In the late 1990s, Morocco was considered a popular transit country due to its close proximity to Europe, namely Spain. It was not until the last decade or so that Morocco’s migrant and refugee population dramatically increased. Much of the increase is a direct result of conflicts that escalated during that time such as the Syrian civil war and other conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many migrants and refugees pass through Morocco to get to their final destination in Europe. Recently, migrants and refugees have had difficulties crossing into Europe due to the EU’s stringent measures. Now, many are forced to stay in Morocco for an indeterminate period of time until they have the means and opportunity to cross through to Europe. Others found Morocco to be better than their conflict-ridden homes and opted to make Morocco their final destination.
Even the Coronavirus pandemic did not affect the rates at which migrants and refugees traveled to Morocco. Between 2020 and 2022, the number of refugees in Morocco rose by approximately 45% while the rates of asylum seekers tripled. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2022 metrics, there were 18,674 registered refugees and asylum seekers in the country. Given Morocco’s geographic placement and status as a transit country, UNHCR estimates that the number of refugees in Morocco will rise to 22,500 in 2023. This number is expected to rise in the aftermath of the tragic earthquakes that occurred in Turkey and Syria in February. Since UNHCR only accounts for registered refugees and asylum seekers, these metrics are without a doubt a gross underestimation.
Migrants and refugees frequently use the two Spanish north African enclaves (European territories located on mainland Africa), Ceuta and Melilla, to pass through to Europe. Both enclaves directly border Morocco. Migrants and refugees from Africa travel through Ceuta and Melilla, as they perceive it as the quickest route to Europe. However, crossing through both routes is dangerous — even deadly. Since Morocco became an increasingly popular transit country in the 1990s, it has entered into lucrative deals with the EU to prevent migrants from crossing the Moroccan border in exchange for hundreds of millions of Euros. This type of deal has been described as part of the “externalization” of EU migration policy.
Of the two Spanish enclaves, most migrants and refugees cross through Nador, which is 15 kilometers away from Melilla. This dangerous trip requires crossing through three tall razor-wire fences that separate Morocco and Spain. Another route is to take a boat or raft from Morocco to Melilla. Human Rights Watch has monitored and reported on Moroccan officials raiding areas along the route where migrants — mostly sub-Saharan migrants — live, arresting those suspected of being undocumented, and collectively expelling them. Additionally, Moroccan officials have been reported destroying the property and identity documents of migrants, usually by gathering up all their belongings and setting them on fire. Multiple reports document that Moroccan Auxiliary Forces and the Spanish Guardia Civil regularly use excessive force against migrants on both sides of the border. Moroccan Auxiliary Forces are known to beat border crossers, including children.
The summer of 2022 was particularly violent for migrants and refugees on the Spain-Moroccan border. On June 25, 2022, around 2,000 sub-Saharan migrants attempted to cross into Melilla by storming the twenty-foot border fence. Immediately afterward, migrants clashed with border guards for two hours, during which about 100 made it across the border. When the migrants tried to force themselves across the border, the border guards beat them and used teargas to push them back, killing at least 37 in the process. Since then, 77 migrants have disappeared, whether during the violence or afterwards is unclear. Hundreds more were injured. Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s acting Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division said, “[v]ideo and photographs show bodies strewn on the ground in pools of blood, Moroccan security forces kicking and beating people, and Spanish Guardia Civil launching teargas at men clinging to fences.” Morocco delayed medical assistance to injured persons by more than two hours, and Spanish authorities refused to allow the Red Cross to attend to injured migrants altogether. Morocco arrested dozens of migrants, and sentenced those arrested to up to three years in prison. After the incident, Moroccan authorities have made it increasingly difficult for migrants to remain in Nador, especially sub-Saharan migrants. In addition, Moroccan authorities have pressured shopkeepers not to sell migrants goods, and hotel owners not to offer migrants rooms.
In the months following the incident and arrests, human rights organizations have called for reforms to Morocco’s migration laws, and an end to authorities’ use of excessive violence towards migrants and refugees. Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (CNDH) and UNHCR have been advocating for national legislation and institutional plan of asylum. Morocco’s current legal framework pertaining to refugees and asylum seekers dates back to 1966, and has no provision for asylum, nor does it provide any rights for asylum seekers. Among the critiques was that of the African Union chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, who called for an immediate investigation, reminding Morocco of its international obligations to “ treat all migrants with dignity and to prioritize their safety and human rights, while refraining from the use of excessive force.”
On February 2, 2023, Moroccan and Spanish officials strengthened the country’s ties by signing an $873-million package. This package had two components. It encouraged trade and investments by Spanish firms in Morocco, and funding for education and job training for Moroccans. The deal also included two memoranda on migration, which committed the two countries to opening Spanish customs offices on the border crossing from Morocco into Ceuta and Melilla. For Morocco, this implies recognition of Ceuta and Melilla as Spanish territories, even though the official Moroccan policy is that Ceuta and Melilla are Moroccan territories. The two countries did not commit to a timetable for opening the customs offices, so when those will materialize is unclear.
This agreement came at a time when ties between the two countries were strained. In 2021, Spain allowed a Western Sahara independence fighter to seek medical treatment at a Spanish hospital. Since Morocco claims Western Sahara as Moroccan territory and does not recognize the claims of Western Sahara to independence, Morocco perceived Spain’s granting of entry to the controversial Western Sahara leader as a provocative act. In response, the Moroccan government ordered border controls on Ceuta to be eased. As a result, thousands of migrants and refugees crossed the border into Ceuta. The 2023 deal was Spain’s attempt at smoothing over tensions between the two countries, giving Morocco more autonomy over its territory.
In the face of ongoing conflicts and economic difficulties that continue to drive migrants and refugees to cross through Morocco in attempting to get to Europe, the Moroccan government must respond to the calls to reform their legal framework towards migrants and refugees. In particular, Moroccan authorities’ ill-treatment of sub-Saharan migrants and refugees raises issues of systemic racism that must be addressed. But combating racism is just one aspect–important though that is–of critical reform that must occur for Morocco to both conform to international law in providing access to asylum, and to ensure minimal rights for migrants and refugees who are staying for more and more protracted periods in the country.