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By Alison Lake
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Revolution, civil war, violence, hunger and political repression push desperate people to leave their home countries to find a safer place to live. Other migrants try to game the system of international borders and receiving countries as they cross borders to engage in criminal activities.
As waves of migrants and refugees arrive at national frontiers seeking help, governments and civil society actors are pushed to review their policies regarding the refugees who settle in their countries and treatment of those individuals at the border and inside.
Morocco is on the front line as a receiving and transit country and has been reevaluating its approach to refugees and migrants. Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (CNDH) has published a report on the situation of migrants and refugees in Morocco, which is being presented this week to the Committee on the Protection of Migrant Workers at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
The kingdom is working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to improve its policies regarding treatment of refugees and migrants. Tunisia and Algeria, which share similar demographic traits with Morocco, have also approached UNHCR for support in facilitating asylum-seekers.
The CNDH is pressuring the Moroccan government to address the needs and rights of people seeking a better life. People fleeing difficult conditions often arrive in a new host country bewildered and without resources. In host countries without a legal system of asylum or other protections for refugees, life can be difficult.
Many asylum-seekers stop in Morocco, hoping to reach Spain and the European Union. Those who remain rely on aid from the United Nations or non-governmental organizations and lack opportunities to work or secure their own housing. Some have reported racial discrimination, as well. The CNDH is trying to influence state and civil actors to change this reality.
The kingdom of Morocco is positioned in northwest Africa with 1,835 km of coastline on both the Atlantic and Mediterranean and is adjacent to both Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Its proximity makes the country a destination for fleeing migrants, as well as a source, destination and transit country for illegal activities such as trafficking of humans, drugs and contraband.
North Africa and the Middle East have faced increased waves of refugee migration since widespread political upheaval began in early 2011 and continues to this day. The Syrian civil war in particular has displaced more than a million people, while Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey struggle to accommodate refugees who arrive daily at their borders.
In North Africa, Libya’s civil war and revolution shook the Maghreb, displacing citizens, channeling illegal arms and criminals around the region and contributing to general instability.
In the Sahel and Sahara regions, trafficking networks and Al Qaeda affiliates have grown in power, pushing economic migrants and asylum seekers to head north. Violence has occurred in Mali since January 2012, prompting more refugees to stream into Mauritania and other neighboring countries. Citizens in sub-Saharan Africa have been displaced by armed militias and sectarian and inter-ethnic conflicts, as well as by famine, hunger and general insecurity.
Morocco, like Turkey and Egypt, is a migration transition country of asylum and long-term settlement for migrants. Amid this reality and efforts by Morocco to maintain secure borders and reduce crime in the country, the issue remains regarding how recent arrivals are treated while they are detained or living in the country for longer periods as asylum-seekers or economic migrants.
The UNHCR stated in its 2013 Regional Operations Profile that its ”key challenge” in North Africa “is the influx of asylum-seekers from neighboring countries, which has not let up despite the ongoing instability in the region.” These regional and local factors bring increasingly diverse groups to Morocco’s borders. In Morocco, UNHCR is fielding more requests from asylum-seekers for registration, in particular from Côte d’Ivoire and the Syrian Arab Republic.
While all North African countries except Libya are signatories to the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, none have formally developed national systems of asylum to date. To address this gap, Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (CNDH) calls for the establishment of a broad legal and government system to process and accommodate refugees according to principles of human rights and interests of national security and stability.
CNDH wrote that until now, “Moroccan public authorities have acted in an ad hoc manner, without a well-conceptualized and comprehensive initiative adapted to the new realities.”
Refugee law and practice typically focuses on three approaches to displaced peoples: repatriation, integration in country of asylum or resettlement to a third country. Morocco in 2007 signed an agreement with the UNHCR delegating the review and granting of asylum applications. The country cooperates with the European Union to curb and control illegal immigration between Morocco, Spain, France and other countries and recently launched a dialogue on migration, mobility and security issues.
In June 2013 Morocco signed a joint declaration establishing a mobility partnership with the European Union and its member states, guaranteeing that public policy measures protect “human rights, based on international cooperation and integrating civil society.” The potential result, according to the CNDH report, is that “Morocco could provide a positive example for many countries of the South faced with similar problems.”
Policing of borders and migrants by Morocco and Spain is particularly strong in the Spanish enclaves of Septa and Mellilia within Morocco. Security forces on the lookout for human traffickers, smugglers and terrorists “have given rise to numerous violations of the rights of migrants,” the report stated.
The organization said such human rights violations only serve to increase the violence of offenders and human traffickers and the violations suffered by the migrants during their long migration route.” In other words, even criminals deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.
“The capacities of host countries today are dangerously overstretched,” wrote U.N. High Commissioner Antonio Guterres in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs. Guterres said that large refugee populations are “the visual result” of crises around the region and “often stay on long after the conflict in question has ceased to be in the spotlight of media attention.”
The CNDH “calls on public authorities, all social actors and state partners of Morocco” to act “to develop and implement a genuine public policy that protects human rights, based on international cooperation and integrating civil society.” CNDH encourages ongoing cooperation with UNHCR in this matter as well as with civil society institutions in Morocco.
“Both within national borders and internationally, the issue of human rights has become unavoidable,” the report stated. “It is the only measure guaranteeing the basic human rights of migrants, regardless of their administrative situation.”
The CNDH’s recommendations to the Moroccan government include national legislation and an institutional plan of asylum in coordination with UNHCR to issue refugee status to migrants. It hopes the government would establish a national legal and institutional framework of asylum based on the principles expressed in the preamble of the 2011 Moroccan constitution.
It also calls for a policy of integration of refugees and their families in terms of housing, health, schooling, training and employment. The CNDH cautions Morocco to adhere to the principle of prohibition of expulsion or return, in which all refugees have the right to apply for asylum.
In real terms, this means a “ban all forms of violence against undocumented migrants during arrest procedures” and “effective access to justice for irregular migrants in the case of arrest, provisionary detention or trial.” The report also highlighted the vulnerability and need for “material and legal support of unaccompanied foreign minors and of migrant women.”
The UNHCR stated in its 2013 North Africa profile that the “main constraints in the region continue to be the absence of national and regional strategies for the management of mixed-migration movements [and] the lack of national asylum systems consistent with international standards.” Efforts of North African countries to coordinate with the agency while improving their local response to migration would need to involve various sectors of society to be successful.
CNDH welcomes “the efforts of members of civil society involved in the defense of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers…and believes that its active and collaborative involvement is essential to deal with historical changes.”
Alison Lake is The Atlantic Post’s Director and Executive Editor, based in Washington, D.C.