“It is strictly prohibited to let apartments to Africans.” Notice stuck on a wall in Morocco (Source: Facebook). Here the allusion to ‘Africans’ signifies the deeply racist distinction made between migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Moroccans in everyday language use.
By Dorte Thorsen
“I’m tired of the combat at Tanger” exclaimed a Senegalese friend over the phone from Morocco in July, “I’ve tried to cross four times in these past days but I haven’t had luck! Today 231 migrants were imprisoned. I’m going home!”
In a Migrating out of Poverty researcher, Dorte Thorsen, has followed the lives of migrants, refugees, and international students from West and Central Africa who lived in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, in 2012. Ethnographic research then, a follow-up field visit in 2014, and regular contact via phone and social media offers insights into how ideas about opportunity, risk, social standing, and settlement shape the lives of migrants.examining the social effects of European migration management,
What migration statistics tell
The number of irregular sea crossings via the Western route in the Mediterranean Sea has almost tripled since 2017 and, according toand IOM, 35 per cent of the migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea are currently travelling via this route. These numbers do not denote a new wave of migration via North Africa. The total number of people entering Europe undocumented by sea is less than half of the numbers recorded in 2017 and a fifth of those recorded in 2016.
Although, the bleak reports of detention, extortion and slavery-like conditions in Libya have triggered a shift in route preference, not all of the migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean are recent arrivals in North Africa. Some are in fact of North African origin, others, like my friend, have lived in North Africa for five-six years or more. This blog examines their experiences to shed light on what makes them decide to invest time and money in the journey to Europe, and how this is linked with the broader effects of migration management and border control.
Politics of transit and settlement
Often Morocco is thought of as a transit country for migrants originating in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is increasingly recognised as a country of settlement and refuge. Some migrants and refugees settle reluctantly because they do not manage to move to the location they had hoped for due to the hardened border control in Europe, others settle to study, work or engage in trade. A study published in 2016 byreveals that 65 per cent of the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa came to Morocco with the idea of settling there.
The management of Moroccan borders has fluctuated considerably over time with profound bearings on migrants and refugees; from border patrol far away from the physical borders, to exclusion from the labour market, to regularisation of some of the many migrants who were living undocumented in the country. The UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is in charge of registering and processing asylum claims, awaiting a pending Moroccan asylum law. Until the regularisation process, recognised refugees were barred from the labour market and the UNHCR only had funding for allowances to the most vulnerable refugees, pushing the rest into petty-business and illegal work.
In 2012-13 migrants originating in sub-Saharan Africa experienced waves of systematic harassment and deportation to no man’s land between Morocco and Algeria at Oujda or desert regions further to the south. Only after the UNHCR raised concern that asylum-seekers and refugees were among the deported were these categories of migrants spared deportation. Such campaigns have happened sporadically since the mid-2000s, often prompted by negotiations of migration management with the EU and individual European countries (seefor a critical account of Afro-European negotiations). While European migration politics play a central role, the indiscriminate targeting of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa also demonstrates deep-seated racism in Morocco.
In 2013, Morocco reacted to pressure from the UN Committee on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and the National Council for Human Rights. A Royal Decree prompted a regularisation process in which around 25,000 irregular migrants, who had lived in the country for years, were given temporary residency in 2014. Another 24,000 migrants are expected to benefit from a second and on-going regularisation process. Furthermore, after the first regularisation process, recognised refugees were also regularised. However, the regularisation of refugees was on hold most of 2017, thereby preventing refugees the necessary documentation for accessing the formal labour market.
With the recent rise of sea crossings over the summer 2018, Morocco has again come under pressure from Europe to patrol its borders better. We are currently seeing an extreme hardening of how migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are treated by the Moroccan state that cannot be attributed to European migration politics alone. The newest wave of systematic and forced movement of migrants - regardless of their legal status - away from the northern cities to small towns and desert areas in the south of the country is the outcome of migration politics and both popular and political resistance to the new forms of heterogeneity that follow immigration. Harassment is not restricted to border regions but spill into big cities across Morocco, destabilising the lives of settled migrants and refugees.
Living in Morocco as a migrant from sub-Saharan Africa
Regardless of their legal status, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa frequently find themselves in a situation circumscribed by structural racism. Each time systematic harassment is welling up, many migrants lie low. Migrants who lived in Rabat in 2005 recounted how they had left their houses to sleep in the open on the outskirts of the neighbourhoods to avoid raids at night. In 2012, they recounted fleeing the police after being rounded up, and a few recounted their journeys back to Rabat after deportation.
When campaigns waned, migrants were still circumscribed by structural racism. Employers got, and still get, away with paying lower wages to migrants than to Moroccan workers without penalties. Landlords can refuse to let to black migrants and they get away with asking rents that are two-three times higher than what Moroccan tenants pay. Many migrants have experienced eviction or the threat of eviction, sometimes for fickle reasons, other times because they are in breach with their tenancy agreement because they are in arrears with the rent due to lack of income, share accommodation or operate home-based businesses. Others are affected by conflicts of ownership and use within landlord families, resulting in eviction and even of having all their belongings destroyed with no recourse to justice or compensation, as happened to another Senegalese friend and his housemates in 2016.
Regardless of their legal status, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are subject to high levels of street violence, especially in the poorer neighbourhoods of large cities where they are seen as competitors for meagre resources and easy targets. A substantial number of migrants described being attacked by groups of Moroccan youths. Asylum seekers and refugees noted that their complaints to the police were shelved immediately and irregular migrants stayed clear of the authorities not to risk detention and deportation, thus they never made complaints.
Effects of the regularisation processes
Small changes are noticed after the first regularisation process. In Rabat, migrants with residency or refugee status are increasingly moving from the poorest neighbourhoods in the cities to newly built satellite towns on the outskirts, where they rent apartments rather than rooms in traditional residential riads. The better quality of housing is off-set by the time and costs of traveling to city-centres where work can be found more easily and, especially among the petty-traders, not all wish to live far from work and trading places.
The residency permit also enables migrants to take formal employment and thus to enjoy protection of their rights as workers. However, apart from a few niches such as call-centres where Francophone migrants have an advantage, specific factories and the hospitality and care industry, it is still very difficult for migrants to penetrate the Moroccan labour market and earn a regular and fixed income. Female migrants working in domestic service are among the workers who have benefitted most from the regularisation. They appear to increasingly choose a combination of several part-time jobs to reduce the risk of exploitation rather than working full-time as live-in domestics workers at the beg and call of their employer.
The majority of migrants get by doing informal, casual work, petty-trade and a small number of them operate informal restaurants, bars and guesthouses from their homes. People in these trades suffer a diverse range of interventions, which are not uniquely driven by migration politics but also by urban planning. Several of the women, who ran successful restaurants in the past, have closed business due to pressure from their landlords. My Senegalese friend, whose account opened the blog, experienced a series of fluctuations in his street trade linked with campaigns to clear the streets of petty traders, including Moroccan street traders, to campaigns harassing migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, and probably also to competition among the petty-traders as their numbers waxed and waned.
Fluctuation in sea crossings
Several interlinked fluctuations are at play when numbers of detected sea crossings change. For the many migrants who have been in Morocco for a while, the experience of everyday racism among the population in the neighbourhoods where they live is exacerbated by structural racism that allows abuse, exploitation and marginalisation to continue. Lack of integration and economic conditions that allow migrants and refugees to establish themselves and maintain their socio-economic aspirations of social standing, welfare and education of their children, push them to look for other options. Among these options, crossing into Europe figures as one with future potential, as long as it is not safe or economically viable in the long term to return their country of abode prior to journeying to Morocco.
Fluctuations in sea crossings are also related to seasonality and the likelihood of detection before leaving Moroccan waters. It is not only this year but every summer that the number of sea crossings rise as the sea is calmer and warmer. My friend has tried to cross over to Spain almost every summer since 2012, as well as a couple of times during seasonal festivities when the border patrol is perceived to be less vigilant. Over the years he has spent more than £2,000 trying to access the European labour market, and he is certainly not alone in making this sacrifice to reach Europe.
The amount of money spent in aborted attempts to enter Europe, not to speak of the lives lost, would be better spent elsewhere. It is easy to assume that the money could set up business in their countries of origin or even in Morocco. However, it should be clear that currently the political mood in Morocco is not very different to anti-immigration movements in Europe. The conditions are not presently allowing more than a few migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to consolidate themselves in Morocco. Some migrants return to their country of origin. If those who continue trying their luck crossing the Mediterranean Sea thought they could set up viable business or gain durable employment with the resources they pay to the people helping them cross, they have enough economic acumen to do so. As they do not hold this belief, it would perhaps be better if loss of money and lives were prevented by giving temporary access to European labour markets, allowing migrants and refugees to spend the money on their visa and upkeep at the beginning of their stay in Europe.