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Uncertain Future: Racial Discrimination Against African Migrants in Morocco

Racial discrimination in Morocco goes beyond state, society and culture.

Jean is a young Sub-Saharan African student, hailing from the Ivory Coast, and now living, studying, and working in Rabat, Morocco. He claims he has never been the victim of racial slurs, and has never felt discriminated against. “Thank GOD,” he said in an interview with Fair Observer, “I’ve never been discriminated against, and that will never happen.” Unfortunately, Jean is among the minority who share that sentiment.

For decades, Morocco has been a popular destination for Sub-Saharan Africans to migrate in search of employment and education. Morocco’s proximity to Europe makes it a favorable tourist destination, and its multilingual heritage bodes well for migrants from African francophone nations. Since the 1990s the number of students and laborers from African countries has increased as rapidly as the African refugees fleeing conflict, seeking refuge in Morocco. Historically, many migrants’ final destination was Europe, but with latter’s own economic problems, their final destination is often Morocco’s largest cities, Casablanca, Fes, Tangier, Marrakesh or Rabat.

Transit Country

When Morocco became a frequent “transit” country for Sub-Saharan migrants in the 1990s, the Moroccan government issued “coordinated security measures and border management” in order to curb the number of migrants entering and leaving the country. Some of these efforts resulted in police violence against migrants in attempt to control the borders, and while some migrants were able to complete their journey across the border, many remained in Morocco or were deported. Those that remained were often marginalized by not only the government, which until recently did not provide any form of legal protection for unregistered inhabitants of Morocco, but also socioeconomic marginalization. Many, for lack of financial resources, were forced to live in bidonvilles or slums outside of many Moroccan cities. Human Rights Watch visited many of these sites where migrants often lived in “tents improvised from sticks, branches, and plastic tarps” meant to house several families.

With the significant increase in migrants,who settled in Morocco rather than pass through, there also came a shift in the Moroccan workforce. A number of Sub-Saharan migrants entered the informal workforce, securing jobs as laborers in construction, domestic service, or similar work; however, the nature of the informal sector — jobs that often paid under the table, required no government oversight, nor were they regulated by labor restrictions — did well to keep the growing migrant population marginalized from Moroccan political life and society. Often lacking proper legal status, many Sub-Saharan migrants then became the frequent target of racism, discrimination, and violence in Morocco — Moroccan society ferociously rejecting the migrant’s alien culture, religions, and customs.

Public discourse only perpetuated the notion of an ”alien” culture imposing itself on Moroccan society, presupposing that Morocco consisted of a homogenous population. In 2012, “the cover of the Moroccan weekly Maroc Hebdo represented sub-Saharan migrants as “the Black Danger,” suggesting that they increase drug trafficking, prostitution, and pose a human and security problem. Additionally, many Moroccan public figures spoke out to express similar sentiments, expressing that African migrants increased unemployment among Moroccans, which is estimated to be 10.2% as of early 2014, and vowing to take measures to further close off the formal sector to non-Moroccans.

The “Black Danger” issue of Maroc Hebdo cited Morocco’s Interior Ministry’s figures, putting the number of illegal sub-Saharan immigrants living in Morocco at 10,000, while human rights organizations put the number closer to 15,000. Other controversial estimates by the Moroccan Home Office estimates 25,000-45,000 irregular migrants are present in the country. The thousands of migrants living in Morocco encounter daily racism at all levels of society. On the streets, it is not uncommon to hear “jokes about the fear of having a black baby, about black smell, and about women using a harmful, cheap face cream that whitens the skin.” The abuse extends beyond the streets, however; recent reports of Moroccan security forces emerged of systematic physical abuse of migrants in the northeastern part of Morocco.

The difficulty that Sub-Saharan migrants face in entering the formal workforce, gaining legal status, or merely staying in Morocco voluntarily is perpetuated by a society governed by racial hierarchy.

A series of violent attacks against migrants made international headlines in the past few months. Human Rights Watch chronicled the cases of young men who were forced over the Moroccan border into Algeria by Moroccan security authorities, police raids of unofficial migrant camps in the areas outside of Oujda and Nador in northeastern Morocco where police destroyed migrant’s temporary housing, looted their belongings, and arrested and then forcefully deported them, overlooking judicial due process under the law.

State Efforts and Complicity

However, the law falls short where the government fails to protect those under it. Early this year, the Moroccan government established the offices for the regularization of migrants. The law stipulates that Sub-Saharan migrants are able to obtain residence permits as well as access to education, healthcare, and other public services. Despite efforts from the government to further integrate migrants as productive members of Moroccan society, the abuse did not subside.

In response to increased marginalization and institutionalized racism, the migrant community united to support each other. Jean spoke of the harmony that exists between the migrant students and workers, all from different countries all over Africa. He said: “There is understanding, solidarity because we are all strangers in a land that is not ours.” A migrant-community civil society began to emerge in Morocco, composed of human rights organizations and support groups such as the Association Beni Znassen pour la Culture,  le Développement et la Solidarité (ABCDS) and the Groupe antiraciste de défense et d’accompagnement des étrangers et migrants (GADEM) — providing assistance in advocating for migrant rights and providing access to public services such as housing, healthcare, and legal assistance. Initiatives for migrants to support other migrants, however, do little to ease the lack of integration of immigrants into Moroccan society.

As it stands, the situation that migrants in Morocco are facing is caught between the state’s efforts to legally integrate the African community into Moroccan society, and the state’s complicity in permitting societal discrimination. The difficulty that Sub-Saharan migrants face in entering the formal workforce, gaining legal status, or merely staying in Morocco voluntarily is perpetuated by a society governed by racial hierarchy. Moroccan media and culture all lend to the discourse of an “inferior race,” which trickles down to the streets, schools, and labor market.

Jean’s experiences represent, perhaps, the future of Morocco, if the law were to change society. However, racial discrimination is not an inconvenient reality, but a systematic form of abuse that is exacted by all levels of Moroccan society from the government, to security forces, to the average citizen. Although the Moroccan government has recently made concerted efforts to regularize portions of the migrant community in Morocco, motivating substantive social transformation to foster more inclusive social, economic, and political arena will require a targeted effort from the government to initiate top-down social change.

Only the widening of the formal labor market to provide access to more economic opportunities for sub-Saharan migrants will, in theory, create a shift of migrants seeking integration into Moroccan cities, which may lead to increased presence in the formal economy, education sector, and political life. However, this is not a change that will occur with one government action to regularize some undocumented migrants. The Moroccan state and society must be of one mind to generate social transformation, but this is a process that will occur slowly, if the current discourse surrounding the migrant community in Morocco is any indication of the immediate future.

An anonymous student interviewed by a French newspaper, highlights the abuse he faces, saying: “often, when I’m just walking down the street, people will call me a ‘dirty black man’ or call me a slave. Young Moroccans have physically assaulted me on several occasions, for no reason, and passers-by who saw this didn’t lift a finger to help me. All my friends are black and they have all had similar experiences.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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