On the main drag in Oujda, a border city that most Moroccans have never visited, a neon sign hanging from a balcony reads “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas."
But for thousands of migrants who wash up here, life is anything but fabulous. One of them, a Ghanian who calls himself Afro, sits in a restaurant called Mr. Smith, under the neon sign. Sipping water, he talks about life as an undocumented migrant in Morocco.
“Without any documents my life here is broke,” he says. “If the police pull you, the first thing he will ask is, ‘Where are your papers?’ But I don’t have any papers. So I can be attacked by the Moroccan authorities.”
Afro, whose tight curls poked out from beneath a red New York Yankees cap, says he left his home village at 18 to flee extreme poverty and tribal warfare. He now lives in a makeshift migrant camp in a forest outside Oujda, where hundreds of migrants squat beneath plastic tarps for shelter. He asked to be identified only by his nickname for fear for his safety.
Like thousands of sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco, Afro has no legal status, making jobs and medical services nearly impossible to access. When not looking for work, begging for money or charging his cell phone at an Internet café, Afro spends his days playing soccer, singing traditional Ghanaian music and rapping. But he lives in fear of police raids on his forest camp, which are a constant hazard and can result in abuses and deportations, according to human rights organizations.
“We look to God,” Afro says. “Only God can help us.”
Undocumented migrants in Morocco dream of receiving asylum status that would give them some form of protection from the routine violence that they say they face. Morocco has ratified the international conventions on the rights and status of refugees, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a presence here. However, it recognizes just 10 percent of all asylum requests, according to Marc Fawe, external relations director for UNHCR in Rabat.
The office has recently seen a spike in asylum applications. “It has been multiplying by four,” Mr. Fawe said. “This is a direct consequence of more people approaching UNHCR because of the raids, identity checks, deportations – much more of those in 2012.”
Most migrants hope that UN refugee status can be a stepping stone to living in Europe, but the numerous obstacles involved in making that trip mean that many stay on in Morocco. And even for them, official refugee status is by no means a guarantee of being able to legally integrate, find a job or receive medical treatment at a hospital.
There are signs that such harsh conditions may begin to improve. This June, Morocco signed a joint declaration with the European Union to establish a “mobility partnership” that would better regulate the movement of people between Morocco and EU member states.
In July Morocco’s National Human Rights Council published a report recognizing the need for a national policy to protect the rights of asylum seekers and economic migrants. And in September the Moroccan government opened the Office for Refugees and Stateless Persons, which will work with UNHCR to examine asylum requests with an eye to legally integrating refugees.
In recent weeks, the Moroccan government has agreed to grant national residency to 509 refugees recognized by UNHCR, giving them access to jobs and social services.
Yet many aid organizations are still prevented from working in Oujda. A city isolated from the rest of the country, it remains the main entry point for undocumented migrants hoping to reach Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the coast. Most notably, UNHCR is limited to operating out of Morocco’s capital city, Rabat — too far a journey for most asylum seekers.
UNHCR’s absence from Oujda is the main reason why many migrants there can't obtain refugee status, said Christopher Eades, who until recently was director of legal programming at the Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance. The organization provides legal aid to asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt – a country that like Morocco attracts a stream of sub-Saharan Africans fleeing conflict and seeking passage to Europe.
To be of maximum assistance for people in need, “you have to go out into communities, let people know what you’re doing, who you are, what services you provide,” Mr. Eades said. “And you gradually, over a period of time, win trust.”
The situation of refugees in Morocco was “absolutely shocking” compared to Egypt, a country with a refugee recognition rate of around 70 percent, he added.
Long road ahead
Refugee work in Morocco remains difficult where it is most critical.
Until recently, the aid agency Doctors without Borders (known by its French acronym, MSF) had been providing assistance to migrant camps near Oujda. But MSF pulled out of Morocco in March to protest the abuse suffered by sub-Saharan African migrants.
“That was the best [organization] for medical treatment, for everything,” says Afro, the migrant from Ghana. “They gave you blankets; they gave you everything that you needed. But now they are no more in Oujda. Now the situation is very terrible.”
Before leaving Morocco, MSF published a report documenting repeated cases of physical, psychological and sexual abuse against migrants and refugees. Between 2010 and 2012, MSF provided medical and psychological care to 697 survivors of sexual violence in Oujda and Rabat, the report said.
One of those people was Juliette, a woman identified in the report as a 46-year-old migrant. “Each one of us was raped by six men,” she told MSF researchers. “As soon as one finished another one started […] I’m like a child now, even though I am old. My life is over. I want to go home but I don’t have the money.”
In response, the Moroccan Interior Ministry issued a statement that contested MSF’s allegations, denying that widespread abuse or mass deportations were taking place, and stating that migrants were subject only to “voluntary returns, which respect [their] rights and dignity.”
Earlier this year on a midweek morning, a crowd of men, women and children waited outside the UNHCR office in Rabat, hoping to apply for asylum or receive a refugee card, which many say is their only guarantee against police brutality. A man who fled the civil war in the Ivory Coast and asked to remain anonymous, waited with his three young nephews who he said had yet to receive protection.
“I was deported to Oujda three times in the year and a half that I’ve been in Morocco,” he said, as his nephews joined the crowd clamoring around the office door. “When I had the [asylum seeker’s] certificate, the police would rip it up and throw it out. But now that I have the refugee card, I feel protected.”
Jacob Axelrad spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a non-profit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists.
Nouha Afif and Walid Elaouni contributed reporting.