Much of the media attention on global displacement currently focuses on the Syrian refugee crisis and refugees’ attempts to enter Europe through Eastern Mediterranean routes. Certainly, the large scale of displacement that has occurred as a result of the war in Syria (the number of registered refugees has surpassed five million), and the rise in number of asylum applications being made in Europe, merit our attention. However, Syrian refugee flows in the Eastern Mediterranean are only part of a larger picture of forced migration. The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) states that such global displacement is at its highest level since the Second World War, and the Middle East and North Africa are an epicenter—not just for Syrians, but for other groups as well.

Although experts have traditionally considered Morocco to be a “sending” or “emigration” country (the global Moroccan diaspora is estimated at 4 million), in the mid-2000s it became recognized as a “transit” country—one from which migrants hope to reach Europe, either through the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, or as a base for sea crossings across the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean and to the Canary Islands. In 2005, Human Rights Watch criticized the Spanish and Moroccan governments for the violent expulsion of migrants from the Spanish enclaves into Moroccan territory. Around the same time, record numbers of arrivals were being recorded at the Canary Islands with media often referring to this new phenomenon as a crisis or disaster.

Subsequent to these events, and after the uprisings that erupted throughout the Arab world in 2011, the Moroccan King decided to institute constitutional reforms. These were followed, in 2013, by the announcement of plans to develop a new national policy on migration and asylum, and a late 2013 creation of an exceptional “regularization program” for some migrants, making Morocco the only country in the North Africa and Middle East region to attempt to address the issue of irregular migration through a regularization program. Subsequently, some even began to refer to Morocco as a “destination” country for migrants.

It was against this backdrop that I decided in 2016 to take a UNHCR consultancy in Morocco, to get a better sense of the migration landscape. My work in Morocco was with the UNHCR’s Refugee Status Determination (“RSD”) Unit—the unit within the office that conducts interviews with asylum-seekers in order to determine whether they in fact meet the criteria for refugee status as defined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Although Morocco committed to a new asylum policy and established a national authority meant to deal with refugees (the Bureau des Réfugiés et Apatrides (“BRA”)—Office of Refugees and Stateless Persons), the actual adoption of a domestic asylum law and the establishment of an asylum system and procedures is still pending at the time of this writing. Therefore, in the absence of domestic asylum law and implementing mechanisms, the UNHCR still conducts RSD interviews with prospective asylum seekers in order to assess the merits of their claims. However, some refugees, namely nationals of Syria and Yemen, are simply registered and then referred to the BRA (in order to obtain permits allowing them to reside and work legally in Morocco). Syrians and Yemenis are not interviewed further, since it is assumed that the cause of their flight is well known. (Only those who may not be eligible for refugee status due to the possibility of their involvement in a war crime or crimes against humanity, or other acts that would subject them to the “Exclusion Clauses” of the 1951 Convention are not referred.) However, the number of Yemeni and Syrian refugees registered in Morocco is not very large, especially when compared to other countries in the MENA region (Yemenis number in the hundreds, and Syrians in the thousands).

The other refugees registered with the UNHCR and migrants coming to Morocco originate from Sub-Saharan African and particularly West African countries: the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and others. Aside from nationals of Syria, Yemen, and the Central African Republic, I found that the recognition rate for asylum seekers from other countries is quite low. What this signifies is that these persons are not deemed to fit the criteria for refugee status as detailed in the 1951 Convention, which requires that the applicant establish that he or she cannot return to his or her country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of five grounds: race (or ethnicity), religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Although the UNHCR also extends protection to refugees based on an “extended mandate” that applies in countries undergoing wide-scale instability or generalized violence, this avenue of protection was also unavailable to most of the asylum seekers I encountered.

Although in the course of my time in Morocco, I interviewed asylum seekers from a wide range of places, including some unexpected ones (such as Azerbaijan and Afghanistan), I was primarily focused on applicants from West Africa, and particularly (though not exclusively) those from Anglophone countries, such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and the Gambia. The majority of applicants from those countries did not fit the 1951 Convention definition of a refugee. In effect, they are primarily seen as economic migrants.

The distinction between a refugee and a migrant is an important one—much of the international legal framework that has been put in place since 1951 and continues to this day centers on making this distinction. Refugees may be registered with the UNHCR and then obtain residency and work authorization in Morocco. Some may be eligible for resettlement from Morocco to third countries such as the United States, especially those refugees who meet the UNHCR’s resettlement eligibility criteria (for example, those with legal and physical protection needs that cannot be addressed in Morocco). Migrants, on the other hand, are not owed these protections. Although Morocco regularized some 18,000 migrants after the announcement of its regularization program in late 2013, and although it launched a second phase of regularization in late 2016, not all those staying in Morocco will be eligible for regularization. And although regularized migrants are able to obtain work authorization, they are not eligible for other forms of assistance provided to refugees by the UNHCR and its implementing partners and other NGOs (the number of NGOs assisting migrants and amount of resources available to them is much smaller). The migrants who do make their way to Europe are likely to be rejected there again, especially in light of repatriation agreements between Spain and many West African countries.

As a practitioner in this field, I understand the reasons for the distinction but find that the issue is not always so black and white—that is to say, political and economic factors behind forced migration are often linked. I have written elsewhere about the fact that in many cases, economic impoverishment and political repression and corruption go hand in hand. Wars also lead to the disruption of livelihoods, and sometimes, it is scarcity and economic pressures that compel some to flee during a war.

The asylum seekers from places like Sierra Leone and Liberia found the institutional response to their applications for asylum in Morocco and elsewhere rejected based on the rationale that the wars that existed in those countries have ended, and that those countries are now politically stable and therefore considered safe. However, the reality is that in countries that were impoverished to begin with, civil wars have even further devastated the economy and the infrastructure, leaving many scrambling for survival. Peace negotiations and agreements may have brought conflicts to an end, but the post-conflict situation remains fragile, and some of the underlying tensions between various ethnic groups (in places where conflicts were waged along ethnic lines) continue to exist and disadvantaged ethnic groups continue to suffer. They may not be the target of violent campaigns, but their economic and social marginalization persists, even if they may not meet the threshold of “persecution” that is required by the 1951 Convention. The UNHCR’s Guidelines on the Cessation of Refugee Status urge states not to be hasty in the termination of refugee status in post-conflict situations, and to wait until fundamental and enduring changes take place in a country. In practice, the UNHCR itself and member states do not always follow these Guidelines, especially when change comes slowly and with setbacks. Some are fleeing politically repressive, but stable countries, with regimes that countries in Europe support, but where endemic corruption leaves most of the citizenry feeling hopeless. Many of the asylum seekers in Morocco are from Cameroon, whose president, Paul Biya, is one of Africa’s longest ruling leaders.

It is important to note that a good deal of the economically-driven migration is also due to both environmental and development issues. As far as back 2008, the New York Times reported on the industrial trawlers used by fishing companies to feed the high demand for fish in Europe have impoverished smaller scale fishermen in places like Senegal, driving them to migrate. The demand for fish is unabated, and similar stories continue to appear in 2017. Further complicating the picture is climate change: Senegal has lost 40 per cent of its mangrove coverage (which protect certain species of fish from predators), and combined with rising ocean temperatures that alter migration patterns, fish stocks have been further depleted—pushing increasing numbers towards migration. Climate change is also behind the conflict between Fulani herdsmen and agricultural communities in parts of Nigeria. Due to changing climate and increased drought, to graze their cattle, herdsmen increasingly encroach upon land settled by agricultural communities, leading to conflict and deadly violence. One young man from Benue State, Nigeria, whose family are farmers, explained to me that farming was no longer a viable means of livelihood for him, causing him to leave Nigeria.

Despite the recognition that climate change already is and will increasingly become one of the primary factors pushing people to migrate, the existing legal frameworks we have to address forced displacement do not address climate-induced displacement in a satisfactory fashion. The 1951 Convention, written well before the current climate change crisis, requires that refugees establish a link between their flight and one of five Convention grounds. Although in some places, climate change may disproportionately impact persons of a particular race or ethnicity, establishing a causal link will not always be easy. Some of the regional instruments that also provide protection to forced migrants, such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention has an extended refugee definition that takes into consideration migration caused by “events seriously disturbing public order,” but does not specifically mention climate-induced migration. It is also important to note that as one of the world’s most water scarce and dry regions, with high dependency on climate-sensitive agriculture (with a large share of the population and economic activity in urban coastal zones), the MENA region has been identified as one of those most vulnerable to climate change.

Those leaving their countries in hopes of sustainable lives include women. Many of the women I interviewed in Morocco, particularly from Nigeria, were victims of trafficking. I was in Morocco when the New Yorker devoted a lengthy article to the issue of trafficking out of Nigeria. The account in that piece echoed very much what I was hearing from the women there. The profile of the women was similar in most cases: young women from rural parts of southern Nigeria, mostly recruited with promise of employment in Europe who then found themselves trapped in Morocco and having to pay back a debt for the journey they made. To address this issue, Moroccan lawmakers introduced a draft anti-trafficking law in 2015, and a national anti-trafficking commission has been set up. But in the absence of final legislation and implementation mechanisms, domestic avenues to combat trafficking are extremely limited. This leaves international organizations such as the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration nearly solely responsible for addressing the issue. Although victims of trafficking may qualify for refugee status and in some cases may even be resettled to third countries, in practice, very few of the women who have been trafficked are able to “benefit” from this, due to the procedural hurdles and evidentiary burden that they must satisfy. Most of the women I interviewed approached the UNHCR long after being dumped by their traffickers. Most were either unable to unwilling to share information (understandably so), despite repeated reassurances that they would not face prosecution. Many, even if not formally within the ambit of the traffickers, engage in survival sex. Even outside trafficking, the sexual abuse of migrant women is rampant—it is the price many are expected to pay as they cross borders.

The 1951 Convention cannot account for these asylum seekers because they may not be fleeing active conflict as conventionally understood and thus may not fit the classic paradigm of a refugee. Policy makers in receiving countries see economic migrants as migrants who “choose” to migrate, many of these migrants do not feel like their migration was voluntary, but was driven by an overriding need to survive or help family members who remain behind survive.

Although many came to Morocco with the intention or hopes of making it to Europe, more are finding that they have to remain in Morocco (unless they decide to return), as entering Europe has become increasingly difficult. Increased patrols off the coast and interdiction of boats, in addition to the high security walls built outside the Spanish enclaves have ensured that migrants are forced to remain in Morocco. One report estimates that 250 million Euro is spent annually to ensure that migrants in Morocco cannot enter Europe. Of course when Morocco wants to put pressure on the European Union or express displeasure over trade agreements, it uses migration as leverage and turns a blind eye to irregular migration—and arrivals in Europe increase. Morocco’s legalization program aims to address this problem to some extent—after all, it is aimed at regularizing migrants and not necessarily refugees who are present in Morocco. Therefore, to apply for regularization, one need not meet the criteria for refugee status under the 1951 Convention. However, not all migrants will meet the regularization criteria (those eligible include those married to Moroccan nationals; those with valid work contracts; those already residing in Morocco for five years; or those suffering from serious illness). However, even those who are able to obtain legal residence in Morocco must overcome other obstacles, both economic and societal, including racism, and their integration is by no means assured. Various migrants’ rights organizations have pointed out that despite regularization, migrants continue to face abuse, especially at the hands of security officials.

Consequently the difficulty of remaining in Morocco and the barriers to reaching Europe are also causing the diversification of routes towards Europe, including pushing increasing numbers of migrants towards Libya, where the absence of rule of law has led to less controls over sea crossings, but much greater abuse of migrants. Recently, there have been numerous reports of the horrible conditions in which migrants find themselves in Libya. Although many of the migrants leaving West African countries cross into Libya from Niger, I also encountered a number who, after giving up hope of reaching Europe via Morocco, were thinking of heading east again. However, recent reports of increased EU-funded coast guard activity off the coast of Libya has once again pushed more migrants into attempt to reach Europe via Spain.

In sum, the migration landscape in Morocco is complicated, and ultimately constrained by the 1951 Convention, which, with its narrow definition of a refugee, fails to adequately address today’s forced migration phenomenon. The increasingly large numbers of those coming to Morocco, who are unable to enter Europe, occupy a liminal space of sorts. They can neither move forward nor wish to return to what they have left behind. Despite some efforts to address this situation through limited regularization programs, most migrants will not be absorbed and reaching Europe will continue to remain the ultimate goal. As long as the underlying factors pushing this migration are not addressed in a fundamental way, as long as the only solution envisioned by the developed countries is one of prevention or containment, migrants will continue to seek different and sometimes more perilous paths towards Europe, and the crisis will continue.


This article is based on a consultancy with the UNHCR in late 2016 and early 2017. The views expressed in it are the author’s own.

How to cite this article:

Parastou Hassouri "Refugees or Migrants?," Middle East Report Online, September 12, 2017.

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