Stranded in Morocco, Syrians join African migrants in storming Europe's door

Some Syrians have fled as far as Morocco seeking refuge, which remains elusive because they cannot obtain the papers that would allow them to work or send children to school.

Jesus Blasco de Avellaneda/AP
Sub-Saharan migrants climb over a metallic fence that divides Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla, as a Red Cross worker is on-hand to offer humanitarian assistance, Feb. 17, 2014. Some Syrians who have fled as far as Morocco seeking refuge have joined the African migrants camped out on the Moroccan side of the fence setting apart the Spanish enclave of Melilla.

Abdel Karim is a boy without a country. His parents, Adel and Alia Alkhalaf, are Syrian asylum seekers who entered Morocco without visas, and their legal limbo has left their youngest son, born six months ago in Morocco, without citizenship anywhere.

“We live day by day,” murmurs 29-year-old Adel. The couple has three children: Abdel Karim, with his wide, toothless, sweet smile; Mustafa, an eight-year-old with olive green eyes; and Sileen, a two-year-old troublemaker. She'll spit on your hand and steal your only pen, then run away.

Compared with Lebanon, where refugees now make up a quarter of the total population, or Jordan, which hosts the largest Syrian refugee camp, Morocco's Syrian population is small – probably less than 15,000. But without a process for registering them, many are left in legal limbo like the Alkhalaf family, undocumented and unsupported.

“There may be thousands of Syrians in Morocco, we don’t know,” says Mark Fawe, of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rabat, the capital.

The Alkhalafs went to UNHCR for identity cards, but left empty-handed. The organization has stopped issuing and renewing cards for Syrians seeking asylum a year ago, handing over the process – and the pending cases of 843 Syrian asylum seekers – to Moroccan officials.

Fawe, the UNHCR official, characterized this move as a “revolution,” the first step in assuring temporary legal protection for asylum seekers. But Syrians' cases have stalled under the Moroccan government's purvey. The Office for Refugees and Stateless Persons opened in September, but it is not fully operational.

Moroccans started noticing Syrian asylum seekers last fall, begging at the mosques on Fridays and in the parking lots of grocery stores. Many of the refugees have joined the African migrants camped out on the Moroccan side of the fence setting apart the Spanish enclave of Melilla. There, they wait for a window to scale the fence into European territory. Today, 200 of them attempted just that.

Conflict is also escalating between Morocco and Algeria, with Morocco blaming Algeria for expelling 77 Syrians onto Moroccan territory earlier this year.

Room No. 3

Adel and Alia Alkhalaf fled their Mediterranean city of Latakia to Damascus, Syria’s capital, then flew to Algiers, Algeria, and traveled west by bus, crossing the border into Oujda, Morocco, in August 2012.  They stayed in Marrakesh for awhile, then eventually made their way to Hotel Africa in Rabat, joining dozens of Syrians living there.

The four-story building is at capacity and has only a handful of bathrooms. But with two beds, a cupboard, a sink and stove, Room No. 3 is a functional home at 100 dirhams ($12) a night.

Though it is already 10 in the morning, Adel’s eyes are puffy as he brews coffee. The children are still asleep. Sileen is hugging the wall on one bed, which she shares with Abdel Karim and her mother. Mustafa sleeps on the other bed, which he shares with his father. Alia, who is 25 but looks older, pulls her black djlellabah over her pink-gray pajamas as she sits on the bed by Mustafa’s feet. She speaks with taut lips and stares with blank eyes, explaining that the children don’t go to school because they lack the necessary papers. 

Karim has a birth certificate, but no other form of identification. “It’s impossible for us to go anywhere now because of the child,” Adel says. “We registered him, but the Syrian embassy in Rabat is closed… We just want papers [then] maybe we can go back to Syria.” 

Even if they manage to receive legal status in Morocco, Syrians may be harmed for generations to come, says Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert from the University of Oklahoma studying the impact of the Syrian civil war.

“Syrians have been terrified of becoming the next ‘Palestinians’ who don't have papers and are unwanted and unprotected by any government,” Mr. Landis explains. “This generation of Syrians is already being called a lost generation. The entire upper class has departed. The best educated and most talented Syrians have either left the country or are desperately seeking to leave.”

Adel used to own a shop in Latakia, where he sold imitation clothing brands imported from Turkey. “Timberland!” is the only word he’s said in English. Now his wife goes and begs at a nearby mosque with their children. “She only goes when we have financial pressure, at the last prayer of the day,” Adel says.

He talks about the Syrian regime, hurriedly, like a topic best left alone.

“I was against the regime,” he admits, “some of my friends died, members of my family, too... Someone walks with you, and he’s gone in a second.”

Ella Bańka spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, a nonprofit organization that mentors the next generation of international journalists. Mounira Lourhzal contributed to reporting.

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