Seeking refuge in Morocco

In the height of the summer, with nowhere to shelter from the sun, a group of people stand waiting to enter the UNHCR offices in Rabat, Morocco. Ahmed, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, says he has been waiting more than three hours for a 9am appointment. He is trying to obtain papers which will give him access to basic services in the country, such as health care and education.

Squinting against the sun's rays, Ahmed explains that he left Somalia 10 years ago and crossed seven countries to reach Morocco. Of all the countries he passed through, Morocco was the most welcoming and he decided to settle here. Four years later he has access to some benefits but sleeps rough on the streets and doesn't have a job. Both of his parents died in Somalia's civil war.

Malika Okhatar, who works at the NGO Fondation Orient Occident, explains that many of the African migrants and asylum seekers in Morocco – estimated to be between 25,000 and 40,000 in total - are orphans. "Most of those who make it to Morocco, especially from Africa, are young people who've lost their parents in wars," she says. "Sometimes half the family perishes along the way, before they get to Morocco. Many of them have psychological problems and there are children as young as 16 who have come from as far away as the Congo."

The Fondation is a colourful building located far from the city centre. The corridors are lined with life-size figures sculpted from metal by some of the migrants who frequent it. There is a library, computers with internet and rows of paintings for sale.

The centre was founded to integrate refugees, provide services and generate contact between cultures. They have regular workshops in which Afghans, Palestinians and Africans participate. Located in a deprived area, Moroccans are encouraged to come and use their services. "The object of these workshops is to make them accept each other," says Malika, "to appreciate each other's cultures."

The Fondation takes refugees to schools to learn about Moroccan culture; about Ramadan and Eid. It also invites young Moroccan children to visit. "That process has helped them integrate into society," says Malika, "so they can understand what a refugee is, why people become refugees, and understand the circumstances; that they are victims of wars and that they didn't choose to become refugees. In that way it makes for a better relationship between the local people and the refugees themselves."

It is also a place where migrants and refugees can both work and learn. In a nearby basement we are invited to watch a course for beauticians, in which 30 women are styling hair, painting nails and giving facials. Also available are language courses and lessons in drama, music, singing, embroidery and cooking.

Whilst most of the migrants at the Fondation are from sub-Saharan Africa, a community less visible in the centre is Syrians, even though there are more in Morocco than any other refugee nationality. Hundreds of Syrians have flown into Algeria, as there are no visa requirements between the two countries, and crossed the border into Morocco.

Malika explains that she visits all the refugees in Rabat - Palestinians, Kurds, and Iraqis - but the Syrians have a special status. "I don't have access to them," she says, and changes the subject.

On the government's demand, the UNHCR (who fund the Fondation) suspended registration of Syrians for several months; the authorities said they would take over the process themselves. As a result only 1,000 Syrians are currently registered with UNHCR, but there are more. Registration protects refugees against forced return, arbitrary arrest and detention and gives them access to services.

Then, on June 25, UNHCR began registering Syrians again. It was part of the government's new migration and asylum policy, announced last September, in which they also promised to offer legal status to migrants who the UNHCR has determined to be refugees. The authorities will write new laws on asylum, human trafficking and migration.

Iman Moussaoui, who works in the communications department at UNHCR, told MEMO that for their work in Morocco is split between the pre-September 2013 phase and a post September 2013 phase.

Pre-2013 they were disturbing reports of violence by security forces towards migrants, particularly in the north of the country. Wide-scale raids saw people being rounded up and forced to walk into Algeria. Many were simply heading to Europe, through Morocco.

Moussaoui says that post-2013 refugees are in Morocco to stay. "With this new policy the idea is that Morocco is no longer just a country of transit, but a country of destination, because, with this policy, some people are actually coming to stay here.

"Definitely it [the policy] shows that there is a political will from the side of Morocco to change things. If UNHCR is here it is because Morocco wants it to be here and there is no better protection that a state could give. The process was probably a bit long, especially for the Syrian case, but now as registration starts today [June 25] in the Moroccan office, for refugees and stateless people so far it's looking good."

Still, a report released by Human Rights Watch on February 10 revealed that though the treatment of migrants has improved since this new policy was introduced, Moroccan security forces still beat, abuse and steal from sub-Saharan Africans in the northeastern part of the country.

"We do hear about all kinds of people being beaten and being transported from the border [with Spain] to other areas, Rabat or even Casablanca. The idea is that they try and get them as far as they can from the border but of course once they get to Rabat they try to get back to Spain," says Moussaoui.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor