Morocco: Relentless crackdown on thousands of sub-Saharan migrants and refugees is unlawful
The Moroccan authorities’ large-scale crackdown on thousands of sub-Saharan migrants, asylum seekers and refugees without due process is cruel and unlawful, Amnesty International said amid ongoing intensive government raids in the north of the country.
Since the end of July, the Moroccan police together with the Royal Gendarmerie and the Auxiliary Forces have carried out major raids on the neighbourhoods where refugees and migrants live in several cities, with particular intensity in the northern provinces of Tangiers, Nador and Tetuan, which neighbour the Spanish borders.
“This shocking crackdown on migrants and refugees in Morocco is both cruel and unlawful. It represents a worrying backslide for a government that in 2013 introduced new asylum and migration policy commitments to bring Morocco into compliance with international standards,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director.
An estimated 5,000 people have been swept up in the raids since July, piled on to buses and abandoned in remote areas close to the Algerian border or in the south of the country, according to the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH). The group monitored the number of buses that left from Tangiers, Tetuan and Nador and calculated an estimate for the number of people seized.
“The Moroccan authorities must immediately cease these discriminatory round ups and uphold the positive commitments taken over the past five years to respect the human rights of migrants. Going forward, it must adopt a law on asylum that will set out correct procedures and protections in line with international law.”
Recent raids and round-ups
On Friday 31 August, the Moroccan security services rounded up and arbitrarily arrested an estimated 150 sub-Saharan people in Tangier before bussing them to southern cities where they were abandoned. The local branch of AMDH told Amnesty International that the migrants were apprehended after they started a small protest in front of the Spanish Consulate to call for freedom of sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco, as shown in this video.
According to information obtained by Amnesty International about the ongoing crackdown, the authorities seized migrants, asylum seekers and refugees without checking their legal documentation, held them for few hours, took their fingerprints, and then forced them onto buses. The migrants were handcuffed or in some cases had their hands tied together with rope. They were forcibly displaced to remote areas close to the Algerian border or in southern remote areas close to Tiznit, Errachidia, Benguerir, Beni Mellal and Marrakesh. In many cases migrants had to walk for several kilometres before reaching the first urban centre from which they could attempt to travel back to their homes.
During the recent incidents, at least 14 asylum-seekers and four refugees registered in Morocco were also forcibly transferred to the south of the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Rabat. In one particularly egregious example, on 7 August, a female refugee was apprehended in Tangiers with her one-year-old son. The pair were forced onto a bus and were later released in Kenitra, 200 kilometers away.
“It is shocking to see that young children are among those subjected to these brutal punishments, as well as UN-recognized asylum-seekers and refugees as well as registered migrants holding residency cards,” said Heba Morayef.
“While the Moroccan authorities have the right to regulate entry, stay and exit, this right must be exercised in a way that is consistent with international human rights law and in accordance with the Refugee Convention.”
The security forces have carried out particularly violent raids on informal settlements and makeshift camps occupied by migrants around Tangiers and Nador, the crossing point into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. In some cases documented by Amnesty International, security services set camps on fire, burned migrants’ belongings and stole mobile phones.
One migrant, who has lived in Morocco for four years, told Amnesty International that the Moroccan police and gendarmerie violently broke into his house in Mesnana neighborhood in Tangiers at 4am in the morning on 26 August. He said:
"The police came in the middle of the night wearing masks, broke our door and started seizing the members of my family, including women and children. There were many vehicles outside with officials breaking into our neighbours' houses."
On 23 August 2018, the Spanish authorities expelled a group of 116 people from different countries in sub-Saharan Africa, transferring them from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta back to Morocco. The expulsion was carried out a day after the group had accessed Spanish territory from Morocco by crossing the fences along the border in Ceuta.
The speed of the operation raises questions about Spanish authorities’ respect for substantive and procedural safeguards during the “expedited” return procedure.
In the less than 24 hours they spent in Spain, only 12 lawyers provided legal counsel to all 116 individuals, severely curtailing the chance that they received proper information about their rights and how to apply for asylum if they wished to do so. In addition, the lawyers were not informed that their clients were to be expelled in less than 24 hours, depriving them of the opportunity to effectively challenge their return. There was also no assessment of the potential risks individuals could face in Morocco.
Spanish authorities however claimed that the operation was lawful and justified on the grounds that the migrants had perpetrated “unacceptable violence against Spanish border officials”, as a result of which seven agents would have been injured, according to the Guardia Civil. Amnesty International considers that this assertion would not in any case justify the expedited return, nor any breaches of Spain’s obligation to provide people with a genuine opportunity to seek international protection.
Once the expelled migrants were in Morocco, the authorities detained them in the local Tetuan prison. Seventeen of them were charged with ‘irregular stay and exit’, ‘insulting public officials’, ‘armed rebellion’ and ‘possession of weapons’. They will face trial on 10 September. The Moroccan authorities are organizing forcible returns for detained Cameroonian and Guinean nationals, in cooperation with their consular authorities.
“Despite the appearance of a return procedure, the Spanish authorities clearly failed to uphold fundamental safeguards and in effect conducted a collective expulsion of 116 people back to a country where they could be at risk of serious human rights violations,” said Heba Morayef.
“Efforts to control irregular migration from Morocco to Spain are frequently praised by the Spanish authorities, who keep cooperating with Morocco to stop the arrival of migrants and refugees without conditioning such cooperation upon the respect of the rights of all people on the move. Spain and the EU in general should refocus their cooperation with Morocco, prioritizing the protection of human rights and the creation of an asylum system in the country, as required under international law.”
Moroccan authorities have justified the recent discriminatory raids as a measure to fight against irregular migration and trafficking networks. In a press conference on 30 August, government spokesperson Mustapha Khalfi declared that these are not forced returns, but operations aimed at transferring migrants to other cities, conducted in conformity with national laws aimed at fighting illegal migration. He added that the re-admission of the group of 116 migrants sent a strong message to human traffickers.