Liberalization under the auspices of the palace: migration reform in Morocco
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has been touted as a reformist leader since becoming head of state in 1999 after the death of his father, King Hassan II. The final years of Hassan’s reign ushered in a government of alternance led by long-time opposition leader Abderrahman el Youssoufi (Union des Forces Populaires-USFP) in 1998. Economic liberalization and relative democratic reform became policy priorities during this time and set the stage for the transfer of power to his son.
The young king delivered on some promises for change in the new millennium. These included the 2004 reform of the moudawana, or family code; establishing the Moroccan truth and reconciliation committee, the first of its kind in the Arab world; settingambitious development goals and attracting high levels of foreign direct investment; drafting a more “liberal” 2011 constitution in response to Morocco’s February 20thmovement; and, most recently, overhauling the migration and asylum system.
Or so the story goes. . . .
2014 marks the fifteen-year anniversary of the reign of Mohammed VI, and the politics of co-optation have become more acute than ever. While Morocco has had a multiparty system and an increasingly vocal civil society since independence, these developments have masked the relative weakness of democratic bodies, like the parliament. The recent rise to power of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), an Islamist group, and Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane has also provoked comparisons with King Hassan’s successful neutralization of the leftist opposition during the 1998 alternance government.While the current king’s reform efforts are not without merit, they very effectively demonstrate that political power in Morocco lies firmly within the monarchy.
The state’s overhaul of the migration and asylum system is an excellent case study of how reform is centrally controlled in the kingdom. It is true that civil society was incredibly active in shedding light on the plight of irregular migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. For the last several years, various associations have worked together to support this vulnerable group and to raise awareness about the challenges they face. These include Moroccan NGOs, such as the Anti-racist group for the Defense of Foreigners and Migrants (GADEM) in Rabat and the Beni Znassen Association for Culture, Development and Solidarity (ABCDS) in Oujda; migrant associations, such as the Council of sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco (CMSM) and the Association Shedding Light on Clandestine Migration in the Maghreb (ALCEMA); international groups, such as Doctors without Borders-Spain, Caritas, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration(IOM); as well as joint ventures, such as the immigrant division of the Moroccan syndicate, the Democratic Organization of Labor (ODT). Many of these activists have faced intimidation and arrestfor publishing reports on police abuse, racism against sub-Saharan migrants, and the limitations of a security-focused migration strategy. They have, nonetheless, voiced their concerns and criticisms to the Moroccan parliament, relevant ministries, European Union institutional bodies, and the National Human Rights Council, —a palace funded body whose representatives are chosen by the king from a list proposed by civil society groups.
2013 proved to be a pivotal year in the struggle for human rights monitoring in Morocco.Doctors without Borders published a very extensive report, which documented the dire humanitarian situation for sub-Saharan migrants in the country, as well as police abuse and judicial disregard for Morocco’s domestic and international legal commitments to migrants and refugees. The BBC also aired an investigative documentary on the issue, which chipped away at Morocco’s carefully crafted narrative of regional “exceptionalism.”
As these abuses received increasing publicity, other developments began to encourage palace involvement in the issue. The majority of irregular migrants in Morocco are from sub-Saharan Africa, particularly from Senegal, Mali, the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Cameroon, and Nigeria. For Morocco, West African countries have become viable partners for bilateral economic agreements, as well as potential avenues for reestablishing its relationship with the Africa Union; Morocco left the organization in 1984 in protest over its recognition of the Sahawari Arab Democratic Republic in the disputed Western Saharan territory. The Western Sahara has been a critical foreign policy issue for Morocco since the1975 Green March, and it continues to shape the country’s political and economic relationships with sub-Saharan African countries.
King Mohammed became directly involved in the asylum and migration issue after theNational Human Rights Council published a list of recommendations to encourage antidiscrimination and more humane migration policies. In response, the king announced a total overhaul of the migration system on September 10, 2013.
The palace’s platform included a process of regularization for certain categories of migrants, especially women and children. Under the plan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assumed responsibility for the Refugee Status Determination Process (RSD) from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These are important steps in the right direction, but they do not address the issues of racism, police violence, the “draconian” process for obtaining and renewing documentation, and the “lack of [government] consultation with associations [and civil society].”
The National Human Rights Council is presiding over the commission which adjudicates the regularization process and includes both “political authorities” and civil society groups like GADEM. As of June 2014, 16,000 requests for regularization were filed, 14,510 were “studied,” and only 3,000 were accepted by the commission. 5,000 women have applied for the benefit and will be given priority, according to GADEM Secretary-General Hicham Rachidi. The program will end on December 31 of this year. Human rights and migrant associations have expressed their criticism of the process, including concerns with procedural matters like the length of time it takes to make a status determination, the strict criteria for legal residence, and the short-length of residency permits.
Despite the platform’s reforms, civil society groups in Morocco, which specialize in the area of migration and asylum, continue to fill the vacuum left by the government. Without proper legal institutions, the right to legal assistance, including the right to appeal, as well as access to interpreters, social aid, and psychological support, would not be provided to applicants but for the efforts of these organizations.
Morocco’s domestic and international human rights commitments in the area of asylum and migration are generally progressive—the problem is one of implementation, institutional development, and empowerment of democratic institutions. It also cannot be forgotten that the process is presided over by a royally supported institution—the National Human Rights Council. This appears to affirm the continuing power of political co-optation, demonstrating that the reform process poses no real ideological, political, or economic threat to the status quo.
 Willis, Michael, Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring, (Hurst and Company, London, 2012), 140-146.
 Khachani, Mohammed, Les Marocains et Les subsahariens: Quelles relations?,(Moroccan Association for the Study and Research on Migrations, 2009), 26, 33, 37, 40, 42.
By: Anna Jacobs