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Rather than looking for scapegoats, Morocco is cashing in on South-South migration

‘Rabat is experiencing labour shortages for jobs Moroccans no longer want to do – a pattern already seen in the past in European countries.’

WHILE the rest of the Maghreb is often in the spotlight over its aggressive approach to African migrants and asylum seekers, Morocco has officially chosen a more tolerant path and is reaping political and economic benefits from that more liberal attitude.

Khady Hair, a beauty salon in a neat neighbourhood on the outskirts of the southern city of Agadir, welcomes clients of all nationalities and hair types. Its Senegalese owner, 38-year-old Khady Wade Baldé, has worked hard to build a chain of three salons that employ a dozen workers from Morocco, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire.

“At the beginning, it wasn’t easy,” said Baldé, who arrived in Morocco in 2008. “At that time, African women used to work only as babysitters or cleaning ladies.” Now Baldé is planning further business investments in both Morocco and Senegal.

Baldé is one of an estimated 70,000 mainly African migrants living in Morocco – a figure that includes both regular and irregular arrivals. It’s a demographic dynamic that in the last two decades has seen the country increasingly become a destination for migrants, “especially from West Africa”, according to Hein de Haas, a migration specialist at the University of Amsterdam.

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A map focused on West Africa. Morocco, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Côte d'Iviore are highlighted.

Unlike Maghreb countries that have adopted more hostile policies, like Tunisia, where the government has stoked a climate of xenophobia, Morocco has positioned itself as a pro-migrant destination – a strategic decision motivated by both geo-political and economic interests.

Yet tensions remain in a country that is itself a significant generator of migration to Europe. Moreover, although Morocco officially embraces its multi-ethnic heritage, there can be local animosity, especially towards undocumented transiting African migrants who are forced to settle in urban squatter camps before attempting the difficult journey to Europe.

Policy by decree

Since the ascension of King Mohammed VI to the throne more than two decades ago, Morocco has cultivated links with African countries to its south, boosted by Rabat’s targeted provision of aid, university opportunities, and investments.

Senegal, for one, is a prime ally based on historical religious ties to its influential Sufi brotherhoods. As a result, Senegalese citizens enter Morocco visa-free representing the largest slice of African migrants registered in the country.

A group of worshippers from the Sufi Islamic brotherhood Mouridiyya are gathered in the Fat Hatoul Jhaffar dahira in Marrakech.
Members of the Senegalese Islamic Mouride brotherhood gather for prayer in Fat Hatoul Jhaffar, Marrakech.

The centrepiece of Morocco’s migration policy is its 2014 National Strategy on Integration and Asylum. This guarantees access to public services for all regular migrants and even some benefits for the unregistered. 

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Morocco has also run two large-scale “regularisation campaigns”, in 2014 and 2017, to register irregular and undocumented migrants. These resulted in more than 50,000 people – mainly from Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – achieving formal status.

Nevertheless, Morocco retains strict security-driven migration laws on its statute books, only tempered by more liberal ad hoc edicts.

“All the positive developments since 2014 have happened through executive tools, through decrees, special programmes, or exceptions from a particular rule,” noted Katharina Natter, an expert from Leiden University on migration in the Maghreb.

These are measures that “could be very quickly adjusted, and potentially taken back, according to geopolitical goals”, Natter told The New Humanitarian.

Official policy doesn’t govern people’s day-to-day personal interactions. Migrants still experience bigotry and racial discrimination on the streets, in accessing social services, or when trying to rent homes. And the security forces have a history of rounding up undocumented people and dumping them in remote parts of the country.

Social media can also be a toxic space, with intolerance extending beyond migrants to include Black Moroccans – many the descendants of the trans-Sahara slave trade – and the Indigenous Amazigh, also known as Berbers.

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Nevertheless, Morocco’s official policy position has won international praise. A 2019 report by Tendayi Achiume, the UN’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia, broadly concluded that Morocco’s migration policies deserve “recognition, and in many cases, international emulation”.

It’s a policy approach driven by political consensus. Unlike Mahgrebian neighbour Tunisia, where President Kaïs Saïed has scapegoated Black African migrants, Morocco’s political elite has supported the “look south” approach.

“Sub-Saharan migrants and their rights have not been politicised in the discourse of the king and his circle,” said Natter. “Xenophobic episodes happen sometimes in the media, or in everyday life, but at a political level that has rarely happened, because migration is such a crucial asset geopolitically.”

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The politics of migration

Rabat’s singular diplomatic goal is to win international support for its claim to Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony it has occupied since 1975. King Hassan has made plain its strategic importance, noting that the Sahara is the lens “through which Morocco will conduct its international relations”.

The Organisation of African Unity’s recognition of the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic triggered Morocco’s withdrawal in 1984. Thirty-three years later it re-joined the body’s successor, the African Union, where it has energetically pushed a proposal for Sahrawi self-governance under Moroccan sovereignty – a plan fiercely resisted by most Sahrawi leaders.

Rabat’s pro-immigration policies have earned Morocco “a strong position in the African Union on the Western Sahara issue”, and African support for Sahrawi independence is dwindling, said Natter.

Yet while Morocco keeps its southern borders open, the routes to Europe – via the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, or the Mediterranean coast – are firmly closed and militarised.

In 2022, the Moroccan authorities reportedly blocked 70,000 attempts to reach Europe by land and sea and arrested more than 28,000 people. In the first six months of 2023, close to 1,000 people drowned trying to get to Spain, according to Caminando Fronteras, a Spanish migrant rights group.

The security forces have also been accused of extreme brutality in dealing with the periodic mass attempts by migrants to storm the metres-high chain link fence that surrounds the Melilla enclave.

Morocco’s migrant policing has been rewarded. Between 2014 and 2022, the EU provided the kingdom with 2.1 billion euros in bilateral funding – including financial support for its outsourced migration control.

The economic case for migration

But migration also has direct economic benefits for Morocco, especially for its forex-earning agricultural sector, which is migrant worker-dependent. 

“Rabat is experiencing labour shortages for jobs Moroccans no longer want to do – a pattern already seen in the past in European countries,” de Haas, the migrant specialist, told The New Humanitarian. 

Ait Amira, a town 40 kilometres south of Agadir, is surrounded by horticultural greenhouses. Those who labour inside, tending the fruit and vegetables, are largely West African. “This is the main job when you get here,” said Ousmane, a middle-aged Senegalese man who wanted only his first name used.

Ousmane Djom stands in one of the many greenhouses surrounding the countryside of Ait Amira, a rural municipality south of Agadir that hosts a large community of sub-Saharans workers.
Ousmane works in a greenhouse in Ait Amira. West African labour is crucial to the region’s export-driven fruit and vegetable production.

The possibility of immediate employment, without much paperwork, makes Agadir an attractive destination for newly arriving migrants. That influx sustains agricultural production in a region that accounts for 9% of Morocco’s GDP.

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Call centres also provide ready work. Earmarked as a strategic sector, it benefits from fiscal incentives and loose labour regulations. A labour market study estimated that 20% of the 120,000 workforce was from French-speaking West Africa, especially Senegal.

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While work experience in Morocco often starts with precarious, low-paying jobs, many find ways to improve their circumstances.

“My life changed when I arrived in Marrakech,” said Racine Ba, who came from Senegal in 2011 and now works in a historic tourist-friendly guesthouse. “Here, I really started to feel integrated: I found an open-minded atmosphere.”

Racine rides his scooter through the narrow alleys of a souk in Marrakech to go to work in the riad.
Racine Ba drives his scooter through a souk in Marrakech. He arrived from Senegal in 2011 and is now settled in Morocco with a family, and a job he enjoys.

He is married to Fatim, a Moroccan woman, and together they have two young children, raised multiculturally. “They learn everything: Wolof, French, and Arabic,” said Ba.

His experience contradicts the usual stereotypes surrounding migration, tropes that Attaches Plurielles – a media outlet created by and for the West African community – has set out to deliberately challenge.

“In the media, we only see the squatter camps of migrants at the Ouled Ziane [train] station in Casablanca,” explained its Senegalese director and founder, Ndeye Yacine Ndiaye.

Attaches Plurielles aims, instead, to document the success stories of the many African migrants “who have settled in Morocco, work in large companies, and make their contributions to the development of both Morocco and their countries of origin,” Ndiaye said.

Davide Lemmi and Oumar Sall reported from Marrakech, Morocco. Marco Valenza reported from Dakar, Senegal. This reporting project was supported by the Pulitzer Center. Edited by Obi Anyadike.

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By DAVIDE LEMMI, MARCO VALENZA, OUMAR SALL and MARCO SIMONELLI

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