A Growing Destination for Sub-Saharan Africans, Morocco Wrestles with Immigrant Integration
Though much attention in recent years has focused on sub-Saharan Africans attempting to reach Europe, migration within West Africa is roughly nine times larger than movements from the region toward either Europe or neighboring North African countries. Morocco, which has seen its share of emigration and more recently become a springboard for other migrants on their way to Europe, has since the beginning of the 21st century become a default destination for many sub-Saharan migrants.
This latest turn in Morocco’s migration history both reflects broader migration and policy dynamics in the region and has prompted the Moroccan government to re-examine what happens to migrants who remain. Amid growing Moroccan interest in sub-Saharan Africa, the government has indicated a willingness to adopt integration measures and policies that respect migrants’ rights so long as migrant-origin countries continue to support Morocco in its 40-year conflict over the Sahara.
A series of bilateral agreements between Morocco and Spain enacted since the early 1990s, and more recent efforts by the European Union to stem irregular migration across the Mediterranean, have made passage to Europe less certain. The European Union agreed last year to provide Morocco with 148 million euros to address irregular migration and another 182 million euros to support job creation and other services. As more sub-Saharan African migrants find themselves stuck, those unwilling or unable to return to their origin countries and those who have failed to reach European borders have become a familiar presence in many Moroccan cities, most living in irregular status. An estimated 700,000 sub-Saharan African migrants reside in Morocco, a country of about 34 million.
Faced with a growing irregular migrant population, the Moroccan government in 2014 regularized about 24,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, giving them accompanying work rights and access to social services. However, many of these services are stretched thin, and public perception of immigrants has become increasingly hostile, calling into question the effectiveness and future of the government’s efforts to integrate them into Moroccan society.
This article, which draws in part on the author’s interviews and observations in Rabat and several other Moroccan cities, explores the factors behind this push to regularize sub-Saharan immigrants as well as persistent issues facing those who settle within Morocco. It examines how, although there is political will to ensure better integration of immigrants and management of migration across Moroccan territory, many sub-Saharan Africans in the country continue to live in precarious conditions.
From Country of Origin to One of Transit and Destination
For much of the 20th century, the Kingdom of Morocco was a land of emigration, with millions of its citizens moving to Europe and North America through both legal and illegal channels. However, in the 1990s Morocco’s role changed as it became a transit country for irregular migrants traveling from sub-Saharan and West Africa on their way to Europe. The European Union and those EU Member States most affected by this migration, notably France and Spain, put increasing pressure on Morocco to limit maritime departures and secure its own borders.
Figure 1. Migration Routes in West and North Africa
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) compilation based on International Organization for Migration (IOM), Migrants and Cities: New Partnerships to Manage Mobility (Geneva: IOM, 2015), available online.
As part of this push to manage irregular migration, bilateral cooperation programs were put into place between Morocco and Spain starting in 1992, and later with the European Union. After the 1992 agreement, Spain and Morocco in 2004 launched joint patrolling teams as part of which the Spanish Guardia Civil and the Moroccan Gendarmerie Royale work to control irregular migration across the Mediterranean. Then in 2014, Morocco created the Migration and Border Surveillance Directorate and the Migration Observatory within the Ministry of Interior in accordance with the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreements, which entered into force in 2000, forming the legal basis of the EU-Morocco relationship. With the start of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) in 2004, Morocco gradually became a privileged partner of the European Union in the field of political and economic cooperation as well as trade and technical and development cooperation.
Morocco is also becoming a major actor in regional discussions of migration, playing a central role in creating the Euro-African Dialogue on Migration and Development (also known as the Rabat Process) that was established in 2006. Morocco’s international engagement and willingness to take on more migration-management responsibilities is in part an effort to enhance its credibility in the face of criticism from European countries that it does not do enough to build immigrants’ self-reliance, expand access to settlement and other complementary procedures, and foster conditions that enable immigrants to voluntarily settle in Morocco.
As the Moroccan economy has grown, and entry to Europe has become increasingly difficult, more African migrants have settled in the country rather than continue on to Europe or return to their countries of origin. This growing population includes asylum seekers from Guinea (2,015), Cameroon (410), the Democratic Republic of Congo (318), and Mali (126), among others.
Figure 2. Top Origin Countries of Sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco, 2017
Note: The territory in hashmarks below Morocco is the Western Sahara, an area long occupied by Spain that was relinquished to Morocco and Mauritania in 1976. Morocco has administered most of the territory since Mauritania relinquished its claim in 1979, but ownership is contested by an indigenous Sahrawi movement backed by Algeria. The United Nations has not recognized the annexation by Morocco, and Western Sahara remains in dispute.
Source: MPI compilation based on Ridha Zini, Dans quelles mesures, l’immigration subsaharienne que le Maroc rente d’intégrer a sa société constitue, en raison de sa vulnérabilité, un potentiel de développement inexploité?, Master 2, Université Paris Sorbonne 2017.
And so, in November 2003, Morocco adopted the security-focused Law No. 02-03 to govern the entry and presence of foreigners within Moroccan territory. The law defined entry and residence rules for foreigners, strengthened measures against illegal migration, provided migrants with certain rights, and criminalized human trafficking. However, a 2018 report from a migrant-rights group, GADEM, documented mistreatment and discrimination of sub-Saharan immigrants in which they were herded onto buses with little more than the clothes they were wearing and taken to cities hundreds of miles south, as a part of Morocco’s deal with EU partners to curb immigration. The Moroccan government has vehemently denied GADEM’s report.
Migration Changes and Continental Policy Goals Prompt Immigration Reform
Since the number of migrants in Morocco began to grow in the early 2000s, media coverage has highlighted rising tensions and incidents of violence between immigrants and Moroccan citizens. This, coupled with reports from civil society and organizations such as the National Human Rights Council of the dire conditions in which many migrants were living, led King Mohamed VI to announce a comprehensive development framework, called the New Migration Policy (NPM for its name in French, Nouvelle Politique Migratoire), in 2013. Through what it described as a more human rights-oriented immigration policy, the Moroccan government aimed to regularize thousands of immigrants, among other aspects. The first phase of the policy’s implementation in 2014 saw more than 24,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and Syria, gain a one-year legal status. This allowed immigrants to work legally, despite some social obstacles. A second phase was launched, granting residence permits to 28,400 migrants by December 31, 2017.
Morocco’s focus on regularization has come even as Algeria has expelled thousands of migrants or forced them to walk into the Sahara—offering the Moroccan government a way to take precedence over its Algerian rival vis-à-vis other countries of the African Union. "Morocco's commitment in advocating for the causes and interests of Africa is not new today, it is rather an immutable orientation that we inherited from our ancestors, and which we continue to reinforce with confidence and pride," King Mohammed VI said in 2018, after Morocco rejoined the African Union.
Hoping to reorient and improve its relationships with sub-Saharan countries, Morocco in 2015 launched the National Strategy on Immigration and Asylum; this was to replace the 2003 law with new policies and procedures to integrate migrants into Moroccan society. This policy seeks to guarantee migrants access to basic services such as education, health care, and labor-market integration. This announcement was considered a turning point in Morocco’s human-rights approach to irregular immigrants, mainly sub-Saharan Africans. Morocco remains predisposed to adopt additional policies for receiving sub-Saharan migrants as long as their origin countries continue to support it in its conflict over the Sahara. (Morocco and an indigenous Sahrawi movement backed by Algeria since 1975 have contested ownership of the Western Sahara.) However, NGOs and international institutions report that the reforms have done little to alleviate migrants’ vulnerability within the country.
Policy Vision versus On-the-Ground Conditions
Morocco is a mosaic of ethnicities and religions, with historical and cultural links to sub-Saharan Africa as well as the Middle East; it is a center of African Islamic devotion, Berber tradition, Jewish settlement, and it is experiencing a regrowth of its Christian community. Its capital city, Rabat, regularly organizes festivals celebrating African cultures. The country has always been proud of its capacity to host diverse nationalities and religions, and unlike in many EU countries and the United States, migration historically has never been a point of political contention. Furthermore, the Moroccan diaspora numbers in the millions, and though the vast majority live in Europe, others live in Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal, reinforcing Morocco’s connections across the continent.
Still, this story of a stable, tolerant, and multicultural Morocco masks significant underlying social tensions in a highly unequal society. Morocco’s economy has been growing for decades, but wide social and economic gaps remain; a large segment of the population has limited education, financial resources, and access to health care and sanitation. Unemployment has also been on the rise, especially among the youth—a development across the Arab world that was among the causes that helped fan the Arab Spring in 2011. As the government seeks to integrate migrants into the workforce and broader society via the 2013 New Migration Policy framework, underlying tensions revolving around concerns over competition for limited economic and social opportunities will have to be managed with care. Through fieldwork, the author found that it is a widely held view among sub-Saharan migrants that Moroccans dislike their presence and view them as inferior. Their suspicions are correct; many Moroccans consider them to be poor, dangerous, easy to exploit, and carriers of disease. Many believe that the migrants’ continued presence will destabilize the country’s social systems. Moroccan citizens and institutions are ill-prepared to welcome and integrate large numbers of migrants, contradicting the country’s image of diversity and coexistence.
Despite the shortcomings, nearly 70 percent of respondents in an International University of Rabat survey of 1,400 migrants who had applied for regularization stated that they intended to stay and live in Morocco rather than continuing on to Europe, even though few were satisfied by the standards of living. The job market offers very few opportunities for sub-Saharan Africans, and many migrants who stay are forced to work in labor sectors such as construction, call centers, or domestic work "reserved" for migrants where monthly salaries rarely exceed 2,500 dirhams (about U.S. $260). Driven by a lack of options and entrepreneurship, many resort to starting businesses in the informal economy, or often face exploitation at the hands of employers who exploit their vulnerability.
Most sub-Saharan immigrants still rely on the informal economy to make a living, and oftentimes in drug trafficking and sex work, according to a 2008 study by a Moroccan migration research institute, AMERM. Their lack of access to the formal economy pushes them to the margins of society; the most fortunate live in crowded rooms in poor neighborhoods, others sleep on the streets, in cemeteries, and forests.
Migrant workers often report employer noncompliance with very low wages, excessive hours of work, lack of freedom of movement, absence of days of rest and holidays, and often dangerous and difficult work conditions. Their vulnerability is reinforced by the fact that obtaining a residence card often does not change their situation.
The 2013 and 2015 Reforms: A New Vision for Integration?
In 2013, the Moroccan government put in place the New Migration Policy, a comprehensive development framework to address the complex and inter-related issues of irregular migrants, refugees, and human trafficking. Significantly, the NPM has offered irregular migrants a path toward legal residency and the resulting access to social and employment services, health care, and subsidized housing on par with Moroccan citizens. This step towards regularization is promising, and it acknowledges that migrants add value to the economy, however it is unlikely that the Moroccan economy would be able to reap those benefits when so many migrants are shunted to the margins of society.
For sub-Saharan migrants, for many of whom the migration may have been clandestine, engendered by human trafficking, or where conflict in the country of origin hinders return, it is often difficult or impossible to get the necessary documentation, such as educational certificates or employment records. This represents a major obstacle to access formal employment or other professional or economic opportunities in Morocco, which has a high level of bureaucracy.
Building Social Capital and Networks: Dream or Reality?
The New Migration Policy offers a solid policy—on paper: “Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa take full advantage of the economic and social opportunities offered by the NPM by building the social capital that would allow them to secure their own progress as an integrated member of one of the many diverse communities of Morocco through having a strong participation in the development of the prosperity of the country.”
Unfortunately, the precarity experienced by sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco hinders their ability to establish a collective voice, without which it is challenging to negotiate measures that could facilitate integration and settlement. Furthermore, the institutional landscape is too focused on supporting repatriation—for which there are monetary incentives—and strengthening the government's capacity to combat human trafficking, which distracts from integration and settlement support efforts for migrants. And the government has a limited understanding of the unique problems faced by migrants, and has few mechanisms to provide effective support for integration.
But the government is not alone in its blindness: Both migrants and Moroccans lack the vision to recognize the benefits that could be reaped from full integration and settlement. For the migrants, some are reluctant to settle in Morocco in a definitive way; others lack the capacity, amid marginalization, exploitation, and hostility from the native-born public, to do so. As for Moroccans themselves, given the acute need of many sub-Saharan migrants for access to social services such as education, health care, housing, and vocational training, it may seem counterintuitive to actively welcome migrants to a country that, despite its gains, faces still-significant economic and social challenges.
As Morocco projects its presence on the African continent, the integration of sub-Saharan immigrants into Moroccan society is a priority. If links could be forged between sub-Saharan immigrants and Moroccans—a sense of community based on national, or even social ties—diversity would gradually spread. These immigrants occupy a new place in the urban landscape; they are mobile and travel all over Morocco, curious about the society around them. Many of them learn Moroccan Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and cultivate a real sense of belonging. While this effort to create connections between communities is easier for sub-Saharan Africans residing legally and financially, it could also facilitate the integration of vulnerable immigrants.
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