In Morocco, cooperation on migration proves tricky

As leaders adopt the global compact on migration in Marrakesh, Lucia Benavides reports on the varied responses to the migration flow between Morocco and Spain.    

By: /
December 11, 2018
Morocco migration
Migrants disembark from a dinghy in Tarifa, southern Spain, after crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from the coast of Morocco, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

The route to Europe can take months, sometimes years, to cross.

Migrants making their way from Sub-Saharan African countries like Senegal and Guinea often go through Morocco before crossing into Spain, whether it’s by jumping one of two fences separating Morocco from the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla or by getting on a dinghy to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Depending on how much money they have — and the opportunities for crossing — migrants can depart as soon as they reach Morocco. Sometimes, however, they choose to stay. They work and save money, or just wait until the time to cross is right.

“[Migrants] need time to arrange the trip… some of them need to work to get money, others have the money but don’t have the contacts, so they stay in houses,” says journalist Cristina Mas, who reported on the issue for the Catalan publication Ara.

But this summer, being a Sub-Saharan African migrant in Morocco became more challenging. In an attempt to keep them from crossing into Spain, Moroccan authorities have cracked down on Sub-Saharan migrants living in the northern part of the country.

“The first raids were in the neighbourhoods where the migrants used to stay,” says Mas. “So when they couldn’t stay in the houses, they went to the forest to hide themselves.”

According to testimony gathered by Amnesty International, Moroccan authorities have seized more than 5,000 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees since July and forced them onto buses that dropped them off in remote desert areas close to the Algerian border. Some of those migrants had legal documentation that allows them to live and work in Morocco.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has urged his North African neighbour to “strengthen our cooperation” on migration, adding that it’s a “shared responsibility.”

In theory, this idea of cooperation among states is at the heart of a United Nations meeting in Morocco this week, where world leaders adopted the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The compact addresses issues like how to protect people who migrate and how to integrate them into their new countries. It’s considered the first intergovernmental agreement on international migration, and was signed by every UN member state except for the United States (Hungary and Austria have also pulled out of the deal in recent months).

UN spokesperson Charbel Raji says that, although the agreement isn’t legally binding, its guidelines will serve as a platform for immigration policies worldwide.

“It’s acknowledging that migration is universal, that migration is not a bad thing or a good thing. Migration is a thing that is happening, that is most likely to keep on happening,” says Raji. “And we have to strengthen the international cooperation to deal with it.”

Cooperation is the aim, but the Spanish-Moroccan case shows just how challenging it can be. This year, Spain became the main entry point for migrants travelling to Europe. Around 53,000 people have entered by land or sea as of early December, more than the number of arrivals in Italy and Greece combined. More than 2,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea so far this year.

On top of dealing with overcrowded refugee centres, Spain — with the help of the European Union — is funnelling millions of euros to Morocco to help stem the flow of migrants. In September, the EU agreed to send 275 million euros to Morocco, to be allocated towards basic services and job creation. One month later, Brussels sent an additional 140 million euros to Rabat specifically aimed at containing migration. In turn, Morocco is taking part in what activists and human rights groups are calling “racist raids” against Sub-Saharan African migrants believed to be undocumented.

“My feeling is that [Moroccan authorities] are happy with the stories that they repress black people and how they stop black people from entering Europe,” says Mas. “It’s as if they want to play this role and they do it very openly.”

Mas was in northern Morocco this September for two weeks. She talked to migrants hiding in forests outside Tangier, where they set up makeshift camps with old mattresses and blankets. Mas says the raids happen regularly, giving migrants almost no time to set up their things again, day after day. She says this constant threat is pushing some to cross before they’re ready, thinking the water will be safer than the forests where they seek refuge.

Some of the migrants told her they had been deported to the Algerian border several times in the same month. Each time they were dropped off, their journey north started all over again, with only a cell phone in hand and the clothes on their back.

Legitimizing ‘racist raids’

Immigration researcher Lorenzo Gabrielli at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University says this border policy between Spain and Morocco is part of a larger European trend to “externalize” the issue of immigration.

“It’s about, ‘You give me some money and I will do the job in a sure way,’” says Gabrielli.

The idea of “externalizing borders” refers to when a European country gives money to a non-EU border country in order to deal with the flow of migrants — and then looks the other way. It happened recently when the EU signed a deal with Turkey in 2016 and when Italy made a bilateral agreement with Libya in 2017. In both cases, Gabrielli says, the result was the same: more deaths at sea, more exploitation of migrants in transit countries and more expensive border crossings.

“It’s like a short term patch that makes it look like everything has been resolved, and when the number of crossings go down in one route, it looks like it worked,” says Gabrielli. “But no, it didn’t work. People continue to migrate and find new routes.”

Gabrielli says this isn’t the first time Sub-Saharan African migrants in Morocco have been rounded up and taken to remote areas by the Algerian-Moroccan border. These types of raids have been going on for at least 10 years, albeit not as often as in the past months.

In September, Morocco’s border chief Khalid Zerouali told Reuters that the raids, which “take place in full compliance with the law,” are part of managing immigration and human trafficking. He added that the country spends 200 million euros a year to keep its borders safe.

But Mas believes the Moroccan government — aware of its power in controlling migration flows — is using the issue to gain political leverage.

“To me, it’s not only about the money, I think it’s more about political recognition,” she says. “You make a deal with a nondemocratic regime, you normalize it as a partner to work with the European Union.

“Everybody is breaking the law,” she adds. “The Spanish authorities are, the Italian authorities are, the EU-Turkey agreement is also illegal. So we cannot blame only the Moroccans, no?”

A feasible solution

The agreement adopted on Monday — the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration — is the first time a world body has agreed on a list of global measures to tackle issues relating to immigration.

Yet, despite both Spain and Morocco signing the agreement, it is unclear if the raids in northern Morocco will stop. Raji, the UN spokesperson, says the pact respects national sovereignty and the idea that every country can decide on how to control its borders.

“The pact will mean to Morocco what it wants the pact to mean,” says Raji.

Gabrielli believes the situation in Morocco won’t change any time soon.

“Will [the UN meeting] lead to anything? I think it’s symbolic, it doesn’t have any legal value,” Gabrielli said in the lead up to this week’s event in Morocco. “The Geneva Convention has legal value, at least for the countries that signed it, and even that’s not being implemented. I’m not very optimistic, but who knows? Sometimes these symbolic gestures can set an example.”

The solution, Gabrielli argues, is to provide more legal and safe channels for migrants from African countries to enter Spain, or Europe in general. He says migration flows are always in flux, and they’ll continue to change according to what’s going on in other parts of the world.

Gabrielli adds that the situation in Spain should not be considered an “immigration crisis.” More than 50,000 migrants have arrived by boat or through land borders this year so far, a number that pales in comparison to the 82 million tourists come through Spain each year (some of whom overstay their visas). Yet the narrative that’s most often heard is that of the Sub-Saharan African migrant. 

Gabrielli says it’s because European governments want to make it look like they have power. Borders, he argues, are something countries can pretend to control.

“It’s the people who arrive by boat that are most visible in the immigration rhetoric,” says Gabrielli. “It’s this image of the poor people that are invading us.”