Final Destination Maghreb: The transformation of transit countries

Myriam Cherti

While European countries continue to restrict entry through ever tighter border controls, migrants heading for Europe continue to leave home, often becoming ‘stuck’ in countries that they had only hoped to pass through. As a result, countries like Morocco that have traditionally been considered countries of emigration are now becoming countries of immigration too. At least 20,000 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are now resident in Morocco.

Bab Bou Jeloud gate at Fez, MoroccoThe tightening of European border controls and the cost of migrating to other countries over land has meant that, for many sub-Saharan migrants, a supposedly temporary stay in North Africa has in practice taken on an extended, even semi-permanent character. As I have argued in a recent publication, many of Morocco’s ‘transit’ migrants, even those who regard their journey as incomplete, find themselves in the country for years.

For a decade now, the EU has sought to stem irregular migration flows into the region effectively by extending its borders to Morocco and other countries in the Maghreb, repositioning them as the ‘new frontier’ of Europe. A variety of mechanisms have been used to this end, from ‘mobility partnerships’ to targeted funding – in 2006, for instance, the European Union (EU) channelled €67 million into Morocco’s border management.  Consequently, an increasing securitisation has been apparent in the development of Morocco’s migration policy.

Law 02-03, the cornerstone of Morocco’s migration framework, prioritises migration management at the border by controlling the entry and exit of migrants. Its focus is clearly on security, rather than human rights. Although it also contains some protections for vulnerable groups – such as the non-refoulement of refugees or pregnant women – there is growing evidence that these have not always been respected. Instead, the situation of sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco has often been described as precarious, with appalling conditions under which acute health needs go unmet and sexual violence and exploitation are commonplace.

In September 2013, following pressure from the likes of the country’s National Human Rights Council (CNDH), Moroccan government officials announced the Kingdom’s intention to draft a new ‘comprehensive policy on immigration’ that will attempt to regularise the situation of all immigrants in Morocco, whether from Sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere. The government press release even used the term ‘integration’, albeit not for every migrant wishing to settle in the country.

???????????These long-awaited developments in Morocco have been met with praise and encouragement from United Nations and European Union officials. The new process of regularisation gives Morocco more leverage in negotiations with the EU, especially in relation to its long-standing refusal to sign a readmission agreement. Such a treaty – a prime mechanism of EU ‘border externalisation’ – would force Morocco to readmit into its territory migrants proven to have entered Europe illegally through the country. Signing such an agreement would be a major shift, as it would make Morocco the first African country to conclude a readmission agreement with the EU. The implications of this would be a dramatic increase in the burden borne by Morocco in terms of responsibility for returning sub-Saharan irregular migrants currently in Europe who have travelled via Morocco.

Morocco’s regularisation announcement also asserted the country’s influence on the African continent, since improving relations with sub-Saharan countries has also been a priority for its foreign policy for some time. Recent changes have also helped Morocco secure a place at the UN Council of Human Rights, although not without sparking outrage in some quarters.

The EU at present invests substantial funds in security-focused measures that aim to contain rather than resolve irregular migration. However, as the current situation in Morocco shows, these measures have only a very limited effect unless they address the fundamental drivers in sending countries. The result is that the pressure of migration is either displaced onto intermediary countries such as Morocco or re-channelled into more dangerous and clandestine forms of attempted entry into Europe. EU funds could be spent more strategically supporting governments and civic society in source and transit countries to lessen the problems caused by irregular migration as well as support the process of return and resettlement.

Increasingly restrictive immigration policies in Europe and the militarisation of external border controls are not curbing migration but are instead transforming transit countries, particularly those of North Africa, into countries of settlement. Regardless of the desires of either EU states or the governments of North African countries, such migration is likely to continue unabated. One of the key questions is how new countries of settlement will respond and adapt to these patterns, and whether they will learn from European countries’ mistakes in developing policies on immigration and integration.