The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

World Refugee Day in Morocco

Today is World Refugee Day. I recently received an email announcing this forum for Sudanese refugees in Egypt and elsewhere. Good luck to them, and I hope the debate on the recent handling of last year's sit-in continues there.

Meanwhile, in Rabat, Ursula went to a sit-in in front of UNHCR's office this morning. Here is what she reports:

I wanted to write something on immigration when I came to Morocco, and I’ve been researching a story for the last few weeks. The thing is, there are (at least) two types of immigration going on: the immigration of Moroccans to Europe, and the immigration of SubSaharan Africans to Morocco (and then perhaps Europe). This post will be about the second. The terrible irony being that Morocco—a country from which millions have emigrated to Europe, where they face discrimination—treats immigrants and refugees on its own soil in a shameful manner.

Morocco is a country open on all sides (deserts and seas) and it’s become a country that other Africans come to when escaping war and famine or that they pass through hoping to make theiry way to the West.

This morning—World Refugee Day—there was a sit-in of Sub-Saharan refugees in front on the UNHCR offices in Rabat. This reminded me of the tragic Sudanese sit-in in Cairo. The situation of refugees in Morocco seems to be even worse than it is in Cairo--on second thought, that can’t be true, the situation can’t be worse than having 27 people beaten to death in the street by Egyptian police followed by no outcry and no investigation. Let’s say the UN High Commissioner for Refugees seems to have even less resources and powers here than in Egypt. According to refugees, it is unable to provide them with any financial assistance, with any help getting medical care or education or housing, or with obtaining residency and work permits. It also can’t seem to keep the Moroccan police from picking them up and expelling them from the country.
The refugees here—from Liberia, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria—are in a “prison,” they say, “walking skeletons.” They can’t get work, they can’t get medical car or education, they face terrible racism and police brutality. Even though they are recognized refugees, the Moroccan police regularly arrests them and deports them to the border with Algeria, dropping them in the middle of the desert (some have walked for 12 days back to Rabat). And a volunteer for SOS Racisme (a French NGO) told me that she had interviewed about a 100 Sub-Saharan women and every one had said she was raped by the Moroccan police when she came into contact with them.


There are under 10,000 Sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco right now. Only a few hundred of them are recognized refugees. They are all suffering from the compounded racism and callousness of more than one government. The Moroccan government doesn’t want to integrate any refugees and doesn’t want to become a “gateway” for migration to other countries. European countries—by not condemning the practices of the Moroccan authorities towards refugees and by continuing to give Morocco money for development—endorses if not encourages the way the country treats immigrants and refugees. In fact, many NGOs and human rights groups argue that European governments are “outsourcing” their immigration control to Morocco (much the way the US is outsourcing its torture to, yes, Morocco, and many other countries). They know the Moroccan police is breaking the Geneva Convention and every human rights treaty, but they tell themselves it’s necessary to protect their countries from the “African hordes,” and they’re happy not to get their own hands dirty.

The sit-in today was the first such activity by the refugee community in Morocco. Moroccan security showed up but staid at a distance. UNHCR representatives came out and said they’d give the refugees a hearing. Another sit-in is planned for next week.