Frontline Insights

Difference is good: why migrant and rights groups work together in Morocco

Collaboration is helping grassroots groups learn from each other and connect for a better response to the migration problem in Morocco.

Lena Kevorkian
25 November 2019
Silhouette of a man's head
This man travelled from West Africa to Morocco, then by sea to Spain
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The Fund for Global Human Rights. All rights reserved.
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This article is part of an editorial partnership with The Fund for Global Human Rights.

In 2018, mass migration from sub-Saharan Africa plunged Morocco into chaos. One outcome has been increased discrimination and oppression of the nearly 700,000 migrants living in the North African kingdom of 34 million people today.

“You hear people and even small children in the streets calling them ‘Africans’,” says Safia Mahamat Abgoudja, who has just completed a trainee programme at the Khmeissat Young Lawyers’ Association (AJAKh).

“Some migrants answer back and get defensive, while others show a passive attitude and continue their way silently,” she adds.

Civil society organisations, which have been very active in Morocco since its independence in 1956, may have found a solution to this dilemma.

Instead of working alone, human rights groups and migrants’ associations are cooperating to ensure that people on the move have the networks of support they need. This work needs more support, however, to give better results in the future.

Reality and rhetoric

For decades Morocco has been a way station for sub-Saharan migrants. People from Congo, Niger, Ghana, Syria and many other countries pass through fleeing war, political and economic instability, persecution, violence and sexual harassment. Most of them, like many Moroccans, have their eyes on the prosperity and hoped-for safety of European countries.

In response, the EU has been keen to stem the flow of migration onto European territory. Since the 1990s, it has tried to give migrants reasons to stay in Morocco, while also making it harder for them to get onto European soil. It has made agreements with the kingdom and funded both job creation and stricter border control in support of these objectives.

Migrants have been beaten, deprived of their few possessions and expelled from makeshift camps

For its part, Morocco passed a law in 2003 that governs the entry and stay of undocumented migrants and other foreigners in Morocco.

In 2011, the kingdom acknowledged the right to asylum and principles of equality between its nationals and foreigners living on its territory. In 2014, it granted renewable residency permits to around 25,000 people; in 2017, 28,000 more received permits.

Despite all these measures, Morocco has become the main departure point for people crossing from North Africa to Europe, overtaking Libya (which has now has coastguards funded and trained by the EU patrolling its waters). According to the Spanish newspaper El País, in 2018 the number of migrants who reached Spain – mostly from Morocco – was 57,000, twice the number who got to Italy.

As a result, life in the kingdom for people on the move has become harder. Last summer, authorities raided areas in the northern cities of Tangier, Nador and Tetouan in a large-scale crackdown on migrants after 600 of them entered the Spanish enclave of Ceuta.

To keep these people from reaching the northern borders, police loaded them onto buses and abandoned them in the south, close to the Algerian border, an act described by Amnesty International as “cruel and unlawful”.

It was not the first time this had happened. Over the years, rights groups have reported similar smaller incidents in which migrants have been beaten, deprived of their few possessions and expelled from makeshift camps.

The Anti-racist Support and Defence of Foreigners and Migrants Group (GADEM), based in Morocco, calls in its recent report ‘Free Expulsions’ for immediate changes to the country’s migration law.

According to the report, migrants are subject to arbitrary detentions, collective expulsions, extended imprisonment and illegal and inhumane racist treatment by authorities. And although migrants need access to lawyers and medical aid when detained, the only person they can contact is their consular representative – to facilitate their expulsion.

Not that migrants are without friends in Morocco: there are human rights groups such as GADEM and AJAKh, and there are migrant associations. But suspicion, cultural differences and incomplete understanding of the problems migrants face have in the past left them working in isolation from each other.

Happily, recent experience has showed that creating a bond between groups with different backgrounds is the best way to provide better support for migrants.

Building on experience

The Fund for Global Human Rights, which supports local groups defending justice and equality in Morocco and over 20 other countries, has fostered this approach by supporting joint work between migrant associations and human rights groups over the past few years.

“We did not try to duplicate the immediate rescue work that is already being done by many migrant grassroots organisations,” says Houda Benmbarek, a consultant at the Fund based in Rabat. “We have worked to create synergy between associations in order to have a long-term response to the migration problem, because Morocco has shifted from a being a way station into a country of resettlement.”

Benmbarek explains that facilitating cooperation between groups has given them a chance to learn from each other and improved their ability to support vulnerable communities.

The first step was to ensure that both parties understood each other’s work. For example, human rights organisations did not know enough about the details of migration. The migrants’ groups were able to explain life on the road: staying in temporary camps, moving quickly from city to city and making links with other migrant associations.

Learning has gone both ways, however. Collaboration has also resulted in the relaxation of gender roles in the migrant groups. “We noticed that migrant associations form committees of male staff who made decisions, while their female colleagues had administrative roles,” says Benmbarek. “We worked to change this pattern by giving women workers more prominent roles so they can participate in the decision-making process.”

The collaboration also improved mutual trust. At the start, Benmbarek says that migrant associations had little trust in the Moroccan human rights organisations: they thought the Moroccans were interested only in getting their hands on EU funds for projects related to migration, not in transparently carrying out those projects. But working together had allowed conversation, discussion, understanding, experience-sharing and eventually greater confidence in each other. Now, migrants’ groups are even applying for joint funding with their human rights-focused counterparts.

On the ground with women migrants

Grassroots activists who took part in the initiative have told openDemocracy about its positive impact on their work.

For instance, AJAKh, where Abgoudja interned as a network specialist, provides lawyers that voluntarily defend migrants in court. Often, other grassroots associations from different areas have called to ask for an AJAKh lawyer to step in.

One critical issue is poor translation during court proceedings. “You can see a translator interpreting to the judge what the migrant said, but no one translates what is going on to the migrant,” Abgoudja adds. Links between migrant groups and Moroccan lawyers’ associations have helped the lawyers, as well as judges and magistrates, take account of such as this.

Aimee Lokake gives another example. Originally from Congo, she was one of the 25,000 people who received a Moroccan residence permit in 2014. She is the president of a Congolese women’s community network established by migrant women after the Melilla events in 2005, in which hundreds of migrants attempted to storm the Spanish enclave in one day. The group is part of the Council of Sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco (CMSM), which includes communities from Congo, Chad, Senegal, Mali and elsewhere. It aims to improve the lot of fellow migrants by teaching them a skill, thereby preparing them to enter the job market instead of street vending – which is often the only way that migrants find to earn money. It also offers orientation sessions to help integrate them into society.

Lokake, who is also CMSM’s secretary-general, says that working with other grassroots groups has boosted the performance of her own association. “Working with human rights associations [in different regions] gave us the opportunity to operate in more than one city and even in distant areas,” she says. “Some of these Moroccan grassroots groups we haven’t heard of before. So it was a great learning experience for all of us.”

Zoe Mavouemba is the president of The Voice of Moroccan Women (AVFM), an association that works with survivors of violence who have migrated to Morocco. Like CMSM, AVFM helps migrant women and minors in a variety of ways. For example, it has helped seventy migrant women to find cheap rent and extend the period of their lease from six to nine months. Like Lokake, Mavouemba says that joint work has made her organisation more effective.

“We were able to travel to different cities and see how others work with migrants and respond to challenges,” she says. “They worked in a very different dynamic to the one we know.”

Grassroots needs

AJAKh’s Abgoudja believes that more needs to be done, however. First, problems need to be solved more quickly. Abgoudja explains that often a lot of time lapses between a phone call to AJAKh from an association based in a different city asking for help and the arrival of a lawyer in the city or court where help is needed. “Better cooperation between associations will make this process faster and smoother,” she said.

Finite resources also limit the duration of workshops that organisations need to learn from each other. “While we benefit hugely from sitting together with other associations for workshops, low funding limits our time to two to three days at maximum. Extending meeting and workshop time will help us learn and discuss effectively,” says Lokake.

Benmbarek thinks that the experience of collaboration between migrants’ and rights groups should grow into a national plan. “What we need at this stage is a programme that strengthens the cooperation between both types of organisations for the long term, yet respects each one’s independence,” she says.

“Intersectionality is critical [and so] it requires more commitment and involvement from all stakeholders, including funders.”

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