Morocco is an immigration country too

Desperate migrants attempting to jump the high barbed wire fences in order to reach the Spanish enclaves in Morocco. Young Moroccan people trying to get to Europe through Turkey. People seem primarily to want to leave Morocco. But Morocco is also a destination country for migrants from Africa. That was already the case in earlier times, but recently seemed to receive a new impulse.

Its strategic position between Europe, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa  ensured Morocco’s status as a destination country for migrants already for centuries, states Khadija Elmadmad, a Moroccan professor in migration law. She delivers a lecture in Rabat on migration and migrants in Morocco to Movisie staff on a study trip to Morocco.

She explains that the Romans already settled in Morocco in the third century BC; the southern border of the Roman Empire was at four hours driving distance from the Moroccan city of Mèknes.

The Arabs arrived in Morocco in the seventh century AC. Elmadmad: ‘The first Moroccan dynasty was established by an Arabian refugee from the Middle East. Our country was built by refugees, and we owe our diversity to it. Migration is in our blood.’

Massive regularisation of Africans in Morocco

The North-African country has a relatively liberal migration policy, and according to Elmadmad this is due to its history.  In 2014 the Moroccan king Mohammed VI announced an operation unprecedented in African countries: a general pardon for the undocumented migrants in the country.

More than 23,000 people received residence permits, especially men from countries such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon. A second pardon took place in 2016. In November 2018 the Moroccan Minister of the Interior announced that during this massive regularisation operation 50,000 migrants from 113 countries received residence permits. According to the minister, residence permits will be valid for three years and are automatically extended unless offences have been committed.

In order to be eligible for legal stay in the country, migrants had to demonstrate that they had been in Morocco for at least five years, held regular jobs for two years or had been married to a Moroccan for two years.

Decreasing migration to Europe

From 2014 onwards 73,000 migrants received residence permits for Morocco. This seems quite a considerable figure, but the Moroccan government had expected more requests. Especially during the first regularisation wave. ‘They anticipated receiving 45,000 migrants instead of 23,000. The rest preferred to go to Europe in the hope of getting a permit there’, Elmadmad explains.

Because the way to Europe through Italy is closing down, migrants have rediscovered the ‘Spanish route’. No longer Italy or Greece, but Spain has become the most important place of arrival this year with over 49,000 people, as the figures of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) show.

Migration to Europe as a whole has rapidly decreased over the last years. In 2018 more than a 100,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to get to Europe. This is a decrease of over 54,000 people compared to the same period last year and of more than 237,000  compared to two years ago.

In November 140 migrants per day left Morocco for Europe in small boats, as IOM figures show. IOM estimates that this year 500 people did not survive  the trip from Morocco to Spain.

Elmadmad states that migrants arriving in Spain form only a minor part (18%) of the African migrants, most Africans move across the African continent. ‘Some people feel at home in Morocco, because they have a similar culture.’

UN migration pact
Over the last years 180 countries, led by the United Nations, debated migration. This resulted in a political declaration of intent for a better migration policy. This declaration was adopted during the international UN conference on 11 and 12 December in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. The main principle of the declaration is that migration is and will be a permanent issue, that no single country will be able to solve migration problems on its own  and that international cooperation is needed. The declaration is contested, also in the Netherlands.

They rely on street trade and begging

This does not change the battle for survival that many Africans conduct day in day out in Morocco. They need to rely on street trade and begging. Although they are now offered protection through legislation, in reality their situation is much less bright. ‘Nowadays I regularly see Nigerian girls in the street carrying babies. Especially girls and women are being exploited. They live on the streets and are being abused.’

Therefore Elmadmad thinks that government should be doing more to help these women. ‘There are initiatives in Morocco to help female migrants. But they are only available in a few cities and are often underfunded. Our government should be doing more to support those citizens’ initiatives.’

Stricter borders

Despite the two regularisation waves Morocco’s border policies have become more severe. The latest policy directive – stricter borders – has been inspired by European pressures and the promise of receiving favours in return. For instance in return for the strict border protection of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, Morocco receives economic aid from Spain. And after pressure from Spain on the EU, Europe has reserved 140 million euros to assist Morocco with border protection.
Still, last summer in one day around 600 people jumped the fences to reach the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. After one day part of the migrants were returned to Morocco, and Spain treated the ‘assault’ as a disturbance of the peace instead of a breakaway attempt.

Nowadays therefore  increasing numbers of migrants attempt to reach Spain by boat. Since the summer Morocco has opted for harsh measures and sometimes the navy even fires on boats that aim to set foot in ‘fortress Europe’.  In September a 19 year old girl from the Northern Moroccan city of Tetouan lost her life in such an attempt. The Moroccan government claims to have obstructed 68,000 attempts of immigration to Europe, 11,000 of these by Moroccans mainly originating from the north of the country.

Darwin’s theory

Professor Elmadmad compares the collaboration between the EU and Morocco in order to stop migrants in Morocco to Darwin’s theory: Morocco is not a strong enough economy to withstand wealthy Europe. The migrants who get stuck in Morocco without papers or risk their lives crossing the sea, she calls the ‘damned’ of our century.

From an Islamic perspective she criticises the attitude modern nation states demonstrate against newcomers. ‘Islam requires us not to close the door to a guest. But in our modern world the nation states are like houses:  you can allow the people you want to enter. If you don’t want them, because they have the wrong colour or religion, you just close the doors. This is what is currently happening all over the world, but in particular in wealthy countries.’


Although countries increasingly close their doors, the UN refugee organisation UNHCR sees that Morocco in recent years has made efforts to improve protection of refugees. During a visit to the country in 2017, UNHCR stated that ‘although Morocco remains a transit country for refugees and migrants, it is also becoming more and more a country of destination.’

According to the UN refugee organisation this may be a positive incentive for Morocco, with an unemployment rate of 9% of its inhabitants: ‘Refugees can create employment opportunities because they establish small enterprises, for instance shops and restaurants, that could employ Moroccans.’

Joline Verloove is senior communications consultant and project manager at Movisie and engages in issues regarding refugees, diversity and inclusion.
The Original article was published in Dutch on

Photo: Chris Ford (Flickr Creative Commons)