Deaths, deportations and arrests: violence against migrants in Morocco

EU policy is blocking routes to Europe for those suffering from the neocolonial and capitalist exploitation and nurturing of conflicts throughout Africa by western countries.

Lily Jay
12 December 2016
Interception of migrants on the Moroccan/Spain border. (Photo: Beating Borders, 2014)

Interception of migrants on the Moroccan/Spain border. (Photo: Beating Borders, 2014)"We are in Morocco

Here, many Blacks have lost their lives

Here, it's Boukhalef

The Moroccans call us azzia

They talk about us to scare their children

And when they see us they flee

Oh oh, it hurts us".

Written by the Senegalese musician and no borders activist living in Tangier, Xelu Baye Fall, these words (translated from Wolof) are written “for all the people who have died at the border/For all the people who have died at the fences." The song is about Charles Paul Alphonse Ndour, a 26 year-old Senegalese man who was killed by Moroccan men in Tangier in August 2014. The lyrics reference the racism and violence experienced daily in Morocco by sub-Saharan Africans. “Azzia”, meaning black-skinned, is a derogatory term used primarily against sub-Saharans, along with the taunt “Ebola”.

It is crucial to connect the everyday racism experienced by sub-Saharans in Morocco with the overt racism of the deadly EU border regime: the militarisation of the border as the EU spends millions to build fences (in 2015 Morocco built a fourth razor wire fence and deep trench at the border to Melilla with EU funding), the refusal of a safe passage to Europe to avoid the deaths of thousands at sea, and detaining people who do reach Europe in prison-like conditions. It was, after all, the colonial powers of Europe who were the first to impose borders across the Sahara where there had previously been none, stopping the previous high levels of migration that resulted in the collapse of trans-Saharan trade.

The outsourcing of European border control

As a key country of transit from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, Morocco has proven to be the most reliable partner out of all the countries in North Africa for the EU’s strategic policies of closing borders and controlling migration flows into Europe. Hidden behind a proclaimed humanitarian discourse of “supporting good governance and human rights” daily (often violent) raids, the destruction of migrant camps, “hot deportations” (the unlawful return of migrants immediately after capture by the Spanish authorities before an asylum claim can be made), and inhumane deportations to Morocco’s southern borders – are all carried out using money provided by the EU. It difficult to believe that EU member states are concerned for the development of civil society and integration of sub-Saharans in Morocco when they fail to offer adequate care for unaccompanied children within their own countries, as seen in Calais in recent weeks.

The deals forged between the EU and Morocco represent the neocolonialist outsourcing of border and migration controls from Europe to countries in Africa, whilst the former simultaneously avert their eyes from the human rights violations commited by state authorities – particularly sub-Saharan communities in the context of Morocco. These deals serve as a prototype for similar agreements, often made with dictators – who, as Shell has declared, can often provide a “stable environment” in which investments and deals can be more easily brokered. Earlier this year, The New Statesman acquired documents regarding the EU’s secret plans to curtail migration from Africa, which openly acknowledged that they would face “criticism by NGOs and civil society for engaging with repressive governments on migration” including Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia – the former two both being investigated for war crimes by the UN and International Criminal Court.

The very recognition of the governments of these countries as “repressive” highlights the EU’s explicit disregard for people migrating who would be classified as refugees under the European Convention of Human Rights. Rather, the EU is attempting to ensure that people suffering from the neocolonial exploitation and nurturing of conflicts throughout Africa by Western countries (Ivory Coast, Sudan, Central Africa, Congo, Libya) and many of Africa’s own repressive governments cannot escape. As noted by one Nigerian migrant living in Morocco, “the Europeans taught it to us”, referring to how colonial European states acted as economic migrants en masse – exploiting and extracting resources and labour from their colonies.

The offloading of responsibility onto countries such as Morocco permits people such as Juan José Imbroda, leader of the Spanish Melilla council, to declare: “We’re no longer in the headlines for illegal immigration because it isn’t a problem any more” – while the hospital in Nador received over 742 people in 2014 for injuries sustained during attempts to cross the fences and the resulting violence from Moroccan and Spanish authorities. An arrangement made between the EU and Morocco in 2006 – in which Morocco was given €67 million to strengthen its border controls – even allows EU member states to deport sub-Saharan migrants to Morocco rather than their country of origin.

Stuck in Morocco

Once in Morocco, people seeking to migrate find themselves trapped: they are neither able to enter Europe nor able to return to the country they travelled from. One woman, living in the makeshift camps in Boukhalef said, “We came here to pass through, not to stay, but we are stuck here…The Moroccans see us like sheep. They do not accept foreigners. There is no work or security for us in this country.”

One year after the EU-Morocco Action plan was implemented in 2013 – approving a budget of €150 million for Morocco to create closer ties between the EU and Morocco – the regularisation program was brought in. It lasted for one year from January 2014 and was heralded as an explicitly “humanitarian” act by the Moroccan government and media.

This masked the fact that the program – offering one year residency status – was selective and limited for sub-Saharan migrants. Many sub-Saharans were unable to prove that they had lived in Morocco for five years – the primary qualification needed – as it is common practice for police to stop people perceived to be sub-Saharan and strip them of their documents and deport them, in an attempt to give the impression that they are stemming migration flows into Europe. Moroccan authorities are paid per migrant they “catch” by the EU, allegedly to pay for the costs of “adequate” detention conditions, and deportation to one’s country of origin.

However, many sub-Saharans living in Tangier – including those with regularisation status – describe the experience of being picked up by Moroccan officials who drive them to the sea, take details and a photo of them being caught “attempting to cross” to Europe as proof, and then drive them back to Tangier or further south within Morocco. The Moroccan police are accused of individually pocketing the money from the EU, raising questions about whether the EU should continue to fund these corrupt practices.

Due to the regularisation program, a small number of sub-Saharan migrants are now theoretically able to access education, health and vocational support. However, daily structural and institutional discrimination and racism persist: many are still subjected to arbitrary arrests (regardless of whether they posses documents legalising their stay in Morocco or not) and are regularly denied employment opportunities or rental accommodation. Individual and personal racism continued; the fact that Charles Ndour had regularisation status in Morocco didn’t stop him from being attacked and killed.

For example, after 232 people managed to cross into Ceuta (Spanish territory) on October 31st, Moroccan authorities responded with mass arrests in Tangier a week later, injuring at least one person and holding over 80 people (all sub-Saharan) overnight in the police station, including people with UNHCR papers and valid passports (having stayed in Morocco for less than three months). 18 people were deported the next morning to Fez, a four-and-a-half hour drive away. Often the police take people’s phone, documents and any money the person has with them, so that when they are kicked out after a deportation they have none of their belongings with them or means to get back to Tangier.

At the same time, the regularisation program has made it easier for the Moroccan government to monitor and persecute its citizens – as echoed in the words of Charki Draiss of the interior ministry who asserted: “We gave them many opportunities, and now if they don’t want to stay, Morocco will have to apply the law for the sake of security”. For these reasons, many who received the year-long residents card still want to reach Europe.

Arrests and deportations in the forests

Regular violations of human rights have carried on after the program. Early in February 2015, the Moroccan authorities ambushed migrant camps near the border to Mellila, destroying and burning their camp and belongings, and detaining over 1200 people including children. Three days later, raids, arrests and the total destruction of camps took place in numerous forests around Nador. Afterwards, many moved to forests further afield, and the Moroccan authorities continue to come and destroy the camps – where people live without access to drinking water or proper shelter – arresting and deporting people they find. Small material donations such as clothes or food, sent by supporters, are often intercepted and destroyed by police.

As a result of these months of physical attacks and psychological terror, people living in the forests remain in a constant state of anxiety. One woman, living in a camp around Tangier said: “We live in the forest as if we were dead people… they treat us like animals… you cannot even sleep. Even if you rent an apartment, you have no security, then can come at any instant, break the door, burn your things, put you outside… it is total insecurity, especially for us, the women.”

The developing European border regime – assisted by migration deterrence agency Frontex – demonstrates the active awareness with which the EU and its member states ensure that people cannot reach Europe or die trying. But, regardless of how many new barriers are erected or border guards employed, resistance and the struggle for freedom of movement for everyone will continue. People in Morocco dreaming of Europe are not going back; people continue to cross borders daily. The increasing awareness with which Europe reinforces its borders is only resulting in more fatalities – deaths that lie in the hands of the EU and its member states.

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