Bound Between Borders in Tangier

Lack of protection for migrants places them in a vulnerable situation.

Featured Image: The Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral in located in Tangier and is home to Caritas.


By Aastha KC


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he church at the corner of Sidi Bouabid road in the coastal Moroccan city of Tangier is closed. The tall, iron clad doors are glued with a heavy padlock wrapped around by long silver chains. Migrants families stretch from the locked door to the main entrance of the church. Men take the padlock and bang it across the door, creating a deep thumping sound that resonates loudly among the crowd. French mumbles quickly take an angry tone; loud yells follow soon after. “C’est fermé, ils ne s’ouvriront pas.” It’s closed. They will not open. With a ten-year-old latched onto his left leg, a middle aged man yells at the closed doors and turns around to the crowd. “Non,” he sighs and someone else takes the lead, banging on the door with no avail.

In the past decade, an influx of migrants fleeing persecution and lack of economic opportunity from sub-saharan African countries such as Liberia, Guinea, Cameroon, Senegal, Burkina Faso have increased the demand for the social and economic services provided by non-profit organizations. One such organization is Caritas, based out of the church mentioned above. The organization’s mission is to provide relief to the most vulnerable population regardless of their nationality, origins, belief, or gender. Since the mid-1990’s, Caritas has worked to provide services to the rising population of sub-saharan migrants who hope to pass through Morocco and eventually make their way to European shores. In the last year alone, Caritas served over 8,000 migrants in Tangier, and the organization expects many more to come.

At 1:03 pm, the chains break and signal the opening of the gates. People–more than seventy in total–flood into the quaint building. At the left, four medical professionals are ready to file paperwork for the migrants rushing in. Towards the middle of the hallway is a room with a table occupied by Mustafa El Attafi, a Moroccan social worker who has studied at the National Institute of Social Work and worked at the organization for several years. Throughout the day, the line to his table is long, and stretched around the hallway. As people come by, El Attafi provides them with a voucher of cash for a weekly budget, which they can use for transportation, to pay rent, or to take classes for specific job trainings. Cash and vouchers are limited, and trying to triage money among migrants can be especially hard.  El Attafi notes that making these decisions–who can get what voucher and when-can be emotionally draining, but the work is crucial to ensure that migrants are given an opportunity to become members of the Moroccan society. “According to me, [the amount of] money doesn’t matter, But the heart to help does. If we have the heart to help people, there is always a way to reach them. Don’t worry even if it’s something small.” El Attafi notes of the cash-voucher programs.

Migration is an important issue in Morocco; the Pew Research Center predicts that by 2050, Africa’s overall population will increase by more than 1.3 billion people. Even though the economies of many sub-saharan countries are growing, increasing fertility rates have expanded competition for high-paying jobs, thus setting the stage for increased emigration. International emigration from sub-Saharan Africa has also grown at a rate of 31% between 2010 and 2017, compared to 25% in the 2000’s.

Auguste who is half Liberian- half Guinean is one such individual who has left his country. He originally came to Tangier with a friend on foot from Liberia-completing a 1,700 mile journey. Intending to send money back to family members in Liberia and Guinea, Auguste had planned to go to Norway by first crossing the Mediterranean and entering Spain. Auguste planned to stay only for two days in Morocco, but has now remained for two years. Working odd jobs around Tangier in construction and house repairs, Auguste works for a lower wage under the books because he has not obtained a national “carte de sejour,” or residency, an identification card that allows migrants to legally work in Morocco. “When in Morocco, I was told that it would be easy to cross the Mediterranean, but now I see that the security has made it really hard to do so,” Auguste reflects.

Indeed, increased collaboration among Moroccan and Spanish authorities to curtail migration around the Mediterranean has made it harder for migrants to cross into Europe, often leaving migrants stuck in limbo. Without the proper paperwork, many migrants like Auguste have no option but to work illegally for low wages in jobs that leave them with little bargaining power. Unable to return home and unable to travel to Europe, stepping-stone countries like Morocco have become places where migrants are stranded. Sitting on a bench, near Tangier’s famous Cinema Rif overlooking the busy medina, I ask Auguste why he would  travel to Europe. “In life, there are positive and negative risks,” he explains, “Migration…it’s a positive risk because…there’s a chance that in Europe, I will be free.”

Those who cross the Mediterranean by boats find themselves with a daunting task of climbing over fences and walls in border islands of Melilla and Ceuta. Both are autonomous cities with 6 meter (20 ft) border fences and walls built by Spain to curtail migrants. In July, Morocco World News reported that over 600 sub-Saharans successfully crossed the border between Morocco and Ceuta, but a revived ad hoc bilateral agreement between Spain and Morocco gave Spain the right to return migrants to Morocco, regardless of their country of origin. Even though the Spanish Ministry of Interior explained that migrants who crossed into Europe have the right to seek asylum, many have been deported back to Morocco. The European Commission has also proposed placing Morocco on a list of “safe countries.” This designation would limit the right of people to seek asylum in the European Union, if they passed through Morocco. For the European Union, securing its border and limiting possible threats to national security remains a high priority. Borders, like the one between Morocco and Spain and those around the world have increasingly become a site of humanitarian exchange-where nations and individuals-policy makers, border police, migrants, and residents of the country must bargain security and safety with risk and compassion. Migration in Morocco is a moral question. Should they value the security of their own people while limiting migrants even if they can provide refugee to some?  

Amnesty International has recently reported that the Moroccan police along with the Royal Gendarmerie and the Auxiliary Forces have carried out more than 5,000 raids in the heavily migrant and refugee populated neighborhoods of  Tangiers, Nador and Tetuan in early September. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), which tracked the raids of migrants reported that most have been displaced to areas around the Algerian border or in southern remote areas of Morocco. The Moroccan Association of Human Rights has accused authorities of violence towards women and children and has called on Moroccan authorities to take a more fair and humanitarian approach to treating migrants and giving them a fairer path to asylum. While the Moroccan authorities have the right to regulate immigration, Amnesty and other human rights group believe that they must exercise those rights within a matter that is based on a human rights framework.  

Still, many migrants choose to travel to Europe for a chance at a better life. Helena Maleno is a migrant activist who uses social media to alert emergency services in the Strait of Gibraltar of migrants who are on their way to Spanish territories. She specifies the number of migrants who are on their way to Ceuta in boats to alert rescuers in the hopes of securing their passage.

On the ground in Morocco, the increasing number of migrants have exhausted local non-profits and many Moroccans have raised concerns about Europe’s role in curtailing migration. Because of European influence and treaty deals, Morocco is transforming from a stepping-stone country to a country where many are stuck. Hasnae Fathi, who works in the Ministry in Charge of Moroccans Living Abroad and Migration Affairs, noted that the agency gradually shifted their focus from providing services for Moroccan descendants to integrating migrants into Moroccan society. However, Fathi has noted that the work of integration can be often long and slow. Misconceptions as well as discrimination and racism towards migrants from sub-saharan Africa are still prominent among Moroccan society.

Like in western countries such as the United States, fears that immigrants take jobs or drain the country’s welfare system are also visible in Morocco. In addition, these attitudes can hinder the services that the government can provide to migrants. Regardless, the government hopes to work with NGOs and international organizations such as the UNHCR to provide financial support and assist with overlooking services and initiatives. Still, many nonprofits are left with a high demand for their services while funds and staff numbers have dwindled.

Despite the challenges that both Moroccan and European officials lay on the issues surrounding migration, local activists and social workers throughout Morocco have paved the foundation to integrate immigrants into the society. Their work, often emotionally demanding, is a stark contrast to the bureaucratic work of the Moroccan and European governments. Integration, while a slow process, has the potential to change the racial makeup of the Moroccan people thus propelling questions about a unified African identity.  


Aastha KC is a junior majoring in Anthropology in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at