[This article is the second in a series that addresses the present sociopolitical landscape of migration in Morocco. Read the first part in the series by Sébastien Bachelet: "Cynical and Macabre `Politics of Migration` at Morocco’s Borders."]
After many years of struggling to improve the lives of the sub-Saharan migrant community residing in Morocco, the work of human rights activists finally seemed to pay off in 2013. Moroccan and international human rights groups had been documenting the abuses committed against members of the migrant community for over ten years, and real change finally seemed to be on the horizon. Humanitarian organizations such as Doctors without Borders had been working with vulnerable migrant populations in Rabat and Oujda until May 2013, when they ended their project in protest of the continued police abuse; the organizations were constantly swimming upstream. Furthermore, the BBC aired an investigative documentary on the precarious condition of migrants in Morocco in September 2013, revealing extensive police violence, racism, and inhumane living conditions.
Morocco places great effort in maintaining a positive international image and perpetuates a narrative of “exceptionalism,” promoting its position as a beacon of modernization, economic liberalism, democratization, and reform. Consequently, when many of the reports on anti-immigrant violence began to be publicized in international media outlets like the New York Times and the BBC, the narrative of regional exceptionalism was sharply challenged, and the Moroccan regime began to realize that something drastic had to be done. Morocco has also been reaching out to sub-Saharan African countries more recently to promote economic and security ties. This move to cultivate relations with their southern neighbors has been viewed as an attempt to regain footing and court allies in Africa. After Morocco’s long-time absence from the African Union over the Western Sahara, the country is making moves to advance its position on the continent.
King Mohammed VI announced the need for reform in the area of migration and asylum law in September 2013. This has meant that a process of regularization for certain categories of migrant workers has begun, and the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs is integrating the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process into its mandate. These are two steps in the right direction, and many within and outside of Morocco are cautiously optimistic that this may lead to a better social and political situation for the sub-Saharan community. The current reform process has been spearheaded from the top, but in reality, it is the product of the many years that a vast array of Moroccan and sub-Saharan associations have supported and fought for the political and social rights of the migrant community. Civil society in Morocco has been relentless in holding the authorities accountable for violence against the sub-Saharan community. However, the shift in policy in 2013 requires a more in-depth analysis of civil society and state relations, historical processes of political cooptation, discourses on human rights, and Morocco’s narrative of “exceptionalism.”
“Public Space” in Morocco
In this paper and in my previous two years of research in Morocco, I have employed the notion of civil society as public space (as embodied by Habermas’ legal theory and applied in the Moroccan context by James Sater) because it does not dichotomize civil society and the state so strictly. Furthermore, this approach emphasizes the communicative nature of state-civil society relations. However, while Sater disregarded informal organizations in his work, it is important to incorporate them in any analysis of Moroccan civil society. Some of the most active associations are precisely those unrecognized sub-Saharan associations and human rights associations, which exhibit incredible organization and political engagement, but also remain legally “informal” in terms of the state. 
Dr. Mohammed Khachani of Mohammed V University Rabat-Agdal conducted a study on Moroccan non-governmental organizations that work in the domain of migration entitled Le Tissu Associatif et le traitement de la question migratoire au Maroc (2009). In this study he highlights twenty-nine NGOs and associations that focus specifically on migration in Morocco, which include both sub-Saharan immigration as well as Moroccan emigration. While his study included the primary Moroccan associations that work in this domain, it did not include any international NGOs or the unofficial sub-Saharan associations that are key actors in the civil society network that supports sub-Saharan immigrants and refugees. Consequently, this study and others that mirror its focus on state-recognized groups are problematic; one of the fundamental political, social, and cultural impacts in the field of migration has been the role of the sub-Saharan community and the plethora of associations they have created. Furthermore, the only Moroccan NGO that focuses specifically on the rights of migrants and refugees in Morocco, the Anti-Racist Group for the Defense and Support of Foreigners in Morocco (GADEM) was not legally recognized until late in 2013. This occurred after several years of documenting human rights abuses, providing legal aid, and lobbying in both Morocco and the European Union. In short, the associations that have contributed most to shedding light on the human rights violations the sub-Saharan community experiences on a daily basis have been largely informal vis-à-vis the Moroccan state and civil society.
Civil Society and the National Human Rights Council in Morocco
In terms of state or quasi-state actors, the 2011 constitution granted special status to the former Consultative Council of Human Rights—now the National Council of Human Rights (known by the French acronyms CCDH and CNDH, respectively). King Hassan II called for the formation of this institution through the dahir (royal decree) of May 1990 as an attempt to bridge the gap between civil society and the state. Articles 161 and 164 of the new constitution offer a particular emphasis on combatting all forms of discrimination in the kingdom through the agency as a “whistleblower.” Civil society actors were successful in pressuring the state to reform the CCDH in accordance with the Paris principles. This meant that the CCDH adopted the following articles: Article 2, which states that “the council is supposed to submit a report even on questions where it has not been demanded by the King himself,” as well as Article 6, which took away the right to vote from ministers. This institution is one of the primary “intermediaries” between civil society and the state, in terms of human rights lobbying. However, the independence of this council is heavily questioned, as it is state-funded and the board is appointed by the king from a list that civil society actors compile.
The National Human Rights Council (CNDH) was integral in the 2013 migration reform process after it finally published its report calling “for a radically new asylum and migration policy.” Moroccan NGOs, like GADEM, the independent Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), and a plethora of sub-Saharan migrant associations, (including the Council of sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco and the Collective of sub-Saharan Communities) had been lobbying various institutions in Morocco for these changes well before this report was released. They primarily lobbied the CNDH, the Ministry of the Interior and Foreign Affairs, the Moroccan Parliament, and other domestic and international institutions. The President of the CNDH, Driss El Yazami, has a long record human rights activism in both Morocco and the European Union. He was on the Executive Committee of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, the former Vice President of the French League of Human Rights, and the former secretary-general of the International Federation of Human Rights. However, he has been criticized for his silence at crucial moments of human rights violations in Morocco, such as the aggressive repression of 20 February protestors and the hunger strike of over twenty political prisoners in Morocco. Many activists in Morocco have disputed his reputation as a human rights thinker and advocate for not challenging the palace and status quo more directly. Moroccan civil society was naturally skeptical that individuals could overcome the institutional role of the CNDH as a state-funded institution that ostensibly represents a mechanism for the palace to co-opt reform processes. This does not mean that the reforms promoted by CNDH are illegitimate, but it does give the palace a means of controlling the debate on policy reform. This also implies that many of the NGOs that have done most of fieldwork and lobbying are not often always given a proper seat at the table.
Human Rights Associations and Their Relationship with the State
The question of cooptation in the Moroccan political context naturally shapes the conversation about political reform. Historical periods of cooptation among political parties are evidenced in the “Alternance Experiment” under King Hassan II in the late 1990s and the rise of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) in 2011 under King Mohammed VI. This neutralization of the legitimate opposition has influence on attitudes about state-civil society relations. Given this fact, civil society has become a more effective alternative to voice political demands, mobilizing groups based on economic, social, and political grievances. The National Human Rights Council, as mentioned above, was established as a sort of intermediary between the Moroccan state and civil society organizations. However the dominance of the palace and the regime’s control over the political party system carries over into the state-civil society framework and human rights organizations. Like political parties, they are largely defined in reference to their relationship with the Moroccan authorities. The case of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) and the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights (OMDH) is a helpful case study.
The 2008 FRIDE project on Freedom of Association in North Africa and the Middle East juxtaposed these two civil society groups to show their unique approaches to human rights lobbying in Morocco. The perception of the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights (OMDH) is that it is friendlier with the authorities implies a more moderate and conservative approach of lobbying the relevant ministers, the palace, and the National Human Rights Council. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) is known for its confrontational and critical stance concerning the role of the palace in the political process and human rights lobbying. Overall, AMDH (and its former president Khadija Ryadi) is viewed as the most independent and effective human rights association in the Kingdom. The FRIDE report described how
Advocates of the more confrontational approach (eg: AMDH) say the soft partnership-based approach leads to coopting, absorption and at times even instrumentalisation [sic] by the Makhzen (similar to the creeping co-opting that absorbed the former opposition parties, which first entered government in alternance with the objective of achieving change through cautious negotiations under the Makhzen’s umbrella).”
These two associations lobby the CNDH to conduct research and investigations on specific human rights issues. Recently, this has led to the publication of in-depth reports on taboo topics like the state of Morocco’s prisons, and most recently, the state of the migrant community in Morocco. I asked Hicham Rachidi, a long-time human rights activist and secretary-general of GADEM, about his perspective on the current role of the CNDH, and he explained:
Honestly, I think that the National Human Rights Council has gained some credibility since the changes made to its mandate during the reform process in February 2011. Several credible reports on the state of prisons, psychiatric centers, migration etc., stated some very bold conclusions and recommendations, which is a testament to this. Today, at the highest levels, there are individuals that are deciding to use it as a means of damage control and putting out fires in front of international organizations. This is a fair hypothesis but the essential point is that today the National Human Rights Council is implementing its mandate and doing it rather well.
Mehdi Alioua, Professor of Sociology at the International University of Rabat (UIR), writes from both an academic and activist perspective (as he is also one of the founding members of GADEM). He highlighted the problem of cooptation in Morocco, while also affirming the role of the CNDH in the regularization process. He told me:
In Morocco there is a real problem of cooptation, the country is not democratic or transparent enough. What are the possibilities for people to exert control: concerning the CNDH, its role is not to be a mediator, since there is no real equivalent in Morocco; the justice system does not adequately play its part; and the representatives do not begin to rise to the expectations of the citizens, the CNDH has been assigned this role of intermediary, when it is not really its primary mission! The delegates are not even elected by the people, even in an indirect way. Finally, concerning the migration question and the rights of foreigners in Morocco, the CNDH played its role perfectly and did not hide the hard truth of repression. It did not minimize the fact, even when Moroccan security forces committed the crimes. It shared the report, and the highest authorities decided that it was necessary ‘to radically change policy,’ which signifies that all that the policies and practices employed before were not good…this is a caustic rejection [of previous migration policy]!
Sub-Saharan Migrant Activism and Shaping Public Space
The difficulty of human rights lobbying and potential for harassment and arrest have not prevented sub-Saharan migrant activists from entering the political process and becoming very public voices against racism, police violence, and the dire economic situation of many members of their community. There are also divergent opinions among this community about the regularization process and the general state of human rights in Morocco.
Certain activists in the sub-Saharan community have been tireless in their efforts to reach out to every source of support. Marcel Amiyeto, in particular, is not only a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but is an active member of the Council of sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco (CMSM), the Secretary-General of the Migration branch of a Moroccan labor union (Organization democratique de travail, or ODT), and an advisor and caseworker for a refugee legal aid project run by the Moroccan legal association Droit et Justice. Through these associations, he helps issue press releases, speaks to the media, and organizes cultural events, trainings, educational panels, and protests. He will meet with any media outlet, researcher or journalist to discuss the issue, and has appeared on Moroccan television to push the issue of migration and asylum to the forefront of public debate. This has been especially noteworthy in a country where issues of human rights and racism still suffer from media censorship and social taboos. He has been instrumental in lobbying the CNDH and providing social and legal support to migrants.
Marcel informed me about the mission of the immigration branch of the ODT:
[It] consists of raising awareness among migrants of the real issues of regularization, to orient them towards registration, to help them fill out the necessary requirements for a residency card, and to manage their files. We accompany the migrants asking for a residency card, of which we have informed them in their places of residence, from the beginning to the end of the process of registering their files in the prefectures of the Wilaya. But, we also register their complaints.
As Marcel relays, the process is far from ideal. It faces a long road ahead, and this level of institutional change will take time. The modifications in the asylum process alone will be very difficult. Switching from a system where the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) adjudicated on matters of asylum seekers and refugees to a Moroccan ministry incorporating the process entails immense structural adjustment. This means training officials and lawyers on migration and asylum law, finding interpreters, setting up the right infrastructure, finding civil society support and implementing partners, and incorporating a system that has been functioning outside of the Moroccan government since 2004. The UNHCR has been the key actor in this infrastructural shift, and their role should not be dismissed. Yet this does not in any way undercut the role of the informal groups. They have also been relentless in holding international human rights institutions like the UNHCR and International Organization for Migration accountable and insisting on dialogue and the necessity of working together, which does not always come very easily.
Camara Laye, a migrants’ rights activist from Guinea and former coordinator of the CMSM, has worked with many Moroccan human rights associations to document the abuses that the sub-Saharan community experience throughout the Kingdom, especially along the border areas of Oujda and Nador. On the subject of the CNDH and the reform process, he shared with me some of his reservations:
I would say that the CNDH is playing its role as an intermediary well, but civil society remains very cautious. The Palace accepted the CNDH report. This helped certain associations receive official legal status and helped free certain people who had been unjustly arrested...Civil society’s reservation is justified because Morocco has never respected human rights in general and especially with the sub-Saharan community. The regularization process is happening without major issues, but I am waiting until the end to make any conclusions…The CNDH needs time.
Camara experienced firsthand the power of the Moroccan authorities in controlling discourses on human rights. He was arrested in October 2012 on trumped up charges of trafficking cigarettes and wine. It was argued that the authorities fabricated these charges in an attempt at political intimidation and to prevent Camara’s work on a migration report with AMDH. Civil society groups were outraged and demanded his immediate release. He was eventually released thanks to legal aid from GADEM and a nationwide campaign, which lobbied on his behalf.
Discourses on Human Rights and the Reform Process
The recent Human Rights Watch report on the situation of sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco is not that different from the dire reports coming from the Doctors Without Borders program in 2005, nor the extensive documentation on systematic violence gathered and published by GADEM in 2010. All cite the continuation of both Moroccan and Spanish police violence against the migrant community, even in the midst of the reform process. “Morocco should make clear to its security forces that migrants have rights,” said Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch. “Morocco needs to call a halt to beatings and other abuse of migrants.”
However, the Moroccan government spokesman, Mustapha El Khalfi, stated that the report was “clearly unfair.” According to The Maghreb Daily, “The minister said that report by the NGO does not include any assessment of this new [migration] policy, which is a first at the African level, as Morocco is the only country that has announced a migration policy with a human and social dimension, which the Kingdom fully assumes despite the fact that migration is everyone`s responsibility.” The Secretary-General of the CNDH, Mohammed Sabbar, recently confirmed several aspects of the Human Rights Watch Report in the Moroccan newspaper Al Alam. He also stated that the number of requests for regularization were now up to thirty-one thousand.
While the reform process is being implemented, systemic problems of police violence, racism, and freedom of expression are circumscribing the ability to promote a more substantive and inclusive discussion on the root of these human rights abuses, the nature of reform, and the implications of this process. The most recent documentation on the regularization process describes several worrisome dynamics, including, “a sixty percent rate of rejection up until 15 February, the lack of consultation with associations (and some are even isolated), and the quasi-systematic rejection of requests from Anglophone migrants…”according to GADEM Secretary-General Hicham Rachidi. As more reports on the successes and failures of the regularization process come to light over time, Moroccan civil society remains cautiously optimistic and ready to hold the Moroccan regime and the National Human Rights Council accountable.
 Sater, James N. Civil Society and Political Change in Morocco (Routledge Taylor and Francis Group; London and New York), 2007, p 8,9, 10.
 Khachani, Mohammed, “Le Tissu associative et le traitement de la question migratoire au Maroc,” AMERM, December 2009.
 Sater, James N. Civil Society and Political Change in Morocco (Routledge Taylor and Francis Group; London and New York), 2007, p 126, 127.
 Kausch, Kristina, Morocco: Negotiating change with the Makhzen; Project on Freedom of Association in the Middle East and North Africa, Fundacion Para Las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (FRIDE), February 2008, P 22-23.