African immigrants in Morocco
African immigrants in Morocco Doctors Without Borders/Anna Surinyach

As the gateway to Europe, the North African country of Morocco has become a reluctant host to tens of thousands of black African migrants seeking to cross into the “promised lands” of Spain, France, Italy, Germany and other European states. Located only about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Spain at its closest point, Morocco is a key hub for the smuggling of illegal immigrants from Africa into Europe. Every year, thousands of people try to reach Spain on makeshift boats, somewhat similar to the scenario in the Caribbean where Cubans and Haitians have made desperate sea voyages to reach the United States over the years.

But Morocco, which receives millions of euros annually from the European Union to clamp down on illegal immigrants seeking to enter Europe, has come under criticism for its often brutal treatment and abuse of sub-Saharan Africans within its borders. In response to such vitriol, government officials in Morocco have vowed to adopt a more "humane" approach to its increasing population of unwanted immigrants, particularly the estimated 20,000 sub-Saharan Africans already in the country (a figure that has quadrupled in just the past few years, according to the North Africa Post newspaper). Some black people in Morocco have even been the victims of violence perpetrated not only by Moroccan police and security officers, but by ordinary citizens as well. King Mohamed VI himself has admitted that concerns raised by Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (MNHC) over the country’s asylum and immigration policy are "legitimate."

BusinessDay Live, a South African newspaper, reported that over the past summer a Congolese university professor living in Tangier died after a policeman pushed him off a bus that was deporting him to the border of Algeria. A Senegalese man named Ismaila Faye was stabbed to death near the central bus station in Rabat, allegedly during an argument with a Moroccan over seating privileges. MNHC, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and Gadem, a Moroccan NGO, have all raised alarms over the intensifying violence committed against African migrants in the country. "The fact that sub-Saharan migrants are classified as 'illegal' means that the majority live with the constant fear of arrest and expulsion and the ever-present threat of violence, abuse and exploitation at the hands of security forces, [and] criminal gangs," read a statement from Medecins Sans Frontieres. "Their abusers are able to act with impunity in the knowledge that their victims will be treated as criminals and offered little or no protection by the Moroccan state.” Medecins Sans Frontieres even closed its offices in Morocco as a form of protest. "This violence is far from over, as witnessed by the tragedies of recent months, which have been particularly violent for migrants in Morocco," Gadem stated.

Now, under the government’s new policies, the interior, foreign and justice ministries will form a new comprehensive set of procedures to process the asylum requests of migrants "on a case-by-case basis” with an eye toward promoting and protecting human rights. “Our African brothers are welcome, but within the law,” Khalid Zerouali, the head of migration and border control at the Interior Ministry, told Agence France Presse.

However, the overwhelming majority of illegal foreigners in Morocco are not seeking to stay in the North African kingdom, which remains poor, but rather migrate to Europe. Consequently, EU officials and especially the government of Spain, already beleaguered by high unemployment, is concerned that if Morocco provides residency to African migrants, it will simply give them easier access to Europe itself.

Migrants who find themselves trapped in Morocco often end up destitute, living on hand-outs or resorting to crime. Even worse, black Africans also suffer the sting of racial prejudice and bigotry from the Arabs and Berbers of Morocco. “Three Moroccans mugged me, brandished a knife at me and stole my pocket money and mobile [phone],” an Africa immigrant told France 24. “Moroccans insult us and call us black, and we feel we are being discriminated against.” Some parts of Casablanca have even prohibited black people from renting or occupying certain properties.

“Is it a crime now, being an immigrant?” Eric Williams, a Cameroonian living in Rabat, rhetorically asked AFP. “Our situation is really bad. Nearly 15 immigrants were attacked in just one week.” Referring to the killing of the Senegalese man in Rabat, Williams added: “There needs to be a racist murder for people to take our problems seriously.”

Already beset by high unemployment, many Moroccans, particularly jobless youths, see the immigrants as a grave threat to their existence. “We do not accept African immigrants to rent our houses or to live in our neighborhood. Most of them cannot afford to pay the rent on time,” a Moroccan family from El Jadida told Morocco World News. Another Moroccan from Agadir told MWN: “They insist on giving them alms, while we ourselves are poor.”

A common Islamic faith and African origin mean nothing. “I don’t understand why some Moroccans treat Africans in a contemptuous way. Coming here I thought I would be in a neighborly country, a brother country,” Williams added. Anna Bayns, a Senegalese student at Rabat University, told AFP that violence against Africans like her is increasing and that Moroccans are deeply racist. “We are often referred to as ‘Negroes,’” she said.

A BBC correspondent in Tangier said black Africans in the city reside in the back streets, many sharing tiny rooms in squalid conditions. He spoke to a man from The Gambia named Ibrahim, who tried to cross his way across the waters to Spain. "I paddled for three hours, and I called the Spanish people to come and rescue me. But if you call them, they just call the Moroccans -- and they rescue you," Ibrahim said. A Senegalese man named Baijalo complained: "If we could live like we would in Europe, we would stay here [in Morocco]. But we can't. Because here there is racism, despite the fact we're all Africans. The Europeans accept us. They let us work, in factories; they let us have contact with them. But here, we don't even dare to touch them."

The EU, which wants to stamp out illegal immigration and human smuggling into Europe, finds itself in a delicate position with respect to illegal migrants in Morocco. The EU pays Morocco to keep migrants out of the continent, but also insists that it wants Morocco to treat such people humanely. “We are obviously concerned about the reports that we have concerning the poor treatment of illegal migrants, mostly of sub-Saharan origin,” Rupert Joy, the EU’s principal official to Morocco, told AFP. “In my opinion the worst mistake one could make would be to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist and that it isn’t serious.”

But Youssef Amrani of the Moroccan Ministry for Foreign Affairs defended his government. "Morocco is [the] victim of an increased pressure of irregular migration from sub-Saharan Africa and has become a country of destination, by default, due to the enforced joint border control between Morocco and its European neighbors,” he told BBC. "Morocco continues to uphold its border management and its readmissions procedures in light of the struggle against irregular migration, all the while respecting the development and human rights aspects of migration."

Amrani added: "Morocco is a democratic country that has no taboo on the issue of human rights, and has met all international requirements on the matter, specifically with the voluntary visits of the U.N. Special Procedures to Morocco, as well as the European Union's recognition that Morocco is delivering on its end."