The Challenges of Migration in North Africa – Jean R. AbiNader

Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC
October 4, 2017

A recent event at CSIS and several lengthy articles focused on challenges resulting from migration from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa and beyond. It is a complex issue involving definitions and concepts that stretch across human conditions and political events, and has regional and international implications related to economic development, terrorism, border control, and prejudice, for a start.

At CSIS, Kirsten Schuettler, a senior program officer in the Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice at the World Bank, and Anaïs Elbassil, director of the multi-country migration program for West, Central, and North Africa for Mercy Corps, shared experiences on the topic “The Maghreb as a Migration Source, Transit Point, and Destination.” 

Most of Ms. Schuettler’s remarks reflected her research and data from Morocco, with some input about conditions in Algeria. Ms. Elbassil presented information on Mercy Corps programs in Tunisia and her previous work in the region. The key takeaways began with sorting out distinctions, often muddled, between refugees, migrants, and “irregular” migrants, those who migrate outside the legal criteria.

As defined in most dictionaries, a migrant is one who moves to a new area or country in order to find work or better living conditions, while a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. There have always been migrant flows from sub-Saharan to North Africa and then irregular migration to Europe, but over the last 20 years, the numbers have increased due to political conditions, climatic changes, and lack of opportunities The composition has also changed, as more skilled and trained migrants are leaving home to find jobs and support their families either in Morocco or in the EU.

The article from the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) posted on ReliefWeb, “Refugees or Migrants? Difficulties of West Africans in Morocco,” makes the case that “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.” Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, ofr political opinion.” The problem is that this does not include what today is called “forced” migration, resulting from economic, political, climatic, social, religious, or other factors The CSIS speakers stressed that faced with the world’s largest refugee population, the international community must develop new norms to address the needs of people who fall outside of that definition.

Morocco is both an “emigrating country” whose citizens move abroad and a “transit country” that is a bridge for other migrants to reach Europe. After a number of disasters with irregular migrants attempting to reach Spain via vessels, and the uprisings associated with the Arab Spring, King Mohammed VI addressed the situation of these transit migrants, pushing for reforms that were promulgated in 2013 with implementation starting in 2015. According to the MERIP article, Morocco’s “regularization program” made “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. ” However, there is still legislation pending regarding other related legal issues: human trafficking, asylum, and non-transit migration.

As the article pointed out, “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…Migrants, on the other hand, are not owed these protections.” Morocco has registered more than 42,000 migrants to date, which makes them eligible for work permits, but they are not entitled to benefits that are assigned to refugees by international guidelines.

Progress that is being made was the subject of a study from the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa. Citing mounting pressures on Morocco and Algeria from sub-Saharan migrants hoping to transit to Europe, both countries are working with the EU on two fronts: legalization of migrants to access economic opportunities, and repatriation schemes for returning irregular migrants to their home countries. Both options are a means of incorporating labor into the local economy and reducing the attraction of terrorism and crime.

Although Morocco has been active since 2013 in legislative efforts on these fronts, it was only in July of this year that Algeria announced plans to grant residency rights and work permits to irregular sub-Saharan African migrants, with the benefit of addressing the country’s labor shortage in agriculture and construction. The article notes “The Algerian Ministry of Interior has yet to decide how many of the estimated 25,000–100,000 irregular migrants, mainly from Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, will benefit from this arrangement.”

A major challenge, as in other host countries, is that “high unemployment in Algeria (30%) and Morocco (25.5%) and limited livelihood prospects have prompted tensions aimed at irregular migrants in these countries.” On the other hand, Morocco’s effort to regularize the status of migrants is especially germane to its position as a regional leader. The country took significant steps following its announcement that Africa is the ”top priority” of its foreign policy in 2014. After being absent for 33 years, Morocco was readmitted to the African Union in January; and its request to join the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as the first North African member has been accepted in principle.

The article concludes that the challenge of integrating migrants, either through regularization or as emigrants to Europe, requires all segments of society to “work on enhancing societal awareness on accepting migrants. However, if their regularization move is only motivated by political considerations, it may not be sustainable.”

With the proposed legislation pending in Morocco’s Parliament this session, the country has the opportunity to make tremendous strides not only in addressing migrant issues but also in clarifying asylum criteria and creating the needed instruments to combat human trafficking.

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