Daniel Etter / Redux Pictures

Morocco sets unlikely precedent in hosting sub-Saharan migrants

Country is first in Arab world to develop a legal migration policy, but integration is stymied by racism

RABAT, Morocco — Christian Wetemwami doesn’t know his mobile phone number, and his aid worker is teasing him about it. He’s in on the joke, but the incident reveals how precarious his life in Morocco is.

Wetemwami, 21, journeyed north from his native Congo two years ago in search of education and professional opportunity. His mother was raped when he was just 10 years old, during the ongoing conflict on the border of Congo and Rwanda, and he later lost both parents to the violence.

His arrival today at the African Cultural Association of Morocco, a Rabat-based migrant services office, is his latest attempt at starting over.

“I cried, I cried, I cried,” Wetemwami said, speaking of the loss of his parents and the violence he experienced. “Since then, I’ve had a stress on my heart. And when I came here to Morocco, there was no help. There was nothing.”

Immigrants line up outside the governor's office in Rabat on January 2, 2014, as Morocco launches an operation to give residency permits to tens of thousands of immigrants living in the country illegally.
Fadel Senna / AFP / Getty Images

Like many sub-Saharan African migrants who arrive in Morocco, Wetemwami hadn’t intended to stay, hoping instead to make it to European soil. But as Europe clamps down on border security, Morocco has become a de facto residence for migrants, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, seeking a better life. Compared to Europe, its high rates of poverty make Morocco an unlikely and, until recently, an unwilling host. But it’s the first country in the Arab world to develop a legal migration policy, which it started to implement last year. This political shift means there’s a small hope Wetemwami could eventually get legal residency status.

In September 2013, a government-appointed human rights body issued a seminal report that detailed a series of clashes between migrants and Moroccan police, such as the 2013 deaths of two West Africans, both of whom fell to their deaths after police chased them to the top of their apartment buildings. It elicited an immediate response from the king of Morocco, who demanded that the government develop a migration policy. The exceptional, year-long regularization period started four months later in January 2014.

Morocco’s policy shift represented a pronounced change from its previous unwillingness to acknowledge its migrant communities. As its first step, the Moroccan government regularized some 18,000 migrants, providing them with legal residency status in the country for at least a year.  But, it was a one-time period that closed in December, and whether new avenues to gain legal residency will open remains unclear.

Most migrants in Morocco live there illegally, although no official estimate exists. Approximately 30,000, from 116 different countries, applied during the regularization process. Many are also fleeing violent conflict, while others leave in search of a brighter economic future. The bulk of those approved came from Senegal, followed by Syria, Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire. The government automatically granted the Syrian applicants legal status in tacit recognition of their refugee status.

But sub-Saharan Africans — whether living in the country legally or illegally — remain a visible but marginalized part of Moroccan society. Many of them are ambivalent about their new home because of the racism they face.

“Life here is very difficult. We came here to get help,” Wetemwami said, referring to the aid organization. But finding assistance remains a challenge, he said.

‘Even in our country, where it is really, really, really poor, we don’t live like this.’

Evan Williams

Cameroonian immigrant

Marcel Amiyeto, also of Congo, started the African Cultural Association of Morocco in 2012 to advocate for and provide social services to the growing community of sub-Saharan Africans, such as Wetemwami, living on the outskirts of society. Amiyeto belongs to a loose network of migrants and allies in Morocco who campaigned hard for the government to give migrants a legal status.

That the government granted thousands of sub-Saharan Africans temporary legal status represents a new political will to accommodate these migrant communities, Amiyeto noted. But still, he said, many people are still barely scraping by.

To receive legal residency, applicants had to meet one of several benchmarks, including five years living in the country, a two-year work contract, marriage to a Moroccan, or serious illness.

Tens of thousands remain undocumented, however, because they could not prove they had lived in Morocco for five years, the primary qualification for a year-long residency permit. Many migrants, including Amiyeto, testified that police commonly arrest foreigners living in the country illegally and strip them of any documents. Even if they have lived in Morocco for five years, many immigrants have no evidence.

Amiyeto’s association provides migrants with humanitarian assistance and support navigating Morocco’s nascent immigration bureaucracy. With a residency card, migrants can theoretically access health care, education and formal employment. But follow-through of these promises has been slow and uneven, with discrimination remaining a key barrier to integration. Many migrants, for example, find securing housing difficult because landlords refuse them rentals on the basis of race.

Evan Williams of Cameroon fell short of the necessary five years of residency in Morocco by less than a year. He still applied, and hopes an exception will be made. Moved by the desperation of sub-Saharan migrants he witnessed in Rabat, including the refusal of medical care to pregnant women, he started another migrant support group specifically for undocumented migrants. Known by the French acronym ALECMA, the group focuses on advocacy and helping migrants navigate and adjust to life in Morocco. Williams is skeptical, though, that Morocco is moving to embrace multiculturalism.

He said taxis stopped serving him after Ebola broke out in West Africa. Though the illness didn’t reach Morocco, Williams said it furthered the stigmatization of black Africans, who were wrongly associated with the disease. He said migrants are treated “like animals” in Morocco. “Even in our country, where it is really, really, really poor, we don’t live like this,” he said.

Some of the discrimination stems from the dire unemployment situation. Echoing the concerns of many Europeans, Williams said Moroccans do not want migrants to get jobs when their own citizens cannot. But unlike in Europe and the U.S., Moroccans frequently compete with migrants for the least-skilled jobs.

“The powerful countries talk about how the world is a village, but they don’t want people coming to them,” Williams said.

Even migrants with legal residency find competition for jobs is fierce. The newly minted migration ministry has given limited financial aid to the African Culture Morocco Association to help integrate sub-Saharans into the professional workforce. The organization inaugurated a medical assistant training program in January to help students get jobs at Moroccan hospitals. To continue, it will require additional funding, the organization said.

Akem Ganongo, 24, is one of the 26 students in the class. She hopes the class helps her find a purpose and place in Moroccan society, but remains disillusioned with life in Morocco. Right now, Ganongo said, “we are useless.” She hopes to someday become a doctor. “Maybe somewhere else, maybe here,” she said.

For now, though, anthropologist Sebastian Bachelet, who has researched Morocco’s marginalized neighborhoods, said Moroccans continue to ostracize black Africans, making integration difficult. Frequent police raids in the suburbs where many migrants live is “feeding racism,” he said.

But Bachelet said Morocco could set a new precedent in terms of accommodating both asylum seekers and economic migrants. “They have a chance to be a real example in the Mediterranean region, and not follow what Europe and Spain are expecting them to do: just be mindless border guards,” he said.

Looking beyond the exceptional regularization period, the ministry in charge of migrant affairs is also drafting a new law that would codify the state’s longterm recognition of migrants, and promote their integration into society. The proposal would theoretically give foreigners the same fundamental rights granted to citizens. But there is no timeline to submit the draft to parliament for consideration, and details of the law’s actual impact remain unclear.

Williams welcomes the law and is hopeful for its passage, saying it would mark a real step toward respecting migrant rights. But integration and acceptance will take time, he said.

“For me, the [residency] paper is not the solution in Morocco for migrants,” Williams said. “Even if you have the paper here, even if you have everything here in Morocco, you are not considered here Moroccan.”

Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from New York University's Global and Joint Studies Program

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