Vacarme 39 / cahier

the marches of europe

rounding up black africans in morocco


Europe’s war on migrants is a war of frontiers, with its corpses, its random brutality, its defensive bulwarks, and its back-up troops. It is a iniquitous war on the poorest populations and a deliberate avoidance of responsibilities. Take the case of deportation policies in Morocco. Who is to blame? The local authorities, caught between a rock and a hard place, the HCR and its ambiguities, media indifference, or the “empire of rejection” that puts such policies in place but refuses to be accountable for them? By definition, iniquity is shrouded in anonymity and silence.

Since the late 1990s, Europe has tried to involve its neighbours in the interception of migrants. Beginning in 2002, this policy, known as externalising asylum, became the principal thrust of the police diplomacy led by the interior ministries of European member states and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice, Freedom, and Security. In this war on migrants, as in every war, the classical diplomacy of chanceries and the DG for External Relations has given way to the security services. This policy, formalised in November 2004 in the Hague Programme (2004-2009), aims to develop the “holding capacities”, both police and humanitarian, of the European Union’s neighbours, to limit the number of migrants on its territory.

Morocco initially opposed involvement from 1998 to 2002, but then worries about its relationship with Europe and the subsidies it received from the Union, together with pressure from Spain, led the Moroccan authorities to adopt an anti-migrant stance and negotiate its participation in the programme. Negotiations lasted for more than two years, from March 2002 to October 2004, overshadowed by the diplomatic crisis surrounding the island of Leila-Perejil. Issues of migration were at the heart of the process of rapprochement between Morocco, Spain, and Europe, along with development aid and agreements on fishing rights. For migrants, this meant an increase in repression during the first eight months of 2005, which reached a climax in the autumn in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

The international media frequently described these events in terms of crisis, failing to note the complex geo-political issues behind the phenomenon. The impression of a short-lived crisis was reinforced by a respite after the deadliest outbreaks of violence. The migrants and charitable organisations noted a less tense atmosphere in 2006. In mid 2006, after months of stalled negotiations with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Moroccan Red Crescent, which is reliant on the Moroccan government, obtained the go-ahead to provide assistance to the migrants. It held the inaugural conference for its intervention on 18-20 December 2006 in Oujda [1], where it was announced that a thousand blankets would be delivered to the African migrants. However, shortly before the distribution, the humanitarian offer [2] was suddenly withdrawn and replaced with security concerns that led to a vast operation to round up migrants throughout Morocco from 23 to 30 December 2006. This operation, which was completely ignored by the media, involved rounding up migrants and transporting them to Morocco’s eastern border zone and the closed border with Algeria, near Oujda, the capital of eastern Morocco.

This was a large-scale operation involving various forces: “security auxiliaries” (police informers in local neighbourhoods), gendarmes, and the infamous “auxiliary forces” that take their orders directly from the Ministry of the Interior all reinforced the police operation for the sudden swoops on migrants.

These round-ups and forced transportations affected Black Africans of varying legal status. Some had no papers, others had passports and valid visas. Some were asylum seekers registered as such by the HCR, while others had been granted refugee status by the HCR. This indifference to the legal status of individuals is typical of police actions which target lodgings identified in the preceding weeks by “security auxiliaries”; the police simply pick up all the Black Africans present and any papers they present are confiscated or destroyed.

I interviewed a young refugee from Ivory Coast in Oujda on 3 January 2007. She described what happened to her: “At seven in the morning, ten policemen broke down the door of the flat where I was sleeping with five other people. They burst in, shouting ‘show us your papers’, and they immediately took away our mobile phones. I gave them my HCR document. They shouted that it was a general round-up and pushed us all towards the way out of the apartment, hitting us with their batons. One of the others, whose papers were in order, pointed out that he had a passport and a valid visa. The policemen answered that it made no difference and they had to take us all with them. When I asked them to give me back my mobile phone and HCR document, one of the policemen hit me with his baton and tore up my paper”. Other interviews confirmed similar actions by police.

Between Christmas 2006 and 6 January 2007, the day I made my report to Migreurop [3], 479 people were rounded up — 248 in Rabat, 60 in Nador, and 171 in Laâyoune — and subjected to police brutality, beatings, injuries, and humiliations. Those rounded up included pregnant women, one of whom miscarried at six months, and families with young children. Several rapes were also medically proven. The victims were transported across Morocco in coaches, then abandoned in groups of several dozen in various locations several kilometers apart along the Morocco-Algeria border. Moroccan forces fired rifles into the air to force them to walk towards the Algerian side of the border, where they were driven back by Algerian forces also firing into the air. After ten hours of hell caught between the two armies, most of the victims were able to return in the direction of Oujda, stopping in the suburbs or in a camp near the forest and the university.

Was this just a one-off end-of-year operation? On Saturday January 20, 2007, there were again round-ups in Rabat, with 103 people transferred to Oujda. Observations made a week later [4] indicate that it is indeed an ongoing policy. The expulsions, which as everyone knows are followed by the immediate return of those expelled, add to the number of people in transit in the region of Oujda, Berkane, and Nador, like an internal circuit driving more and more of the migrants into the woods rather than the towns. Humanitarian associations have counted between 900 and 1200 migrants in exile in fifteen locations near Oujda, in the camp near the university, in the surrounding forests, in caves in the border zone, near local villages, and in five camps in the forests of the eastern Rif near Berkane.

Emergency humanitarian resources are running short. A handful of activists have just a few tens of thousands of dirhams (equivalent to several thousand euros) for food, blankets, coats, treatments for the most serious medical cases, and moral support. The Moroccan Red Crescent never delivered the blankets it promised.

On Monday, January 22, 2007, in Brussels, the Human Rights sub-commission at the European Parliament put my report on the agenda in the presence of representatives of the Commission, the HCR, and the Moroccan ambassador to the European Community. The ambassador protested against what he claimed was an accusation of institutional racism, attempted to stir up a diplomatic incident, maybe as a means of avoiding the rest of the report that he did not contest, and deplored Morocco’s situation, caught between a rock and a hard place. The Commission’s representative declined to accept any responsibility, reaffirming their respect for human rights and rejecting any denunciation of events in other countries. When the president of the sub-commission Hélène Flautre asked “Are you pushing Morocco to act in this manner?”, the representative of the DG for External Affairs affirmed that Europe does not have a foreign affairs policy in this domain, while the representative of the DG for Justice, Freedom, and Security looked at his notes and avoided answering. The HCR stuttered and stammered.

The HCR has been stuttering and stammering in Morocco for two years. Until November 2004, its offices in Casablanca were mainly for show, with an “honorary” delegate, now president of the Moroccan Tennis Federation, one assistant, and 272 refugees. From November 2004, the HCR began externalising asylum applications. It closed down its Casablanca office, appointed a new delegate, and began operating from new offices in Rabat with a team of a dozen employees to record asylum applications. From the beginning of 2005, television channels began filming queues of people outside the new offices. Far from protecting the anonymity that migrants in exile need to blend in to their urban surroundings, the new policy exposed them to media coverage and rejection by politicians.

Another effect of this policy is an artificial increase in asylum applications in Morocco, from a few hundred to several thousand. Yet all the interviews with migrants indicate that they hope for asylum in Europe rather than Morocco, and apply for asylum in Rabat in the hope that the certificate of application or recognition of their refugee status will protect them against police brutality while they wait to reach Europe. Their asylum applications are thus bogus, not in terms of their reasons for exile but in terms of the country of application. This phenomenon, clearly identified by Moroccan specialists, discredits the granting of international protection and explains why the Moroccan government refuses to allow the HCR to install headquarters which would institutionalise their presence in the country. As a result, HCR documents are not respected by the Moroccan authorities and fail to protect migrants.

The HCR’s policy has also divided and weakened groups offering support to the migrants. From November 2004, internal debate at the first Moroccan confederation on issues of migration, Plate-Forme Migrants (PFM), focused on relations with the HCR. Part of PFM’s membership refused to collaborate with what they saw as an agent of the European policy of externalising asylum, while others were more favourable to European money that came through this channel. As in France, the divide is also caused by the understanding of which rights to defend for which migrants. Should efforts be focused on the rights of those who apply for asylum and the tiny minority who are granted refugee status, or should the struggle focus on human rights for all? The internal conflict led to the break-up of the PFM in spring 2005. It remains politically neutered to this day. The HCR continued its activities by sub-contracting associations who didn’t ask so many questions about the politics behind their financing. The institutional and media debate focused on the few migrants recognised by the HCR, particularly during the police round-ups of Christmas 2006, to the detriment of the vast majority of migrants who had either not applied to the HCR or whose applications had been refused.

The migrants were exposed to vast amounts of media coverage, which left them vulnerable to retaliation. Asylum applications were artificially increased, thus discrediting the principle of the right of asylum. The migrants had no real legal protection. Support groups were divided. Public debate on the rights of migrants focused on a minority. In this peri-European context, the HCR’s role is ambiguous, to say the least.

On the Moroccan front in the European war against migrants, the externalisation of asylum continues, to the total indifference of the international media, meeting with no resistance and finding support: the Moroccan authorities, converted to the ideology of security, have joined the repression of marginal modes of circulation with their own brutal methods. For the empire of rejection, Morocco is a camp which both blocks and dissuades migrants. Racial persecution terrifies migrants. The aim is to convince them that they would be better off living somewhere else. In humanitarian terms, the Empire’s left hand follows the movement and finds its subsidies on the battle field. These subsidies are allotted by the European policy towards its neighbours in the name of a right to asylum which no longer protects the tiny handful of migrants granted refugee status and reduces the vast majority of migrants to the level of failed applicants for refugee status, the lowest level to which the stateless can fall.


P.S. 2 March 2007.


[1J. Valluy, “Contraintes et dilemmes des actions de solidarité avec les exilés Subsahariens en transit au Maroc oriental dans le contexte créé par les politiques européennes d’externalisation de l’asile”. Paper given at the one-day conference Le Maroc Oriental face à l’émigration subsaharienne, organised by the Faculty of Law at the University Mohammed I, Oujda, Morocco, in partnership with the FISCRCR and the Moroccan Red Crescent, Monday 18 December 2006 (

[2See Michel Agier, “La main gauche de l’Empire”, Multitudes 11, January 2003 (

[3J.Valluy, Rafles de Subsahariens au Maroc à Noël 2006 - Rapport à l’association Migreurop, 6 January 2007, Paris. Research as part of the ASILES programme (

[4J. Valluy, Chronique de la banalisation des rafles d’exilés et de l’usure des solidarités au Maroc, 3 February 2007, Research as part of the ASILES programme (