access education, the labour market and the health-care system.

One of these organisations is the Fondation Orient Occident in Rabat. Although the foundation already existed before 2013, it only started focusing on immigrants as of that year.

The immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, whether legally or illegally in Morocco, simply try to get by however they can, says Nadia Tari, project coordinator at the Foundation. "Many of them work illegally in construction, agriculture or transport," she says. "Begging is also widespread." Nevertheless, they somehow manage to create a life here, because the borders to Europe are "closed tight". Over the years, the idea of going to Europe eventually evaporates. In many cases, the central turning point is starting a family. When people marry and have children, find a modest job, and have friends and neighbours, they often end up settling permanently in Morocco.

Migrants outside the Catholic Cathedral of St Peter in Rabat (photo: Claudia Mende)
Migrants outside the Catholic Cathedral of St Peter in Rabat. According to Fr Daniel Nourissat, who is based at the cathedral, both Christians and Muslims come to his church every day seeking help. The Church tries to help where it can, providing clothes and food and assistance

Helping migrants to get a start

The organisation helps immigrants to assimilate into Moroccan society, helping them find jobs or set up small businesses, and most of all trying to build a bridge between the locals and the newcomers by defusing conflicts and facilitating greater intercultural understanding. Conflicts are often sparked by banal neighbourhood disputes over music that's too loud or animated night-time quarrels. The new immigrants have to adapt to Moroccan customs, says Tari, including remembering to be quiet after ten o'clock at night.

On the organisation's premises in Rabat Agdal, the foundation offers African women the opportunity to sell hair care and beauty products as well as food from their home countries without too much red tape. The altered legal situation has helped to facilitate the work of non-governmental organisations like the Fondation Orient Occident.  Now, for example, it is no longer a problem for representatives of the organisation to accompany pregnant women to hospital when giving birth.

Other organisations, such as Caritas Morocco, help migrants by, for instance, giving foundation courses in Arabic for school children, or assisting with enrolment in schools or vocational training, administrative procedures such as obtaining birth certificates or psychological counselling.

Although the legal status of immigrants has improved since 2014, Moroccan policy towards them is still inconsistent. Bureaucracy, the arbitrariness of decisions made by authorities, and police brutality continue to make life difficult for people who come here. The police frequently pick up immigrants at random, put them on buses and take them south. The two men from Liberia also had this experience. A year ago, they were taken to Tiznit, south of Agadir, and given only a bottle of water and dry bread with potatoes to sustain them. They had to beg to scrape together the money to return to Rabat. Recently they were picked up again, and this time they were unloaded south of Marrakesh. The logic behind such actions is difficult to grasp. The immigrants thus continue to live in a state of uncertainty. Nadia Tari says that the authorities try to temporarily remove immigrants from areas where tourists congregate or to clear them out before international conferences.

Besides fear of the police, the search for work is another major problem faced by immigrants. Finding a stable source of income is challenging, because "for skilled work, you need valid papers and professional qualifications, which very few people have," says Tari.

Fr Daniel Nourissat (photo: private)
"The new wave of immigrants is a learning process for both sides," says Fr Daniel Nourissat (pictured here). "There is much fear of people who are different." Some Moroccans see sub-Saharan Africans as the inferior Other, while many Christian migrants have a negative view of "Islam" as a whole

The trials of searching for work

Even those with a residence permit are still far from obtaining the necessary work permit, which requires overcoming additional bureaucratic hurdles. Christopher Agbaye and Gargar Barchure were offered jobs in a restaurant in Rabat. But they needed a work permit. For that they in turn had to present valid passports, which the Liberian embassy was prepared to issue but only for a large sum of money, which they just don’t have. In their predicament, they turned to the Catholic Cathedral of St. Peter in Rabat's banking and business district, hoping to find some assistance.

Father Daniel Nourissat knows many such stories, because people – both Christians and Muslims – come to his church every day seeking help. Nourissat, a native Frenchman, tries to help where he can within his limited budget; the parish has a clothing bank, and now, during the coronavirus crisis, volunteers are organising free meals using food donations. The priest has heard plenty of accounts of the discrimination and racism experienced by immigrants.

Yes, he says, immigrants are the target of vulgar remarks on the street, and there are landlords who have no qualms about throwing them out as soon as they are behind on rent. But he also tells stories of helpfulness and solidarity: of the doctor who operates on immigrants with serious conditions free of charge, and private individuals who sponsor studies for African immigrants. "Such examples of helpfulness interest me more than the other stories."

For Moroccan society, the influx of people from sub-Saharan Africa is still a relatively new phenomenon. "The new wave of immigrants is a learning process for both sides," says Nourissat. "There is much fear of people who are different." Many people from Sub-Saharan Africa arrive in Morocco with massive prejudices against Arabs, he notes, and the Christians among them sometimes have a negative view of "Islam" as a whole. There is racism and a high potential for violence not only within the Moroccan police but also among the immigrants themselves. "It starts at the Moroccan-Algerian border," he says. "No sooner have the migrants in Oujda reached Morocco than they are caught and locked up by their 'brothers'." The "brothers" then extort ransoms from their families, sometimes with great brutality.

Yes, agrees Nadia Tari, there is rejection on both sides. In Morocco, there is the racism of an Arab society that sees sub-Saharan Africans as the inferior Other, with old clichés about them picked up from films still widespread. Although Morocco has always been an ethnically diverse society, this was not officially acknowledged for a long time. The multicultural character of the country was first taken into account in the new constitution passed in 2011. In addition to the Arabic language and culture, Berbers and the Saharo-Hassani in the southern part of the country are only now officially recognised as part of Morocco's identity. This is beneficial for the assimilation of newcomers. But it will still take a long time for immigration to become seen as the norm in Morocco and for immigrants to be regarded as a self-evident part of society.

Claudia Mende

© 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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