“Despite a year marked by successive tragedies as a result of the recrudescence of repression, institutional violence and racism, will 2013 mark a historical turn for politics of migration in Morocco? Will foreigners and migrants be recognized into society?” These questions headed an article by Micheline Bochet Milon, a member of the Groupe anti-raciste d’accompagnement et de défense des étrangers et des migrants (GADEM), in the last issue of the Louna-Tounkaranké network’s newsletter. At the time, migrants’ associations and NGOs were wedged between hope and caution as several important changes unraveled in Morocco. The most important of these was the unprecedented announcement of an “exceptional” regularization process for “irregular” migrants (e.g. those who lacked appropriate residency documents). Alas, distressing events in Morocco and at the Spanish border, including the very recent death of at least fifteen migrants outside Ceuta, have rendered even more salient migrants’ yearning for the respect of their rights.
Last year, the “issue” of migration sprang to the forefront of Morocco’s political agenda. The scope of daily abuses and racism against sub-Saharan migrants reached beyond the borders of Morocco and caused public outcry: international media like the Guardian and the BBC reported the harrowing conditions in which migrants live. The endemic racism in Morocco, the human rights abuses, and the controversial involvement of the European Union (EU) were also the subject of two Jadaliyya articles (one by Samia Errazzouki and another of my own) last summer. Since then, the discrepancy between Morocco’s criticisms of the treatment faced by its own diaspora in Europe and the harsh living conditions sub-Saharan migrants endure in Morocco has become even more conspicuous and untenable.
Rapid changes have been taking place. In September 2013, the state-appointed Moroccan National Council of Human Rights (known by its French acronym, CNDH) released a report, Foreigners and Human Rights in Morocco, which criticized the government’s repressive politics of migration and included a series of recommendations in line with those that had been demanded for years by other civil society members. These demands included recognition of asylum, end to violence, and a more just process of regularization. This report was released after a summer of intense campaigning by NGOs and migrants’ associations, culminating in the publication of another report, “Report on the Application in Morocco of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families,” compiled by GADEM.
The CNDH’s recommendations, deemed relevant by King Mohammed VI, were quickly endorsed by a communiqué from the royal cabinet, further disavowing the government at a time of tension between Prime Minister Benkirane and King Mohammed VI. On 10 September 2013, the king gave instructions for a new, innovative migration politics. EU officials quickly and enthusiastically applauded these initial announcements. So far, the most significant outcomes have been the establishment of an unprecedented operation of regularization for undocumented migrants, which started 2 January 2014, as well as the long-awaited development of a politics of asylum in Morocco.
Thus, Morocco has been pressed to acknowledge that it can no longer consider itself a mere transit country and continue abusing the human rights of migrants by stressing they are simply en route to Europe. However, NGOs and migrant associations have remained vigilant. On 4 December 2013, a month before the start of the regularization process, Cédric Bété, a Cameroonian migrant, "fell" from the fourth floor of a building in Tangier during a police raid: another suspicious death involving police brutality which prompted NGO actors to ask if "death squads" were targeting migrants in Tangier despite official avowals for change.
On 23 January, Anis Birou, Minister in Charge of Moroccans Living Abroad and Immigration Issues, announced during a meeting with civil society representatives that the regularization campaign had been unfolding under "very good conditions." Migrants had submitted nine hundred and fifty dossiers in Rabat at the time. The minister’s enthusiasm was not entirely shared by NGOs, who pointed to several mishaps. Khadija Elmadmad, law professor and holder of the UNESCO Chair for “Migration and Human Rights,” stressed that:
Eighty per cent of the people who will be regularized thanks to this operation are in fact people who are already entitled to a residency card according to international rights to which Moroccan right is subscribed to by virtue of its international engagements.
Representatives of migrants’ associations also reported the worries of many migrants who fear the campaign is aimed at gathering information in order to facilitate future deportations.
NGOs and migrants’ associations have denounced the regularization criteria (having lived for at least five years in Morocco; having lived together with a Moroccan spouse for at least two years; having been employed for at least two years, among others) as too restrictive and extremely difficult to prove. For instance, after decades of criminalization of migration, Moroccan employers remain hesitant in hanging out certificates for fear of reprisals. Hence, the NGOs and associations have created Coordination for the Regularization of Undocumented Migrants in Morocco (Coordination pour la Régularisation des Sans-papiers au Maroc). Commonly referred to as the ‘Papiers pour Tous’ collective (a nickname reminiscent of a similar movement in France in the 1990s), their objective is the regularization of all migrants on the “mere basis of migrants’ expression of their will.” Set up to monitor the regularization process and inform migrants, the Papiers pour Tous collective has denounced continued police raids and argued for a moratorium on deportation.
Since then, the collective has already pointed to several shortcomings, including the rejection of a dossier in Casablanca. The trial of Mamadou Diarra in a military court has also sparked further outrage. On 10 July 2012, a Moroccan soldier died at the Farkhana border post near the Spanish enclave of Melilla, allegedly killed by a stone thrown by a sub-Saharan migrant attempting to climb over the barrier. (These borders are composed of three sets of fences, equipped with barbed wire. Set up in 2005 by the Spanish socialist Zapatero government, and removed in 2007 in Melilla, though not in Ceuta, following NGOs protestations, the barbed wire has been controversially reinstalled in October 2013, shortly after Spain congratulated Morocco on its new politics of migration.) As stated in a communiqué by Moroccan NGOs and migrants’ associations, the incident triggered a brutal and collective reprisal against migrants. Hundreds of people, including injured migrants, children, and pregnant women were rounded up and deported to the Algerian border. Among them was sub-Saharan Mamadou Diarra, barely eighteen years old, who spoke neither Arabic nor French, but only Bambara. Diarra has now spent over a year and a half in prison. With few contacts in Morocco, he was an easy scapegoat over the death of the soldier. His lawyer Naïma El Guelaf recalled that “since his arrest, he has been heard by a judge only once, and without the presence of a translator.” In their press release, the associations have asked for the liberation of Mamadou Diarra as well as the suspension of a law which authorizes the trial of civilians by a military court.
NGOs’ recommendations ask for Morocco’s actions to be brought in line with international treaties and recent royal engagements: last year, in a communiqué from the Royal Cabinet, King Mohammed VI endorsed the recommendation from the CNDH on the military court which recommended putting an end to this practice. A sit-in had been organized by migrants’ rights NGOs on 3 February but has been cancelled as the audience was called off until further notice. Mamadou Diarra remains in the Salé prison.
GADEM founding member Medhi Aloua had warned that the “radically new politics of migration” would require a national dialogue on the necessity of welcoming foreigners. He declared that failing to do so would amount to “planting the seeds of a future form of racism and xenophobia.” Last year already, anti-migrant demonstrations in Tangier and new racist headlines in Moroccan media, including an unrepentant and recidivist Maroc Hebdo, alerted NGOs. More recently, it is Moroccan politicians who have created a new polemic. Politicians from the second chamber of the Moroccan parliament warned Health Minister El Hossein El Ouardi against potential health hazards caused by sub-Saharan migration. Stigmatizing the migrants, they have argued for their monitoring and vaccinations “to prevent them from transmitting dangerous and contagious diseases to the Moroccan population.”
Notwithstanding the flaws in the regularization process in Morocco, it is the borderlands with Spain which have again become the subject of most international outcry. A video by the Spanish NGO Prodein, based in Melilla, shows the Guardia Civil deporting migrants back to Morocco two hours after a group of about sixty migrants had managed to cross the razor-topped fences. Ex tempore deportations out of any formal procedure amount to refoulement and are explicitly illegal under the 1951 Geneva Convention since it prevents potential refugees from presenting their asylum case; essentially, it is illegal under international law for the Guadia Civil to return migrants to Morocco without any legal process. However, as stated in one of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) bulletin, Spanish officers involved in pushback operations have been advised this practice was allowed by the 1992 readmission agreement between Spain and Morocco. Carlos Arce Jiménez, Migration Coordinator at the Spanish NGO Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de Andalucía (APDHA) and researcher at the University of Cordoba makes clear:
The readmission agreement in itself provides for certain safeguards that are not respected in this kind of action and in any case, no bilateral agreement can legitimate a state to violate its own legislation, in this case Spain’s Law on Foreign Persons.
Indeed, the leader of Prodein, José Palazón Osma, has denounced the non-respect of legal procedures pertaining to irregular migrants by the Spanish Rajoy government. The Spanish Home Office Minister, Jorge Fernandez Diaz, admitted that there “may be specific cases” where the law was not fully applied but that “in general” the Guardia Civil and the police acted in accordance with the law.
This rhetoric prompted Moroccan online news outlet Yabiladi to stress the “double standards” in dealing with migrants. Illegal deportations of Syrians from Algeria had triggered loud reactions from Rabat, including the convocation of the Algerian ambassador. Similar exactions from the European neighbor have seen little from Rabat. For Yabiladi, this attitude confirms that Morocco has taken on its role as Europe’s gendarme. A previous Jadaliyya article emphasized the importance of a readmission agreement at the heart of negotiation processes between Morocco, Spain, and the EU. It also recalled allegations by migrants of illegal refoulements involving Moroccan and Spanish authorities in the borderlands, notably during the events which led to the death of Clement, a Cameroonian migrant, as reported in the “Number 9” campaign materials. Until now, no visual evidence of such practices had been provided.
On 6 February, at least fifteen migrants died trying to swim to Ceuta by the beach of El Tarajal, the only official border crossing between Morocco and Ceuta. Over two hundred migrants attempted the crossing. Migrants who survived have testified the Guardia Civil pushed back people who had managed to enter Ceuta and shot rubber bullets and tear gas at migrants, including those at sea. After having initially denied the use of anti-riot gear against migrants, Spain has changed its tune. It now claims that shots were not fired directly at migrants, but in a parabola over the fence in response to aggressive migrants throwing stones at the Guardia Civil and were never fired against migrants at sea. A video corroborates NGOs’ and migrants’ claims that some people had made it to Spanish territory. Other images and videos by the migrants themselves have been released, including the distressing video of migrants mourning their dead on the beach. Osma has accused the Guardia Civil of behaving “like the mafia.”
The story has had a tremendous impact in Spain, but hardly any coverage abroad. While British and other European media were reporting that British Immigration Minister Mark Harper had resigned over his cleaner’s visa, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, one of the main opposition parties, had officially demanded to Díaz to explain himself in front of the Parliament. Other political parties in the opposition have asked the Minister to step down as he is “unfit for the post” and “has lied and concealed information about the violations of human rights.” Maria Jesus Vega, spokesperson for the UN High Commission on Human Rights in Madrid, has declared that they were “extremely preoccupied by the fact that people in need of international protection risk their lives to reach safe countries and lose it at the doors of member states of the European Union.” Spanish NGOs from the international network Migreurop have called for the set-up of a parliamentary commission to investigate police controls at the borders of Ceuta and Melilla. Accusing both Moroccan and Spanish forces of having used anti-riot gear to disperse migrants, and drawing a parallel with the recent rescue of over one thousand one hundred migrants south of Sicily, they point to the “absolute failure of Spanish and European politics of migration, obsessed with the protection of borders.” On 10 February, Spanish NGOs lodged a plaint and have asked for the surveillance images to be released. During protests convened in fifteen Spanish cities to condemn the death of the migrants, one of the most popular slogan was “they did not drown, they were murdered.”
Instead, Arsenio Fernandez Maza, director of the Guardia Civil has qualified the intervention of his forces as “impeccable” and released a video showing migrants allegedly violently attacking the Ceuta fence. However, as highlighted by the Spanish media Periodista Digital, the video provided does not date from the 6 February. In a press release prior to public explanations by the Spanish Home Office Minister, association SOS Racismo has called for Maza to resign. During his intervention at the Spanish parliament, Diaz refused to blame the Guardia Civil and reiterated that migrants showed an "exceptional violence." Disagreement remains between Spanish authorities and NGOs over the ways anti-riot material was used against migrants. For Diaz there was no “causal relationship” between the deaths of migrants and the use of anti-riot gear which he qualified as “rational.” Pointing to diverging official accounts from Spanish authorities, Migreurop reacted to Diaz’ justifications by demanding "clear and complete explanations as well as political accountability." In an open letter to the Spanish ambassador in Rabat, Moroccan NGOs have joined the Spanish civil society in denouncing the abuses of migrants’ rights on both sides of the border. These include beatings and summary deportations from Spain, and, in Morocco, the rounding-up of migrants near Tangier. These migrants are often subsequently deported to the interior of the Moroccan territory, in breach of the procedures stated in Morocco’s 02-03 law and in violation of Article 16 of the United National Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
Diaz denied the breach of international conventions in stating that migrants reached the Spanish beach of El Tarajal but never passed a cordon of officers posted on the shore. ECRE and Spanish organizations ACCEM and the Comision Espanola de Ayuda al Refugiado, in a joint statement, denounced such “creative construction of the territorial scope of Spanish and EU legislation.” They highlighted the following:
When migrants set foot on Spanish soil, they are entitled to the rights laid down in Spanish and European asylum and migration legislation. If confirmed that the migrants concerned have been handed over to the Moroccan authorities without any consideration of their individual circumstances or their international protection needs, this would very likely constitute a violation of the principle of non refoulement as laid down in the 1951 Refugee Convention, the EU asylum acquis and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Moroccan and Spanish NGOs are still collecting testimonies from survivors of the 6 February ordeal, who have been scattered following deportation and their search for medical care. The final death toll for the migrants remains contested and provisional.
For the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), the Ceuta events on 6 February are “yet another example of the continued prioritisation [sic] of border control over human lives.” A EMHRN report fustigates the “mobility partnership” between the EU and Morocco and calls for the establishment of a cooperation which would guarantee the full respect of migrants’ rights: “failure to do so will mean that this ‘Mobility Partnership’ will continue to reflect an asymmetric relationship, where the securization [sic] of European borders will come, once again, at the expense of human rights in the region.” In October 2013, NGO leaders signed a collective tribune in French newspaper Liberation, entitled “Lampedusa: Europe assassinates.” For them, the Lampedusa tragedy was “not a fatality” but a result of Europe’s obsession with the security of its borders. Similarly in Ceuta, the recent events are reminiscent of the autumn 2005 Ceuta and Melilla events during which at least eleven migrants had died during several attempts at crossing the border Spain. The same logic prevails in Europe today. On 6 February, away from Ceuta, over one thousand one hundred migrants were rescued south of Lampedusa in one day. How long before another death occurs near Ceuta and Melilla once Spanish and European leaders have shed their crocodile tears?
Additionally, further evidences of human rights abuses have emerged as Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its report “Abused and Expelled: Ill-Treatment of Sub-Saharan African Migrants in Morocco” on 10 February. HRW reports that while the practice of expulsions toward the Algerian border seems to have come to a stop, security forces in Morocco are still using violence against migrants. For Bill Frelick, refugee program director at HRW, “Morocco should make clear to its security forces that migrants have rights.” Similarly, Spain is urged to put an end to summary returns to Morocco via the Melilla border. Hence, while the report acknowledges asylum reform and the regularization process in Morocco, HRW further illustrates that this has not implied the systematic respect of all migrants’ rights. Eric Goldstein, deputy director for HRW MENA region, pointed that whilst there are no more deportations to the Algerian border since October, migrants, including those wounded, who “are rounded up in Oujda, Nador, Melilla and Ceuta to be deported to Algeria are now brought by bus to Rabat and Casablanca.”
Morocco’s “blatant denials” of the HRW report have been highly disappointing for activists who, on social media, accused Morocco of having had recourse to the same disingenuous refutations for the past ten years. Communication Minister Mustapha El Khafi’s assertions that the report was “obviously unfair” since it overlooked Morocco’s “new politics of migration” prompted HRW to issue a statement recognizing that Morocco had made “a bold move” in announcing reforms. However, HRW stands by its report and concludes that only:
If the reforms end up safeguarding the rights of asylum-seekers and other migrants, Morocco can become a model in northern Africa, where most states treat migrants from the rest of Africa disgracefully. Morocco should start, however, by reining in its own forces when they treat migrants disgracefully.
On 15 February, the first residency cards were handed in Tangier, Casablanca, Rabat, and Oujda, six weeks after the start of the regularization process, in highly mediatized ceremonies. NGOs are now scrutinizing the process to assess in what conditions migrants’ applications were granted or refused.