Sub-Saharan Migrant Rights to Life and Faith in Morocco
Ihotu Jennifer ALI
Advisor: Dr. Khadija ELMADMAD
SIT | Center for Cross-Cultural Learning
March 20 2007
INTRODUCTION & NATURE OF STUDY
The Kingdom of Morocco, from ancient history to the present, has been a haven for
foreigners. Situated at the northern tip of Africa, western edge of the Arab world, and
touching the underbelly of Western Europe, Morocco has been a crossroads for explorers,
traders, imperialists, tourists, and ―travelers‖ of every kind. Moroccan hospitality blends
African and Islamic traditions to welcome foreigners from across the region, propelling a
vibrant tourist industry and the steady growth of expatriate communities in urban Rabat,
Casablanca, and Marrakesh. The Institut Francais in Casablanca welcomes French
nationals for films and cultural events, the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning Center
brings American students and travelers together to learn Moroccan language and culture,
and Lebanese and Syrian restaurants populate the streets outside the walled medina in
Welcoming foreigners is a considerable part of the Moroccan culture and
economy: Europeans sun bathe on cultivated beach shores in Marrakesh and Tanja (or
Tangiers), multi-lingual vendors barter in the languages of their customers, and around
every corner lies an opportunity to buy Moroccan trinkets, postcards, and souvenirs.
Home of the oldest university worldwide, Morocco‘s academic tradition also attracts
numerous students from Sub-Saharan African countries to attend the University of
Mohammed V, among the best in Africa.
Hundreds of lesser known travelers also pass through Morocco, in transit to final
destinations in Spain, France, or elsewhere in the European Union. These clandestine
migrants, unknown even to Moroccans, often travel by foot across the Sahara from
impoverished and violence-ridden regions in West and Central Africa and hope to use
Morocco as a golden ―gateway‖ to Europe. They reside in forests and makeshift camps
outside of northern cities such as Tanja, awaiting smugglers who will ferry them to
Europe for fees up to $1200 each (Migration Information Source 2006) Hundreds die
each year in this perilous journey, yet they continue to cross. Yet as xenophobia, border
control, and deportations steadily rise in Europe, the possibility of settling in Europe has
narrowed, and hundreds of once clandestine, transitory black African migrants instead
concentrate in the slums outside of Moroccan cities and towns.
Compared to other groups of foreigners in Morocco, Sub-Saharan African
migrants are more vulnerable and ill-equipped to support themselves economically. Most
qualify as refugees, and thus international law places them under the responsibility of the
Moroccan government. However, this growing need for refugee support in Morocco
collides with considerable opposing factors: international scorn of African migrants in
media and public opinion, and political pressure from the European Union to police
illegal migration at the limits of North Africa, not Europe. At the convergence of such
global dynamics, this paper questions the endurance of traditional ―Moroccan hospitality‖
and adherence to international law, and examines the unexpected means by which Sub-
Saharan migrants survive and advocate for their rights in an increasingly hostile host
Research Objectives and Methodology
This paper combines research conducted over a period of one year, including four weeks
of field study in Rabat, Morocco. Through a socio-political analysis of Euro-
Mediterranean relations, international human rights law, and the coping strategies of
migrants in Rabat, this year-long study asks the following questions:
1. What is the relationship between Sub-Saharan migrants and native Moroccans?
2. What internal or external resources do migrants draw upon for survival and support?
The research included a variety of print and field sources, including policy briefs,
conference summaries, publications from human rights lawyers and advocacy
organizations, and four weeks of individual and group interviewing and participant
observation in Rabat, Morocco.1 Twenty interviews and two focus groups were held with
migrants, Moroccans, and other foreign nationals (NGO staff) from different socio-
economic classes and professions including academia, law, civil society, religious
institutions, and government. One survey was also completed by 50 migrants to gather
demographic information and their major sources of support while living in Rabat.
The field research focused on church-centered communities of Sub-Saharan
African migrants – including both clandestine migrants and international students – in
four areas of Rabat: Centre-Ville, Hassan, Takaddoum, and Yacoub El Mansour. Focus
groups and survey participants were organized with the support and aid of pastors at these
churches, thus lending legitimacy and reliability to my research in the community. The
majority of research with the migrants was done in French and English, however limited
Arabic was used to communicate with Moroccans about their perceptions of the migrants.
See Appendix 5.4 for complete list and documentation of collected field study.
Historical Background and Research in Euro-African Migration
The northern tip of Morocco, a 60-minute ferry ride from Spain and the European Union,
entices Sub-Saharan Africans and North African magribi alike. Crossing into Europe
means access to employment, social services, political stability, and dozens of benefits
that most African states cannot afford to give their citizens. Thus, emigrants from
countries across Sub-Saharan and North Africa have found their way across Europe‘s
border for decades.
Since Africa‘s first independence movements of the 1960s, emigrants were
generally upper class citizens who traveled to former colonial powers for greater
economic and education opportunities. Yet with the onset of civil violence, military
regimes, environmental crises, and deepening poverty throughout the 1980s and 1990s,
migrants and refugees from all classes suddenly surged out of struggling African
countries. Migrants from recognized civil war regions such as the Democratic Republic
of Congo (Kinshasa), Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Algeria could apply for
political asylum in Europe, however many others who left not only to escape war, but
also famine, disease, poverty, sectarian violence and corruption, could only enter as
―irregular‖ or ―illegal‖ migrants.
This ―irregular,‖ or undocumented migration between Africa and Europe has been
a topic of academic discourse only since the early 1990s, when EU policy research first
began to consider the impact of massive African and Arab immigration. Europe had
strengthened its external borders while, simultaneously, Africans began fleeing en masse
the economic and political disasters of failed structural adjustment and civil violence in
their home countries. Waves of undocumented migrants in Europe and media coverage
of rickety boats and bodies washed ashore in Spain and Italy perked the attention of the
public, rights activists, and policy makers. Yet despite the statements released,
conferences convened, and ongoing media attention, little academic literature exists on
the phenomenon of Sub-Saharan migration across and in Morocco.
Globally accessible literature either refers to broad trends in African-European
migration or border control, or describes the communities of Africans settled in Spain or
France. A handful of policy briefs comments on the historical treatment of migrants in
North Africa and the new tactics of Morocco and Libya, for example, to ‗buy‘ foreign aid
from Europe with the promise to control historically uncontrolled migration (Migration
Information Source 2006). However local research on Sub-Saharans in Moroccan cities
has surfaced only in the past five years, largely due to the work of Moroccan researcher
Mehdi Lahlou. Other informal studies have been conducted, yet most reports are in
French and only available in print copies in Morocco (Barros 2002; Elmadmad 2004;
Alami M‘Chichi 2006).
One notable study, recently published by the Danish Institute for International
Studies, included comprehensive interviews with Sub-Saharan migrants in Rabat,
Casablanca, and Tanja and a review of Moroccan law toward migrants (Sorenson 2006).
This study took a similar aim as my own research and does corroborate several of my
findings, however the field research in this paper was conducted one year later, in April
2006, and focuses specifically on the socio-political dynamics of Rabat and informal
networks created within migrant communities in Rabat. Thus, the Danish Institute report
serves as a supportive base and context within which the following paper provides a more
focused and in-depth analysis.
Defined Terms and Migrant Demographics
Moroccan law identifies a ―foreigner‖ as anyone without Moroccan citizenship, however
more generally, the term ―migrant‖ is applied to any person residing outside his or her
country of origin and/or citizenship (Elmadmad 2004). However, dozens of individual
and situational differences may distinguish one migrant from another.
Regular, or documented migration refers to those that travel across borders with
the informed consent and support of the host country. This includes non-permanent
immigrants such as tourists, foreign NGO staff, international students, or diplomats who
legally reside in Morocco to work, study, or contribute to the tourism economy. Yet this
category also includes ―refugees‖ and ―asylum seekers,‖ defined under the Geneva
Convention of 1949 as ―any person who has fled his/her country because of fear of
persecution‖ (US Immigration Law). Although refugees are less likely to arrive in the
host country with a particular intention (or capacity) to study or add to the economy, they
are processed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rabat and
legally accepted as residents on a humanitarian basis.
Irregular, or undocumented migration includes transit migration and ―clandestine‖
migrants, often called ―sans-papiers‖ (without papers). These migrants are called
―economic migrants‖ because their reasons for migrating are economic, unlike refugees
who migrate for political and security reasons. As mentioned before, economic migrants
may have escaped equally as dangerous situations in their home countries, however only
refugees are recognized at an international level and given legal sanction to reside in the
host country. Economic migrants in Morocco have usually entered ―illegally,‖ by
overstaying visas or crossing the southern borders by foot or bus and hide from
authorities until they continue northward into Europe.
Despite the clarity of these legal categories for migrant groups, it is increasingly
difficult to differentiate between groups and the rights of residency that belong to each.
Because of pressure to crack down on all irregular migrants in Morocco, there are fewer
attempts to distinguish refugees and asylum seekers – legal residents – from economic
migrants – illegal residents – and broad sweeps of Sub-Saharan refugees and students are
commonly identified as economic migrants. Relatively few migrants have been
UNHCR-certified (because of processing delays) and, in any case, Moroccan authorities
tend to treat certified refugees as if they were economic migrants. Thus, this paper refers
to ―Sub-Saharan African migrants‖ in Rabat as a bloc of economic migrants and refugees.
In Morocco, Algeria, and Libya, Sub-Saharan migrants tend to originate from
across West and Central Africa. Most published research documents migrants from a
wide variety of countries, but most commonly from French-speaking Democratic
Republic of Congo (Kinshasa) and Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), and Niger, English-
speaking Nigeria, and Arabic-speaking Sudan (Sorenson 2006). Fifty percent of Mehdi
Lahlou‘s most recent study participants in Morocco were Nigerian, and I also found
Nigerians and Congolese (both Kinshasa and Brazzaville) as the most represented
nationalities in my research (Barros 2002).
SHARING RABAT: AN UNEASY CO-EXISTENCE
In the capitol city of Rabat, immigration tensions are thick: Sub-Saharan women with
sleeping babies beg on the same street corners and for the same dirham coins as poor
elderly Moroccans, dark-skinned Africans are delayed or refused services at cafés,
schools, and hospitals, and the migrants live en masse in crowded apartments on the
outskirts of Rabat. In these slums, poverty, despondency, and competition over limited
resources culminate in disease, gangs, and violence, thus tagging all black Africans with
a precarious reputation. One Moroccan explained the situation, saying ―Why would you
go there? There‘s nothing there, except beggars everywhere in the streets…[and] make
sure you don‘t go alone.‖ Thus, the first question of this study examines the uneasy
relationship between Moroccans and Sub-Saharan migrants in Rabat and the factors that
contribute to the state of this relationship.
Transitory migrants become permanent
Historically, black Africans have had a consistent presence in Morocco. Sub-Saharans
were first brought into the country as servants for the Islamic empire in the 7th century,
mixing Northern and Sub-Saharan African ancestry and, as mentioned before, north-
bound migrants have often stayed in Morocco briefly before crossing into Europe.
However, very dark-skinned Moroccans are relatively few, and Sub-Saharan migrants in
transit usually hid in remote forests or came into cities for short-term jobs or a few weeks
of begging, before continuing into Europe.
Yet as political anxiety over illegal immigration, border policing, and deportations
have steadily risen in Europe, fewer migrants successfully finance and survive the
journey into Europe, changing the ‗transit migrants‘ into de facto ‗immigrants.‘ A border
control and readmission policy between Spain and Morocco has heightened border
security with six-foot walls and armed police, and Spanish authorities now are allowed to
return virtually all undocumented migrants found in Spain to be returned to Tanja.
Asylum admissions have also dropped dramatically in EU countries, decreasing the
number of migrants entitled to residency in Europe under international law. According to
the UNHCR, Europe currently admits only 5% of the world‘s population of refugees, and
most EU nations have cut their admittance of refugees by more than half in the past ten
years. Italy, as one example, accepted 59.4% of asylum applicants in 1990, compared to
only 7% in 2000. Appealing for EU approval and foreign aid, Morocco‘s government
has adopted harsh security and surveillance measures to ensure that undocumented
migrants don‘t enter Europe; however, these policies have simply relocated the migrants
from European cities to Moroccan cities, including Rabat.
Sharing limited economic resources
One of the driving factors in anti-immigration sentiments worldwide is a fear of
economic overcrowding. James Graff of Time Europe comments that ―though the EU
economy is hardly in dire straits, many Europeans feel the squeeze put on the welfare
state, the fear of unemployment and the uncertainty of the post-September 11 world—and
see immigrants as convenient scapegoats‖ (Ratnear). Growing, yet fragile North African
economies such as Morocco‘s feel this same intensifying economic strain as vulnerable
migrants settle in their cities.
Since the early 1980s, European and North African countries have signed foreign
aid and free trade agreements to stimulate development and investment across the
Mediterranean (White 1997). Yet economic growth rates remain low, while
overpopulation rates skyrocket, creating ripe conditions for high unemployment and
scores of young and idle men and women. Even well-educated North Africans struggle
to find jobs in their countries, where unemployment rates may run as high as 30% and
emigration to Europe and the United States is more than common (CIA Factbook).
Thus, when unemployed black Africans begin vying for the same informal sector
jobs as unemployed Moroccans, economic pressure may trump traditions of hospitality in
Moroccan attitudes toward the settling migrants. Whereas previously transitory migrants
only posed temporary competition to other Rabatians, now they rely permanently on the
Moroccan systems of employment, housing, health care, education, and may also be seen
as requiring additional police resources, taking from other social service areas that
previously aided native Moroccans. This sense of competition over limited resources,
combined with negative media stereotypes and a history of uneasy political relations
between Morocco and the rest of Africa, results in a strained relationship between
migrants and native Moroccans in Rabat.
WE’RE ALL SUSPECTS: MIGRANT RIGHTS & REALITIES
For countries such as Morocco, Algeria, and Libya where liberal democracies have only
begun to develop, effective control of such a tremendous amount of migrants each year –
under limited resources – virtually requires an iron fist and the occasional violation of
human and refugee rights. Europe is bound to international treaties and a reputation of
liberal rights, and thus exclude migrants from its borders without undermining its
position in the global community. North African countries, however, risk their
international reputation by bowing to European pressure: employing their own police to
keep African migrants, their blood, and their blame away from European shores.
On September 29, 2005, five Sub-Saharan men were fatally shot while attempting
to scale the ten-foot fence that encircles Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco.
Migrants had commonly crossed into Ceuta or Melilla, another Spanish enclave, in order
to pass easily into mainland Spain and other EU nations, yet as border control
strengthened, a high fence and armed security had been added. Following the shootings,
nearby migrant camps erupted in riots and numerous other migrants stormed the walls of
both Ceuta and Melilla. Eleven more migrants were killed, and several others injured.
Although both Spanish and Moroccan security were present, Morocco admitted to firing
first and has since faced harsh criticism from international NGOs, including Medicins
Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch (Landor 2005).
Whereas migration across the Mediterranean had rarely been a priority among
international rights organizations, the storming of the Spanish enclaves and resulting
fatalities set off numerous investigations into Morocco, Spain, and neighboring countries‘
adherence to human rights law in their migration control practices. Journalists and NGOs
in Africa and Europe quickly published scathing accounts of Moroccan mistreatment of
migrants, making the country a sudden icon for the growing global anxiety over irregular
migration and border security.
Amnesty International charged Spain and Morocco with human rights abuses and
―serious erosion of the laws‖ on account of their negotiated readmission policies. An
investigation of 73 deported migrants found that they had been denied several civil rights:
they were told they would be sent to the Spanish peninsula, denied access to lawyers, and
were not informed of their rights prior to deportation, including the right to apply for
asylum. After deportation, some members of the group had also been physically abused
by Moroccan authorities (Spain Herald 2005).
Médecins Sans Frontiers also accused Moroccan police of abandoning Sub-
Saharan migrants, many of whom had first been deported from Spain, in the Sahara
desert, near the Algerian border. Over 500 people, including pregnant women and
children, were found near the Morocco-Algeria border without food or water, trying to
wander their way back to a shelter. Testimony from a repatriated Malian describes that,
once caught by authorities in Morocco, he was handcuffed and placed on a bus for three
days without food. SOS Racismo and the Asociacion Pro Derechos Humanos de
Andalucia, Spanish NGOs, have also documented several examples of Moroccan military
raids on camps of Sub-Saharan Africans waiting to cross the border into Europe.
According to their reports, the migrants may be assaulted, stolen from, and detained by
the military, upon which they face repatriation or time in the Tetuán prison in northern
As foreigners, out from under the legal protection of their own national
governments, migrants are in especially vulnerable positions and often have ambiguous
legal status and rights, if accorded any at all. Sub-Saharan African migrants, in
particular, may suffer from heightened abuse on account of racism or negative
stereotypes of black Africans as poor, uneducated, and corrupt. Thus, international
NGOs have advocated for a global framework from which migrants can claim rights and
protection against severe abuse, even in the case of irregular migration.
International Law in Morocco
Migrants in Morocco are relatively fortunate because Morocco sets an exemplary
precedent across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe in its willingness to ratify and adopt
human rights in international conventions. In addition to ratifying the Geneva
Convention and international laws of refugee protection in 1951, Morocco also ratified
ten of the most prominent conventions on human rights, including the following
Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of
Refugee Problems in Africa
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman
or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Under the Geneva Convention, Morocco agreed to uphold refugees‘ rights to gainful
employment, housing of the same quality as other foreigners, travel and identity
documents, naturalization, and strict protection against deportation. In addition to these
refugee rights, a new Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers
and Members of Their Families protects all migrants – even the undocumented – against
arbitrary arrest or detention, torture, slavery, and deportation, and rights to adequate
medical care and education. This convention came into effect in July 2003, and although
Morocco ratified it as early as 1991, Morocco is the sole signatory nation across Europe
and North Africa (Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights).
Domestic Law and Regulation
Moreover, Moroccan law recognizes the superiority of such ratified international
conventions over domestic legislation and includes an additional formal system for
attending to migrants within its borders. The first migrant-related legislation and a
Bureau of Refugees and Stateless Persons (BRA) were established in 1957 under the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs to process and provide protection and aid to asylum seekers
and refugees (Lindstrom 2002).
Early Moroccan legislation on migrants and migration followed Islamic laws of
asylum and traditional African customs of warmly receiving foreigners, extending from a
social culture of accommodating foreigners. However, with mounting international
attention to migration and Europe‘s pressure to curb irregular flows, the Moroccan
government has recently displayed anti-migrant sentiments, with mixed reactions by
many Moroccan citizens.
A new law (No. 02-03) regarding foreigners was enacted in November 2003
including severe sanctions for undocumented foreigners and fines up to 500,000 DH
(over $60,000) for anyone who offers assistance to undocumented foreigners (Elmadmad
2004). The ominous message sent by this law, coupled with a high police presence since
October 2005, incited major outcries from human rights groups and individuals in
Morocco. As UNESCO Migration and Human Rights Chair Khadija Elmadmad recalls;
―There were so many things written…saying we should not behave like this to the Sub-Saharans
because they are our neighbors and we are Muslims, and Islam says that we should help those who
are in need. But behind this there is the European pressure… Morocco is in a very bad position.
We have got this traditional hospitality, but at the same time we also need European
money…You've got the civil society helping, and the government, because they're under
pressure…you have this double behavior."
The generosity of civil society organizations has not been markedly diminished by the
law, however since shootings in October 2005, migrants report a sharp increase in harsh,
discriminatory police treatment and violations of international law, particularly the
principle of non-refoulement.
With foreign and financial incentives driving the Moroccan government‘s
response to migrants, the lines and the rights between undocumented migrant and refugee
have blurred considerably. The BRA is supposed to ensure that refugees are accorded
rights equal to Moroccan nationals in the areas of education, employment, and health,
however the institution is virtually unknown to asylum seekers and only acknowledges
refugees verified by BRA. Although many refugees have been recognized by the
UNHCR, only a fraction of these refugees have received necessary documents such as
identification and work permits, provided only by the BRA (Lindstrom 2002). Moreover,
there is a growing tendency among Moroccan police to suspect all Sub-Saharan migrants
as undocumented (and deportable by the new law), contradicting the legal protection of
both UNHCR and BRA documents.
All migrants in Morocco, whether undocumented, students, or refugees, are
theoretically guaranteed at least basic human rights via international law, however the
these legal protections rarely materialize. Only one of 52 survey respondents was
familiar with international or national laws regarding migrants, and virtually none were
interested in learning more about the laws. Thus it seems that the migrants had little
expectation to find assistance through the government or international legal protection,
perhaps because the existing legal instruments had little or no practical impact on their
lives. Local, nongovernmental, and interpersonal networks were much more beneficial
for their particular needs as irregular migrants.
IN LIMBO: MIGRANT RESOURCES & SURVIVAL STRATEGIES
Especially following the events at Ceuta and Melilla in 2005, sympathetic Moroccan
individuals have paid more attention to migrants in Rabat; however, there are few
opportunities for migrants to seek support from civil society organizations. Some
Moroccan NGOs conduct and collect research on migration, but their focus is primarily
Moroccan emigrants in Europe rather than black African migrants in Rabat.
Organizations such as Bayti in Casablanca and Darna in Tanja are beginning to
incorporate migrants into their local community work, and the UNHCR is planning to
work more closely with these locally-grown NGOs over the next couple years. Moroccan
civil society is certainly more aware of the needs of Sub-Saharan migrants, but
nonetheless NGOs are not well organized around or committed to this new issue. The
entire NGO sector is already overburdened with the needs of Moroccan citizens, and
attending to those of migrants is seen as an abandonment of ―local‖ concerns including
unemployment, child labor, and sanitation and development projects.
Only two NGOs work specifically with Rabat migrants and offer basic material
needs and legal counsel: Comité d’Entraide Internationale, founded in 2005 by an
American pastor, and Caritas-Maroc, an international Catholic association. Yet these
organizations receive far more requests than they can fulfill and are characterized by long
lines in which migrants wait up to eight hours to be assisted. At times, the costs of
transportation and waiting for hours without the opportunity to work surpass the few
benefits gained from attending intake sessions. Blankets, small amounts of food, and
medical attention are offered, but to a very limited number of migrants.
Material Networks of Support
Instead of relying primarily on international or national laws or the efforts made by
humanitarian organizations, migrants in this study received the greatest support from
internal, relational sources. International networks linked migrants with family members
(either left behind in Sub-Saharan Africa or already living in Europe), and local
communities formed among migrants or with Moroccan neighbors, providing a great deal
of financial, emotional, and psychological support. Both international and local networks
provided migrants with assistance, however, migrants of different statuses tended to form
different relational networks of support.
With the sudden onset of cell phones and cyber/internet cafés all across the
continent, foreigners could communicate between the cities and countries of Africa better
than ever before. Migrants particularly benefited from international communication and
could stay in contact with family and friends back home, in Europe or elsewhere abroad.
Most survey respondents claimed that their family and friends abroad provided emotional
and moral support, and, as one young man aptly wrote ―through Western Union.‖
Students especially rated family and friends as their most valuable aid networks in their
lives in Morocco, as they had arrived alone and depend greatly on the encouragement and
financial support of parents and older siblings that sponsor their studies in Morocco.
For non-student migrants, however, the survey results were much more mixed.
These migrants were much more likely to be clandestine or refugees, and were often
unable to afford contact with their families or did not even know where they currently
resided. If they could stay in contact with family members and friends, irregular migrants
only received financial support from family that had already emigrated and were living in
Europe or the United States. Because most economic migrants in Rabat had originally
intended to become the financial support for their poor families, they explained to me that
for the time being, in Morocco, they could neither support their families nor expect their
families to support them. Some had not spoken to anyone from their home countries
since their arrival to Rabat.
Many irregular migrants thus turn to the family that accompanies them to
Morocco (if any) and friends they meet along the way to create new families of support in
Rabat. One particular migrant arrived in Morocco with her husband after fleeing political
threats in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and had not spoken to her family in
over a year. She lived in a one-room apartment in G3, Takaddoum, and couldn‘t even
begin look for work until her pending refugee status was verified by the UNHCR.
However, she knew all the other migrants in G3 from when they stayed together in a
makeshift camp just outside of Ceuta and went to them for emotional support. She found
just enough money each month from friends and neighbors, and would go to her
Moroccan next door neighbor whenever she needed a sharper knife or extra pot for
There are thousands of women and men who live in this way, surviving on the
basis of personal relationships made through shared experiences, living spaces, and
shared needs. This kind of aid network is often mutual, and what favor is given one
month may be returned the next, or whenever possible. Through these ―families,‖
migrants also learn of additional resources available to them, such as NGO programs,
one-time jobs cooking or cleaning, or the rare opportunity to relocate to Europe.
Familial networks represent migrants‘ first source of aid when they
arrive in Morocco, and may lead them into other forms of more structured networks, such
as religious groups or humanitarian organizations. However, even these groups are, at
their core, rooted in the interpersonal relationships that most solidly support migrants and
their particular needs in Rabat.
Spiritual Networks of Support
One migrant once described Morocco as being caught between ―a hammer and a nail;‖
tbelow was an impassible desert and above an impassible ocean (and border police), and
in between was a place where ―no one wants to be.‖ Of the many reflections on
Moroccan life that I encountered, this one is among the more extreme but is certainly not
unfounded. Some men claimed they lived like dogs and would rather be dead than
continue living as did in Morocco. Thriving doctors and politicians who narrowly
escaped persecution in their home countries came to Morocco to spend months awaiting
refugee verification, forced to beg or do any menial job for food and rent. Some people
were so frustrated at their lack of options and freedom, and had so little hope for the
future that they seemed ready to ―snap.‖ At this point of despair, migrants often turned to
prayer and religion to fulfill their emotional and psychological needs, in order to believe
in hope and a better future.
Remains of Colonial Christianity
Despite the fact that Morocco is a Muslim country, a few churches remained from French
colonial period and have been ―Africanized‖: today they are facilitated and attended by a
combination of European ex-patriats and Sub-Saharan Africans, or in some churches,
entirely by Sub-Saharans. The Cathédrale St. Pierre, oldest and largest of the churches
in Rabat, dates back to 1930 and is located on the edge of a quiet neighborhood in
Hassan. Another church building is used by two communities – RPF International
Church and Eglise Evangélique – and is Protestant, mid-sized and centrally located in
Centre-Ville, near to the bustling train station.
These two churches are generally attended by multi-cultural congregations,
including Europeans, Americans, and regular Sub-Saharan migrants. Services are held
every Sunday morning in French (one English service is held at RPF) and consist of
music worship, sermons, and prayer – what one might expect of a Western-style church.
Several migrants I interviewed after services claimed that the church provided them with
a Christian community, the opportunity to advance their faith and construct their
personality and values. However, the respondents also placed the value of the church as
an aid network fairly low, at an average of 2 points out of 5.
But there are many more than these two churches in Rabat. As flows of transit
migrants have been forced to settle in Rabat, smaller and more informal churches have
cropped up within poor and irregular migrant communities provide a spiritual alternative
to the formal and more visible churches in Rabat. Assemblée Chrétienne is the largest of
the migrant-founded churches, located on the bottom floor of a large Moroccan house in
Takaddoum, but weekly services also take place in apartment rooms or in side rooms of
the Eglise Evangélique for smaller groups. These churches are more accurately called
―Christian communities‖ than churches, as they are rarely recognized as churches by the
Moroccan state, they have no buildings of their own (the meeting place may be subject to
change at any time), and their by pastors aren‘t ordained, but are elected to leadership.
Rather, the community of believers is the foundation of the church. Its location,
the music and style of preaching, sermon content, and the language of each service are all
relative to the community. Nigerian and Sierra Leonean migrants came together to create
English-speaking churches, Congolese communities play the music of their home
country, and pastors preach stories like that of Joseph – who was abandoned and hopeless
in a dry and foreign land, but rose up to incredible success because of his undying faith –
making a direct allusion to the migrant experience in Morocco. One pastor from
Assemblée Chrétienne exclaimed during one sermon, ―Even in this dry land, Morocco,
God will give you water! When you are forgotten, you are beaten, you have no hope, rest
assured that God is with you. God is faithful.‖
In the space of a small one-room apartment or group of 15 sitting around a table,
the atmosphere could take on a near magical state where sermons uplifted fallen dreams
and promised hope to single mothers, hungry children, and men still haunted by
memories of the desert. Not having eaten the day before, nor knowing how next month‘s
rent would be paid, migrants found the few Dirhams to transport them to church. There
they stayed for hours, applauding at the idea that God, if not the law nor their family nor
even the UNHCR, could give them strength and real hope.
In casual conversation, informal interviews, and throughout focus groups, I was
surprised by the amount of support the irregular migrants seemed to gain from their own
community churches. People constantly wanted to pray with me, so that my research
would be ‗divinely guided,‘ and my focus groups couldn‘t begin without receiving a
blessing. When asked why they had arrived in Morocco, how they expected to leave, and
how they survived day to day, many of the poorest, most suffering migrants answered
―by the grace of God.‖ Although their churches had no financial support and no means
of giving material aid to their members, migrants consistently ranked the Church as high
or higher than NGOs as an important support or resource. Through the fellowship of
church communities, support and counseling from the pastors, and the opportunity to
escape a harsh reality with talk of achieving dreams and faith, migrants in the most dire
of circumstances gained strength and hope.
ONGOING STRUGGLES: ISOLATION
Overall, this study sheds light into the rapidly changing social demographics and
dynamics in Rabat, resulting from external pressures to curb irregular migration from
Sub-Saharan Africa. Precarious relations have developed between native Moroccans and
black African migrants over economic resources, and the perceived culture and identity
between Sub-Saharans and Magribis seem to have widened, at least in this case.
Moroccan security also make sweeping assumptions about all migrants, often mistreating
or deporting migrants who are legally entitled to protection as a refugee, migrant, or
simply to the right to life as a human being. This combination of violations, suspicion,
and distate for black African migrants has forced the migrants to turn inward – to family
and spirituality – for their major sources of aid and financial and moral support, since
most can neither work nor leave Rabat, caught ―between a hammer and a nail.‖
However, the major networks that give them assistance also follow the trend of
being ―clandestine‖ and isolate migrants from mainstream Moroccan society. The
majority of survey respondents felt they were not well integrated into the Moroccan
society and for reasons of nationality, race, religion, and language. The migrants are
clearly not integrated: they live in their own communities and in poor areas that few
Moroccans would dare to visit, most lack documentation or their UNHCR certification is
ignored by the authorities, thus driving the migrants away from public areas where they
could be caught and deported. They are easily identified as foreigners by their skin color
and are subject to occasional racism by Moroccans, causing them to mistrust Moroccans
as well as the Moroccan government for any kind of assistance. Additionally, in a
country where the state religion is Islam and official language is Arabic, these migrants
are largely non-Muslim and few speak Arabic.
These isolated ―migrant bubbles‖ are caused in part by the internal, insular aid
networks developed by irregular migrants, yet also by the natural linguistic and cultural
differences that easily separate migrants from mainstream Moroccans and mainstream
Morocco. Such isolated communities do serve as an aid network in itself, helping the
migrants to feel more comfortable in a foreign country and preserve their cultural,
religious, and linguistic traditions, however at the same time this dramatic separation
from mainstream Morocco puts the migrants at further risk of being misunderstood and
mistreated by Moroccans. Moreover, as it is increasingly illegal, dangerous, and
expensive to migrate to Europe, it is likely that most of these migrants will stay
permanently in Rabat and may at some point want or need to be integrated into
―mainstream society‖ to improve their clandestine, hand-to-mouth existence.
In the years to come, it is uncertain whether the migrants will find a way out of
Morocco, or if they will continue to live in Rabat in segregated, underclass communities.
If the latter is true, social cohesion and economic stability in Rabat may be threatened
unless these ―new‖ foreigners are more appropriately incorporated into Moroccan society
and resources, and particularly health care to avoid public health dangers. This study
confirms the possibility for survival and self-reliance for migrant communities, even
among the most severe conditions, however the long term effects of anti-immigration
policies, harsh border security, and segregated communities have yet to be seen.
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Visits to Nongovernmental Organizations:
Caritas Maroc; Morocco branch of Caritas International [Hassan, 3.28.06]
Association Marocaine d‘Etudes et de Recherches sur les Migrations [Faculté de
Droit, Mohammed V Université, 3.29.06]
Comité d‘Entraide Internationale [L‘Eglise Protestant, 3.30.06]