Morocco: 'In Morocco migrants are trapped in a constant cycle of violence'

Interview with David Cantero, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) head of mission in Morocco
© MSF

MSF has denounced an increase of violence against migrants this year. What could be the reason for this?

Our teams in the field have witnessed since December 2011 an important increase in raids launched by Moroccan police forces. We could say that since then between Oujda and Nador, in the Eastern region, there have been raids on a daily basis.

The increase in frequency of these raids has made it even more difficult for Sub-Saharan migrants to survive in this region, as their vulnerability and despair have grown as detected by our psychologists.

This has forced Sub-Saharan migrants to seek new ways to proceed with their trip, resorting to organise themselves and try again, as they did in 2005, to climb the fences and cross over Melilla, bordering Nador, in big groups and thus have more possibilities of succeeding.

When the attempts, which the media insists on calling “massive”, have started again, the violence used by the Moroccan and Spanish police forces has increased to prevent it.

We have also seen again boats venturing on a very dangerous crossing. Are the reasons behind the same?

Absolutely.

Where are migrants coming from?

These Sub-Saharan migrants come from many countries, but we could say that they mainly come from West Africa: Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea, etc. They are mostly young men (85%), but there are also women, minors and children, who obviously are very vulnerable.

Not only do they come from conflict countries but also (and mostly) in search of a better future for them and for their dear ones who have been left behind.

To reach Morocco, they have had to travel a very long journey, walking thousands of kilometres across the desert in Niger and Algeria, exposed to all shorts of abuses perpetrated by mafia groups, including sexual violence, which, when women are concerned, is used as a bargaining chip to be able to proceed.

What happens when they reach Morocco? What are their living conditions like?

In Morocco they are trapped without being able to move back or forth enduring very difficult conditions. Some say they have been here for several years. Most of them are in an irregular legal status, hence living clandestinely and forced to beg or to fend for themselves as best they can in order to be able to survive hidden in the forest, in caves, etc. They live in the open exposed to extreme temperatures both in summer and in winter and under very inadequate hygienic conditions and, therefore, exposed to all shorts of diseases linked to their extreme living conditions.

These past few years, access to health has improved in certain town, unlike in Nador though. Their mental health is also very precarious as they are victims of police violence as well as easy preys to mafia groups and common criminals, which adds up to their ongoing fear to be deported to the border.

In the Eastern region, MSF is the only medical and humanitarian organisation providing care, which by no means can meet all their needs and there are no international organisations in the area that can protect them against abuse and the violations of their rights.

Has the illegal status of the migrant population led to the proliferation of mafia groups? How do they operate?

There are two types of mafia groups, the ones who do business illegally with those crossing to other countries and those who traffic with human beings. Both coexist and intertwine throughout the migratory route. The more difficult it is to enter Europe, the more profitable the business and therefore the stronger the mafia groups.

What is MSF doing?

MSF provides access to health in Oujda and direct medical care in Nador.

44% of the pathologies we treat are somewhat related to the inadequate living conditions of the migrant population. Firstly, we find lower and higher respiratory tract infections mainly linked to the lack of shelter and the low temperatures they have to endure in the mountains. Secondly, we find body pains and gastrointestinal disorders that could be related to the ongoing stress and suffering they endure while constantly on the move haunted by the security forces. And thirdly skin diseases related to the lack of access to water and poor sanitation conditions in their settlements.

Yet this year we have had to assist and accompany to hospital a high number of migrants that state that, after trying to climb up the fence in Melilla, they have been beaten up and ill-treated by Moroccan and Spanish security forces.

MSF provides comprehensive medical care (physical and mental healthcare) to the victims of sexual violence and, to improve their living conditions, distributes non-food items such as blankets, plastic sheeting, hygiene kits, winter kits and cooking utensils as well as water and sanitation material.

Is healthcare guaranteed for migrants in Morocco?

There has been some progress with regards to access to health for the migrant population in towns such as Rabat, Casablanca and Oujda. There, migrants have some access to Health Centres and are seen in hospitals. This is not the case in Nador, where migrants only go to the health facilities when they are in very bad shape as they fear being arrested and deported to the border.

What is going on the border with Algeria?

Migrants who are detained in any part of the country are deported to the border with Algeria (close to Oujda) where they are left to fend for themselves and forced to cross. On their part, Algerian police forces follow suit and expel them towards Morocco. Consequently, most of them the same night they are deported walk about 20 km going back to Oujda where they start all over again. Many of them tell us that they have been deported many times, but admit not having any other alternative and therefore they travel back from Oujda to Nador to keep attempting reaching Europe.

What can the international community do in this regard?

The EU and its member states (mainly Spain) should not turn their backs on the consequences of their migration policy. Together with Morocco, it should guarantee human rights are respected when dealing with what they call “migration control”.

The United Nations should increase its presence in the area to ensure international agreements are respected and NGOs dealing with protection should be present there, which is not the case at all now.