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The racialisation of marginality: sub-Saharan migrants stuck in Morocco

The everyday lives of sub-Saharan African migrants in Morocco are deeply affected by violent policies of border control. While existing laws create problems, the further burdens of history make things even worse.

Photo by author. All rights reserved.

Migration in Morocco has been a topical international issue since an infamous case in 2005, which saw Moroccan police murder sub-Saharan migrants along the fences of Ceuta and Melilla. Here, as in other parts of north Africa, the further securistisation of border control has rendered clandestine crossing to Europe extremely hazardous. Finding it increasingly difficult to head north, migrants trapped in Morocco are facing a toxic combination of state control, media demonisation, and enduring social stigma. While many of the burdens migrants face are common to migrants all over the globe, the Moroccan case is further complicated by ongoing legacies of slavery and racism.

Yet while racism has been recently recognised by some as an issue, the legacies of slavery are rarely public acknowledged. International NGOs, Moroccan human rights organisations and sub-Saharan migrants’ associations have come together to denounce both institutional violence and ‘anti-black racism’ against migrants. In 2014, in the wake of a dramatic rise in civil violence and widespread anti-black attitudes, the Moroccan king Mohammed VI announced an exceptional regularisation of undocumented migrants. However, these moves towards social inclusion have been paralleled by the continued abuse of migrants and forced relocation from Moroccan borders to Rabat and Casablanca, where the presence of sub-Saharan migrants has become increasingly visible and their future prospects even more uncertain.

Life in Limbo

I met a group of young migrants originally from Mali, Mauritania, and Guinea under the disused water tank of Takadoum, one of the most infamous neighbourhoods of Rabat. They all aspired to reach Europe to change their lives, but remained trapped in economic and social marginality. Like many sub-Saharan migrants ‘in transit’ to Europe, they sheltered in the crowded rented rooms of Takadoum’s decaying, three-storey houses. Rather than being ‘in transit’, though, their stay in Morocco was becoming increasingly permanent under the combined effects of restrictive immigration policies and the violent transnational control of ‘Fortress Europe’. Worse still, they complained that they were exploited and mistreated because they were ‘black’ and ‘African’. Although Morocco officially defines itself as a ‘colour-blind’ nation, the issue of ‘race’, with its intricate relationship to local ideas of ‘origin’ and ‘colour’, contributes to shaping the ways in which individuals and groups are socially ranked. Sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco are commonly called ‘azzi, (‘negro’), and variously termed ‘abd (literally ‘slave’, but also used to indicate a black person) or hartani (generally translated as ‘freed blacks’ or ‘free blacks’). Shouted in derisory fashion by children in the street, these terms are rooted in a social imaginary intimately connected with the historical enslavement of black people in Morocco.

The story of Sadibou

One of the youths I met in Takadoum was Sadibou (a pseudonym), aged 22. Originally from Conakry, Guinea, he entered Morocco lawfully to reach Europe. However, he has now been trapped in a country which he described as ‘hell’ for years. Like other migrants, he had lived in the forest surrounding Nador and in other northern cities waiting for the right time to cross into Europe. But he was forcibly relocated to Rabat just a few months before our meeting.

Following him ‘home’, we walked down narrow lanes and steep steps into the heart of Takadoum. When we reached the bottom of the neighbourhood, close to a landfill, Sadibou entered the front door of a dilapidated house and led me to the apartment he shared with other migrants. It consisted of three poorly furnished rooms and toilet facilities, and the walls were decorated with the scribblings of its previous occupants. Sadibou and two other boys paid 650 dirhams (about €60) per month for a room, a considerable amount of money given the bad condition of the house.

Sadibou told me that the social relationships with Moroccans in Takadoum are strained and violent conflicts often break out. “There is racism”, he said. “Moroccans do not want the blacks!” Beyond being insulted and mistreated by the local population, Sadibou explained that blacks were at risk of police raids and deportation, and attacks and violence, resulting in a constant sense of insecurity and fear. “You do not feel safe in this neighbourhood”, he said. There are often fights between migrants and Moroccan gangs, but also among the migrant gangs that control the territory.

Although Morocco officially defines itself as ‘colour-blind’, race still matters.

Like his companions, Sadibou struggled to make ends meet by working on construction sites and doing other underpaid and exhausting jobs available to Morocco’s black ‘transit’ population. Every morning, between 6 and 7 am, migrants gathered in the neighbourhood to be recruited by Moroccan ‘patrons’ for jobs that Sadibou defined as “hard work”, “dirty work”, “slaves’ jobs” and “forced labour”.

For Sadibou, these terms meant labour that he could not refuse, despite being aware that it was highly exploitative and detrimental to his health. “If you don’t accept such jobs, you are forced to go and live in the street, where you are likely to be killed”, he explained. “You have no choice. We are here today like slaves in Morocco”. In his view, it was precisely in the lack of choice and possibility to do otherwise that his lack of freedom lay.

In Takadoum, Caritas, an international Catholic organisation operating worldwide, supplies basic goods such as food, clothing, and medications. Sadibou appreciated these services and he made use of them himself, but he believed that they are insufficient to solve the problems migrants face. For Sadibou, only having a job, a decent job, would provide the means to both emancipate himself from humanitarian aid and to get out of his marginal condition. “We are forced to live on the margins of society”, he said. “If I have to die, I want to die in Europe”.

Racial legacies

Sadibou’s story helps illuminate the overlapping forms of institutional and everyday violence that shape the lives of many sub-Saharan youths in the notorious neighbourhoods of Rabat. On the one hand, as ‘unauthorised’ presences in Morocco, these migrants are subjected to the constant threat of being arbitrarily arrested, illegitimately beaten, and deported by Moroccan police. On the other hand, poverty, racial discrimination, and the impossibility of finding a decent job produce and reiterate conditions of extreme vulnerability and social marginalisation, pushing these migrants further into the margins of society.

Sub-Saharan migrants are the new ‘Others’ in Morocco.

Far from being ‘colour-blind’, these dynamics illustrate the complex ways in which marginality is racialised in Morocco. From an historical standpoint, Sadibou’s story helps us to grasp the complex ways in which past and present intersect to create racial stereotypes and forms of social exclusion. Sub-Saharan migrants are the new ‘Others’ in Morocco, produced at the meeting point of transnational migration policies and local political and media agendas. At the same time, the specific forms of violence, exploitation and social marginalisation that deeply affect Sadibou’s life are imbued with racial constructs that historically accord social inferiority to ‘blackness’ (for a larger picture, see ‘Race, ethnicity and belonging’).

Sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco are consistently ranked at the bottom of society precisely because they inherit the status of social and moral inferiority historically accorded to black slaves. However, anti-black racial attitudes in Morocco are not simply ‘remnants’ of the local history of slavery. On the contrary, they are also deeply entangled with current transnational geopolitics that delegate border control to north African states, and with the way in which Morocco positions itself in the international political arena. In other words, contemporary politics creates the context in which the legacies of the past combine with present circumstances to increase the vulnerability and marginality of sub-Saharan migrants like Sadibou.

In all my conversations with him, there is one sad and painful thing that I always kept to myself: that in southern Italy, as in the other parts of the Europe that he so hopes to one day see, African migrants working in the agricultural sector are routinely subjected to the abuses and slave-like conditions that he faces in Rabat. Fortress Europe may have been able to keep him out so far, but one thing is certain: if he does make it across the Mediterranean, his racialised marginality will unfortunately come along for the ride.

Research for this piece was carried out in the framework of the ERC GRANT 313737 - Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond: a Historical Anthropology (www.shadowsofslavery.org).

About the author

Laura Menin is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Milano Bicocca. She has conducted research in Morocco since 2008, working on migration, love and intimacy, political violence during ‘the years of lead’, and ‘race’ and racism.


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