Ten years afterwards, is Morocco an immigration trailblazer again?

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On 9 February 2015, the Moroccan State Minister of Interior presented the results of the exceptional regularization campaign of irregular immigrants implemented during 2014: close to 17,918 one-year residence permits were granted from 27,330 applications registered (almost half of them to Senegalese and Syrians, followed by Nigerians and Ivoirians). Among these, all women and children who submitted applications (more than 10,000) were granted residence permits given their special vulnerability.

This groundbreaking regularization approach, absolutely unique in Africa, is the quick translation into policy measures of a royal speech from September 2013 calling for the government “to elaborate a new global policy in relations to migration-and asylum-related questions, implementing a humanitarian approach in conformity with the international commitments engagements of Morocco and respecting the rights of immigrants”. This speech followed a Migrants_Moroccoreport of the National Commission for Human Rights on “Foreigners and Human Rights in Morocco: For a Radically New Asylum and Immigration Policy” and the signature of the EU-Morocco Mobility Partnership in June 2013. (It might be noted that the new policy had in principle nothing to do with the MP, and was presented as being based on considerations related to Morocco’s African policies).

In March 2014, the Government presented to Parliament three new laws on Immigration, Trafficking of Human Beings and Asylum, but they have not yet been adopted so far. A first step in this direction had been the Constitution of 2011, adopted as a reaction to the Arab Spring, whose article 30 states that “foreigners enjoy the same fundamental rights as Moroccan citizens in conformity with the law”, a small revolution in itself.

In any case, this new policy was a major departure from the official migration policy enforced in Morocco since the adoption of the Immigration Law 02-2003, criminalizing irregular migrants and establishing heavy fines and prison penalties for irregular immigrants and even those who provide support to them (see a detailed analysis by CARIM South here). The Minister of Migration himself stated, in the public presentation of the new bill, that, in the 2003 law, “the repressive and procedural aspects prevailed” in dealing with immigration. The 2003 Law provoked an intense political debate, with heavy criticism from civil society over the lack of respect for fundamental human rights and with denunciations of the “externalization” of the European Union border control to Maghreb countries. Notwithstanding this, it set the tone for a range of similar laws in neighbouring countries (Tunisia in February 2004 and Algeria in June 2008).

These public criticisms of Moroccan policy towards irregular immigrants were subsequently aimed at the administrative practice of abandoning to their own fate on the border with Algeria in the desert irregular immigrants detained trying to cross over to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla (the only land border between Africa and Europe). There were documented cases of deaths and these irregular migrants often reappeared in the border city of Uxda after a few days and many ordeals. In the framework of the new approach, Morocco has discontinued this illegal practice and now brings detained migrants, instead, to major urban centers far from the European borders, mainly Rabat. This has imposed a severe burden on the limited hosting capacities of NGO sheltering structures (so far there are no state reception centres for irregular migrants).

The EU has also been quick to support this new immigration policy. In the framework of the Sharaka Project much of the labour migration component has been ear-marked for capacity building of the Public Employment Service (ANAPEC) in the field of immigrant workers integration into the labour market. (Note that Shakara was developed to support the implementation of the EU-Morocco Mobility Partnership, adopted in June 2013, 5 million euros over 3 years)  Additionally, a new €1.4 million project to provide technical assistance to the Ministry in Charge of Moroccans Residing Abroad to promote the integration of immigrants is in the making.

Challenges ahead

However, a few challenges and uncertainties remain in relation to this courageous redefinition of the migration policy equation, which aims to bring Morocco up to the standards of protection of the human rights of immigrants so far reserved for developed countries.

First, the new policy is combined with a tougher stance on irregular immigrants, including  increased cooperation with the Spanish authorities to prevent irregular crossings of the Ceuta and Melilla fences. In essence, the Moroccan government has taken charge of the intercepted immigrants and subjects them to less protective procedures than in Spain, according to the 2003 Immigration Law, which is still in force. The same day that the balance of the regularization campaign was presented, Moroccan police dismantled the temporary camps put up by Sub-Saharan irregular transit migrants in the vicinity of Melilla and Ceuta, prompting human rights protests once again.

Then, regularizing irregular immigrants is not enough. The challenge remains to integrate them into the labour market. But this is hardly straightforward in a country with only 46% of its working age population in employment and a steady emigration flow for economic reasons. Only 5.4% of the immigrants applying for regularization had a work contract. The first obstacle to this integration has been removed naturally: the Government announced, on the 18 February, that the permits granted for a one-year period will be “automatically” renewed for 2015. In parallel, the Ministry of Migration has signed an agreement with the National Agency for Vocational and Technical Training to promote the training of immigrants and has displayed a set of other initiatives to facilitate integration.

Nevertheless, there is still the issue of how Morocco will deal with the remaining irregular immigrants, including the 10,000 who saw their applications for a residence permit refused, and who will be able to appeal the decision for a two-month period. Then, what about the new arrivals from Sub-Saharan Africans en route to Europe? Indeed, the regularization process was supposed to be exceptional. It should not be forgotten that the numbers involved so far are relatively marginal. Even after the regularization campaign, the stock of legal immigrants in Morocco hardly exceeds 100,000 residence permit holders for a total populatin of more than 33 millions (see the MPC’s EU Neighbourhood Migration Report 2013).

Moreover, the concentration of immigrants in certain cities has exacerbated social tensions between local communities and immigrants: and this is, in part, a result of the new policy. The accidental death of a Cameroonese youngster escaping the police in December 2013 and the murder of a Senegalese immigrant on 29 August 2014 in Tangiers marked the high points of those tensions. They led to waves of protests and clashes between groups of Senegalese and Cameroon immigrants and local populations (followed by some swift deportations). In some working-class quarters of Rabat, these tensions have also increased significantly because of the arrival of irregular immigrants, who had previously been detained in different parts of the country.

Beyond finding a way to address these crucial integration challenges, the question remains whether this turnaround on Morocco’s policy approach to immigration will also set a trend in the region, as was the case in 2003. More than 3.4 million Moroccan citizens live abroad and another 42% of the population between 18 and 50 have expressed the intention of migrating (of which roughly one quarter have a high migration potential, according to a Survey conducted by ETF in 2011-2012). It may, then, be time to formulate a “radically new migration policy” in this regard as well…

Iván Martín, Part-time Professor at the MPC

The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.