Morocco, Long A Stopover For African Migrants, Becomes A Destination

Apr 12, 2016
Originally published on May 4, 2016 3:12 pm

Constantin Ibanda Mola unlocks the door to his small, two-bedroom apartment in a poor suburb of Rabat, Morocco. 


Mola was an economist in his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. But as a migrant in Morocco who makes just over $300 a month, this apartment is a luxury. He shows me the tiny kitchen, the little balcony that opens near the sink and his bedroom.

"I'm very happy here," he says.

Mola has had a tough journey, like so many people searching for a better life in a foreign country. Six years ago he came here from Congo, which is consumed with instability and poverty. He dreamed of a new life in Europe. But his attempts to sneak into Europe on a fake passport landed him in jail. When he got out he began doing construction work because he needed the money.

"It was not easy for me because it's the first time to go to construction. I'm an economist," said Mola, who has now found a job for an aid group that helps other migrants.

He decided to settle in Morocco, but it has been hard. He was undocumented and vulnerable to arrests and abuse by police. He was often cheated out of his meager salary. And he slept in a tiny room with four other people because it was all he could afford.

"Before I was like a slave. I was nothing," he said. "Now, I think I'm a rich man. Even if I don't have money for the moment. But I'm free."

He's free, he says, because things have changed. He's now a legal resident of Morocco. He's one of the lucky ones — among the more than 20,000 people given legal status in Morocco in a limited process in 2014 that was completed last year. There are thousands more who didn't receive documentation.

Mola treats his residency card with care, keeping it tucked inside the back cover of his new passport.

"This is very, very important," he says. "Before I was nothing. But now I got my identity, my true identity."

In the Arab world, this new migration policy is extremely rare. Morocco's King Mohammed VI announced the reforms in 2013 following outrage over two West Africans who fell to their deaths after a police chase.

Morocco's government spokesman says this country, long a stop for migrants on a path to Europe, is now a destination.

"It was the initiative of his majesty," said Minister of Communications Mustapha El Khalfi. "At the same time, the Justice Ministry is open to investigate any abuse related to the immigrants. It's something related to human dignity."

Khalfi says more legal changes are expected to battle racial discrimination.

But even with documentation, life in Morocco for black Africans is incredibly hard.

"They are faced with big big problems," says Hicham Arroud, a Moroccan who advocates for black African migrants. "The Moroccan society doesn't accept them, because we are not used to seeing black people living with us."

Arroud says Morocco is a largely homogeneous society. Police are accused of mass arrests and abuse when it comes to black migrants. Landlords won't rent to them; employers won't hire them. Arroud says that in some cities in northern Morocco, if you are black and walking on the street, police will arrest you whether you have documentation or not.

By way of contrast, he compares them to the Syrians who are more recent arrivals and are in Morocco in smaller numbers.

"The Syrians don't have the same problems," he said. "The people accept them easily because they're the same culture, same language, same religion. But it's not the case for sub-Saharan migrants at all."

He says even the simple act of getting married is difficult for Christian migrants. There's no legal way to do it, because Morocco has only Muslim and Jewish communities. So Arroud's Foundation Orient Occident tries to help people integrate.

Outside the office, refugees and migrants mingle in a courtyard. They sit on brightly painted chairs made from tires. A few play checkers. Women sell food from sub-Saharan African countries.

When I ask people about life in Rabat, the answer is always the same: very difficult.

Bonacche Nonga of Cameroon comes to the foundation for language training and to hang out with friends. He says inside the foundation's courtyard he feels safe. So I ask if that means it's unsafe outside, in the rest of the city.

He seems afraid to answer. He looks down, gestures to the courtyard and says simply, "We feel safe here."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to hear now about sub-Saharan migrants who try to go to Europe via Morocco but never make it. They end up just building a life in Morocco. The country grants broad legal status to some migrants, though far from all. Even those lucky enough to have papers in hand face widespread discrimination, though. NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Rabat, Morocco.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Constantin Ibanda Mola unlocks the door to his small, two-bedroom apartment in a poor suburb of Rabat. Mola is an economist in his home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But as a migrant in Morocco, this apartment is a luxury.

CONSTANTIN IBANDA MOLA: The kitchen...

FADEL: Oh, it has a little balcony.

MOLA: Yeah.

FADEL: Six years ago, he came to Morocco from his country, which is consumed with instability and poverty. He had dreams of a new life in Europe. But his attempts to sneak into Europe on a fake passport landed him in jail. When he got out, he did manual labor - construction.

MOLA: It was not easy for me because it's the first time to go to the construction because I'm an economist.

FADEL: He decided to settle here, but it was hard because he was undocumented, and he's black. He was vulnerable to arrests and abuse by police. The Moroccan man who hired him out for construction jobs often cheated him out of his meager salary. And he slept in a tiny room with four other people because it's all he could afford.

MOLA: Before, I was like a slave. I was nothing. Now, I'm a rich man even that I don't have money for the moment, but I'm free.

FADEL: He's free, he says, because things have changed. Now he's a legal resident of Morocco. He's one of the lucky ones, one of the more than 20,000 people given legal status in Morocco in a limited process in 2014 and '15. There are still thousands who didn't get it. Morocco's King Mohammed VI announced the reforms after outrage over two West Africans who fell to their death when police chased them.

Mola pulls his passport out of his back pocket and carefully pulls out the Moroccan residency card slipped into the back cover.

MOLA: It's very, very important. First, I was nothing, but now I get my identity, my true identity.

FADEL: Now he works at an association run by migrants for migrants. The Moroccan governments says the reforms are being implemented because Morocco understands it's no longer a transit country for migrants. It's a destination. But even with documents life is incredibly hard for sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco. Moroccan Hicham Arroud is an advocate for sub-Saharan African migrants.

HICHAM ARROUD: They are facing big, big problems. The Moroccan society doesn't accept them because we are not used to see black people living with us.

FADEL: Arroud says Morocco's a largely homogenous society, and there's racism toward black Africans. Police are accused of mass arrests and abuse when it comes to black migrants. Landlords won't rent to them. Employers won't hire them. For contrast, he compares them to the Syrians who are more recent arrivals and are in Morocco in smaller numbers.

ARROUD: The people accept them easily because we have same culture, same language, same religion. But it's not the case for sub-Saharan migrants.

FADEL: They get very little help when it comes to language training, job training and cultural awareness. That's what Arroud's Foundation Orient-Occident tries to do. Outside the office, refugees and migrants mingle in a courtyard.

People sit on brightly painted chairs made from tires. A few play checkers. Women sell food items from sub-Saharan African countries, reminders of home. When I ask people about life in this Rabat, the answer is always the same.

BONACCHE NONGA: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Very difficult.

NONGA: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: But Bonacche Nonga, he's from Cameroon, comes to the foundation for language training and to hang out with friends. He says inside the foundation's courtyard he feels safe. So I ask if that means it's unsafe outside in the rest of the city.

He seems afraid to answer. He looks down, gestures to the courtyard and just says we feel safe here. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Rabat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.