Foreign PolicyResearchMorocco’s Migration Policy: Understanding the Contradiction between Policy and Reality

While Morocco’s Migration Policy aims to be humanitarian and inclusive, there are challenges that impede full implementation of these objectives
Anna Jacobs Anna Jacobs28/11/2023440556 min


While Morocco’s Migration Policy aims to be humanitarian and inclusive, there are challenges that impede full implementation of these objectives


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In December 2018, Morocco hosted the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) in Marrakech under the sponsorship of the U.N. General Assembly.[1] The GCM, a non-binding agreement, was signed by 164 countries. But the meeting and the signed pact were points of controversy, with key countries such as the United States, Australia, and Hungary refusing to attend or sign the agreement. Other countries such as Italy, Bulgaria, Israel, and Switzerland remain undecided about the UN migration accord.[2] While the summit and accord were marked by contention, there still remains a consensus that the management of migration flows needs to be addressed. The location of the meeting, in Marrakech, sheds light on the significance of Morocco’s role in managing and supporting a new path toward migration reform.

Furthermore, Morocco and the United States were the only two non-European countries to attend the G6 meeting of Interior Ministers in October 2018, which included the major EU countries – France, Germany, the U.K., Spain, Italy, and Poland. The meeting primarily focused on security cooperation, counterterrorism efforts, and better regulating irregular migration.[3] These issues represent key priorities for the EU and the U.S. Morocco’s presence at the G6 meeting reflects the country’s growing strategic importance in migration and security strategy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Mediterranean region.

Morocco is the only country in MENA that has attempted to enact significant migration and asylum reform. As a country of emigration, transit, and destination, the kingdom is also situated at the heart of migration flows between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

After more than a decade of civil society lobbying efforts, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI officially announced a plan to adopt a “humanitarian approach” to migration and asylum in late 2013.[4] This included the creation of a ministerial department devoted to migration affairs, the launch of a regularization program for undocumented individuals living in Morocco, the distribution of the first round of refugee and asylum seeker cards, and the adoption of the 2014 National Strategy on Immigration and Asylum (Stratégie nationale d’immigration et d’asile or SNIA) by the Council of Government. This new approach has improved access to residency cards for undocumented migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees within Morocco. The country’s efforts to reform the immigration and asylum system have been lauded by the international community as leading the way on migration reform in the MENA region.[5]

However, major problems in access to resources remain, as well as various legal obstacles. The new approach was supposed to include new legislation to better govern asylum and mitigate the problem of human trafficking. Morocco is ostensibly still working toward adopting this legislation, which would make it the only country in MENA to have a national system of asylum.

While it is important to acknowledge the positive steps that Morocco has taken, poor treatment of migrants continues. A harsh crackdown against sub-Saharan migrants, including police raids and human rights abuses, began in the summer of 2018. The raids are not denied by the Moroccan government and take place in coordination with Spain and the EU more generally. According to government officials, the raids are supposed to target human trafficking and irregular migrants, but human rights groups such as the Groupe antiracist d’Accompagnement et de Defense des Etrangers et Migrants (GADEM) and the Association Marocaine Des Droits Humains (AMDH) argue that the raids include arbitrary arrests, expulsion, and even the detention of minors—the exact opposite of the  “humanitarian approach” espoused by the new 2014 migration policy. According to GADEM, 6,500 migrants have been detained and displaced since the raids began in June.[6]

This paper thus aims to discuss the incoherence of Morocco’s migration policy. The positive aspects of Morocco’s migration policy have been overshadowed by the government’s repressive measures against sub-Saharan migrants at various periods since 2014. Understanding these two contradictory policies requires an analysis from various angles and in relation to various actors. This includes exploring the nature of political reform and domestic agenda setting within Morocco, and examining Morocco’s foreign policy goals vis-a-vis the European Union and Africa. Morocco’s migration politics sheds much light on its current foreign policy, as well as the centralized and short-term nature of political reform in the country.


2014 Migration Reform

After years of lobbying from Moroccan civil society groups, as well as a host of migrant-led organizations,  King Mohammed VI announced a new migration policy in September 2013. This came after a host of negative, international media coverage about Morocco’s treatment of sub-Saharan migrants, as well a series of disturbing reports prepared by GADEM, Médecins sans frontières (MSF-Spain), and the National Council of Human Rights (CNDH) documenting widespread human rights abuses perpetrated against this population. The CNDH offered a host of proposals to implement a new migration policy in Morocco – this included the promise of new migration and asylum laws that would ensure better protections, a comprehensive strategy to battle human trafficking, and a regularization program that would help irregular migrants obtain residency permits.[7]

Morocco’s image as a “regional exception” in terms of stability and human rights standards, as well as its sensitivity to international criticism, likely played a significant role in announcing a new migration policy. International media attention to the poor treatment of sub-Saharan migrants became especially acute in the years leading up to 2013. Further, in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, the regime opened a window of opportunity to enact some limited reforms – both with respect to migration and other areas of human rights – although this window did not remain open very long. It didn’t just close down on implementing genuine migration reform, but it also closed on anti-corruption campaigns, media freedom, protest, and civil society activism.

In 2013 and 2014 especially, CNDH collaborated with various civil society groups in Morocco to lobby for a new migration policy and then to support its implementation. However, like with other reform processes in the kingdom, the palace, political elites, and palace-funded institutions have taken center stage in policymaking on this issue. This is due to the nature of the Moroccan political system, which is monarchy-centric. Reform processes are allowed, and even openly supported, as long as these processes remain within the realm of palace control. This is not to diminish the incredible efforts of Moroccan civil society. Groups like GADEM and AMDH have worked tirelessly on questions of migration and asylum over many years to try and enact change. When the king gave his speech in 2013, many activists were cautious, but hopeful, about the potential for reforming the migration system. However, while important steps have been taken and ambitious plans have been announced, the reality on the ground is quite different.

Since the king’s speech in 2013, no new laws have been passed to replace law 02-03, which governs migration related issues in Morocco. Both the UNHCR and IOM have been active in Morocco for many years, but domestic legal frameworks are needed to ensure the proper implementation of a more humane migration and asylum policy that respects international law in terms of refugee status, the principle of non-refoulement, and human rights protections for persons regardless of their legal status. Important steps have been taken, such as the two regularization campaigns that took place in 2014 and 2017 and helped nearly 50,000 irregular migrants gain access to residency permits.[8] Further, Moroccan civil society still includes independent, vocal advocacy groups like GADEM and AMDH that have continued to advocate for reforms in this area, but the cautious hope that came from the king’s speech in 2013 was quickly dashed.

Despite the new political rhetoric and implementation of the first regularization program, the mistreatment of sub-Saharan migrants, including raids, continued into 2014. At various points in the last four years police raids against migrants have taken place—in clear contradiction to the principles laid out in Morocco’s new migration strategy. The crackdown that took place over the summer of 2018 was described in the GADEM report Expulsions Gratuites,[9] as well as an October 2018 piece in The New York Times.[10] Both reports highlight clear back peddling on the promises offered by both Morocco and European countries.

At the end of 2018, the Moroccan authorities banned an annual cultural festival called “Migrant scene” without giving any explanation. The festival had been organized by GADEM and was set to take place in Tangier. Its goal was to raise awareness about migrants and aims to cultivate solidarity, tolerance, and understanding.,[11] Mehdi Alioua, founding-member of GADEM and professor of Sociology at the International University of Rabat, responded to this censorship on his Facebook page: “The Moroccan authorities say they have changed their migration policies. The change did become a reality with the two regularization campaigns and a minor change in the treatment of foreigners from the ministry of interior. But besides that, and some other small actions, there was no implementation of this change… Worse still, the poor treatment of sub-Saharan migrant started again; it’s on the rise after major outbreak this summer…”[12]

A significant problem with the 2014 migration policy is lack of implementation. The launch of the 2014 policy, two regularization programs, and heightened discussion about the treatment of migrants and refugees has not led to the full passage of any actual legislation. The policy remains procedural; it needs a legal framework to give it teeth and ensure more widespread access to essential resources including education for children, access to health care, and the ability to obtain a work permit. Further, the Refugee Status Determination process still officially remains with the UNHCR and not with a Moroccan ministry, which can cause problems in ensuring that UNHCR recognized refugees and asylum seekers obtain Moroccan residency permits. This reflects the continued discrepancy between Moroccan national legislation and commitments to international legal frameworks.

Furthermore, the sub-Saharan community, which includes a diverse array of students and working professionals, faces persecution, even when they do have residency permits. The October New York Times piece depicts how Morocco has essentially enacted a policy of systematic racial profiling and arbitrary arrest. Sub-Saharan migrants, including some with legal residency permits, have been picked up and dropped off in southern cities in Morocco. The article is based on documentation from Moroccan human rights groups such as GADEM and AMDH, as well as interviews with migrants. According to these reports police dress in civilian clothing and go into the home of migrants, load them up, and take them to remote parts of the country or near border regions. This repression of the migrant community has also led to rising racism and xenophobia throughout the country.[13]

This already difficult situation is made even more challenging by the global context of growing intolerance toward immigrants, including in the European Union and in the United States. In many ways, Morocco is following the international trend. Unfortunately, this trend contributes to more violence, intolerance, xenophobia and racism, and instability in the long term—especially for countries like Morocco. But Morocco and other countries in North Africa cannot manage the complexities and difficulties of the migration flows alone.


EU-Morocco relations 

While Morocco has long been a country of emigration, since the 1990s it has increasingly become a country of transit and destination for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Exact numbers vary, but most organizations posit that around 70,000 sub-Saharan migrants currently reside in Morocco.[14]  Countries throughout North Africa, especially Morocco, have continuously been labeled Europe’s “policeman” for supporting the EU’s “externalization of the migration problematic.”[15] Morocco often pushes back,[16] at least rhetorically, against this role, but at the same it uses the migration question as a valuable bargaining chip in its relations with the EU, as well as in bilateral relations with countries like Spain.

The security-border control strategy pursued by the EU and implemented elsewhere in countries like Morocco is a slippery slope. But thanks to the efforts of both Moroccan civil society groups and the international press to shed light on the human rights abuses that immigrants face in Morocco,  the European Union has funded various initiatives in Morocco to help the most vulnerable immigrants.[17] On top of these humanitarian projects, the EU continues to implement the 140 million euro program “to support border management and a resumption of negotiations on readmission and visa facilitation with Morocco.”[18] Unfortunately, Europe’s aid packages and humanitarian initiatives are often overshadowed by the regional politics of securing the border in order to keep them out of the European Union and countries of transit like Morocco.[19]

In the last few months of 2018, Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, proposed creating a border security unit of 10,000. Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, and Sebastien Kurz, the former Austrian chancellor, announced plans for further migration cooperation with Egypt, in spite of the rise in human rights violations and authoritarianism there.[20] They organized an EU-Arab League summit in Cairo in February of this year,[21] just after Egypt executed nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood suspected of murder. Such a move was a powerful signal that controlling migration will continue to take precedence over human rights concerns in MENA.

The EU also put forward proposals around the creation of regional disembarkation centers in 2018, even though these were strongly criticized by every state in North Africa.[22]

Crucially, a key condition of the disembarkation proposal is that third countries must be determined “safe” and “respect non-refoulement.” However, countries like Morocco,[23] Algeria,[24] Egypt,[25] and Libya[26] often do not respect the principle of non-refoulement, nor are they particularly safe for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. All countries have implemented practices of raids, arbitrary arrests and detention, and the deportation of vulnerable persons such as asylum seekers, refugees, pregnant women, and minors.


Morocco and Africa

Morocco’s goals in Africa also play an important role in determining Morocco’s migration policies. The 2014 migration reform process, and especially the regularization programs, aimed to demonstrate openness toward sub-Saharan migration. This aligned with Morocco’s foreign policy and economic plans to shift attention toward the continent—a move rooted in the goal of rejoining the African Union (AU) and expanding into African markets. However, Morocco’s incoherent foreign policy aims are one potential cause for Morocco’s contradictory migration policy. The openness Morocco looks to demonstrate to African countries, both in terms of markets and the movement of people, is often limited by EU pressure to secure the borders and keep migrants and refugees far from Europe’s shores.[27]

Furthermore, Morocco’s diplomatic overtures toward Africa were also very rooted in seeking international legitimacy for its sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara. Its re-entry into the AU in January 2017 was described as a diplomatic victory that offered hope for peace building.[28] While Morocco maintains de-facto control over the majority of the territory, securing a resolution that is validated by international bodies such as the AU and the U.N. remains an essential foreign policy goal. Two rounds of UN-brokered peace talks took place in December 2018 and March 2019 between Morocco, Algeria, the Polisario, and Mauritania for the first time in six years.[29]

King Mohammed VI spent much of 2016 traveling around Africa to secure support for their bid to rejoin the African Union, offering sizable investments and business deals across the continent. The trips resulted in more than fifty bilateral agreements with African countries and spearheaded talks of Morocco joining the ECOWAS bloc. According to the OCP Policy Center, Morocco is currently the second largest African investor in the continent, after South Africa.[30]

Morocco’s strategic objective of expanding into the African market appears to be succeeding, although important questions remain about their potential membership of ECOWAS. Moroccan exports to African countries increased by around 9 percent every year from 2008 to 2016. Significant foreign direct investment flows have grown by 4.4 percent, and countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Mauritania, and the Ivory Coast have become the principal buyers of Moroccan products on the continent.[31] As economist Riccardo Fabiani writes, “Most importantly, Morocco’s long-term goal is to become a trade and production hub that can interface between European, American, and Sub-Saharan African trading blocs.”[32]

Morocco’s migration policy represented a crucial dimension in this shift toward Africa. Morocco’s ambitious regularization program gave residency permits to a large majority of undocumented migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. The initial program took place in 2014, with a limited appeals process in 2015. A further regularization process took place in 2017. According to the World Bank, more than 25,000 individuals from 116 different countries received one-year residency permits in the 2014 regularization process. The program accepted the applications of all women and children who applied, and the overall acceptance rate was over sixty-five percent. This population came mostly from Senegal (twenty-five percent), Syria (twenty percent), and Nigeria (nine percent).[33] The second round of regularization was announced in 2017 around the time that Morocco started making overtures to join the ECOWAS economic bloc. The second campaign legalized around 28,000 individuals.[34]

This program helped open the door to conversations about reintegration into the African Union, economic cooperation, and the free movement of people between Morocco and Western African countries. Yet, these positive steps were overshadowed by continued police raids, the poor treatment of sub-Saharan migrants across the country, and poor living conditions experienced by many migrants and refugees.[35]



Morocco’s contradictory migration policy is a reflection of both its foreign policy priorities and the nature of political reform and domestic politics in Morocco.

On the domestic front, political reform in Morocco is often short-term, centralized, and co-opted by the monarchy. Its primary aims are to mitigate criticism in the short-term, rather than substantively change policy in the long run. One of the key issues with the 2014 migration policy is lack of implementation. The passage of the 2014 policy, two regularization programs, and heightened discussion about the treatment of migrants and refugees has not led to the passage of any actual legislation – leaving the migrant and refugee community economically, socially, and legally still very vulnerable.

In terms of foreign policy, Morocco is asserting itself as a counterterrorism and migration ally for the European Union and key member states, while also shifting focus toward African institutions, such as the African Union and ECOWAS. This move toward Africa is a reflection of the continued importance of Morocco’s position on the Western Sahara in its foreign policy. The shift toward Africa also reveals the high priority of financial and economic expansion into African markets.  Perhaps most importantly, Morocco’s foreign policy also demonstrates the extent to which cooperation with the EU and Africa often leads to contradictory policies in the area of migration.

The European Union and African Union have a duty to step up and enact genuine partnerships to improve the Euro-Mediterranean migration system—this includes the formation of long-term migration strategies that focus on both the root causes of the problem, rather than short-term and reactionary attempts to keep these human beings away from the Mediterranean. Europe must incorporate substantive avenues for regular, or “legal” immigration, to stymie the often irregular mechanisms, or “illegal,” avenues that many people feel they must take to reach Europe. In many ways, Morocco is on the right track with its regularization programs, but it needs to follow through and implement a legal framework to back them.



[1]U.N., “Intergovernmental Conference 2018,”, accessed November 15, 2018.

[2] Faras Ghani, “UN members adopt global migration pact,” December 10, 2018,

[3] “Morocco Takes Part in EU G6 Interior Ministers’ Meeting on Terrorism, Migration,” The North Africa Post,  October 9, 2018,

[4]Royaume du Maroc, Ministere Charge des Marocains Residant a l’Etranger et des Affaires de la Migration, “Strategie Nationale d’Immigration et d’Asile,”, accessed December 1, 2018.

[5] “Immigration and Aslyum Policy: Morocco Sets Example, UNHCR,”, October 3, 2018,

[6] Aida Alami, “Morocco Unleashes a Harsh Crackdown on Sub-Saharan Migrants,” New York Times, October 22, 2018,  

[7] National Council of Human Rights (CNDH), “Conclusion et recommandations du rapport: etrangers et driuts de l’homme au Maroc pour une politique d’asile et d’immigration radicalement nouvelle,”, accessed May 29, 2019.

[8] Alami, “Morocco Unleashes a Harsh Crackdown on Sub-Saharan Migrants.” 

[9] GADEM, “Expulsions Gratuites,” September-October 2018,  

[10] Alami, “Morocco Unleashes a Harsh Crackdown on Sub-Saharan Migrants.” 

[11] Salma Khouja, “Le Festival Migrant’scène annulé par les authoritiés à Tanger,” Huffpost Maghreb, November 9, 2018,

[12] Facebook post, Mehdi Alioua, co-founder of GADEM,  November 10, 2018,

[13]Ibid. See the following reports from Moroccan civil society groups: GADEM, “Expulsions Gratuites,” 2018; see also these international reports: Amnesty International, “Morocco: Relent;ess crackdown on thousands of sub-Saharan migrants and refugees is unlawful,” September 7, 2018,; Human Rights Watch, “Morocco/Western Sahara Events of 2018,” World Report 2019,, accessed May 29, 2019.

[14] Ibid.  

[15] Stylianos Kostas, “Morocco’s Triple Role in the Euro-African Migration System,” Middle East Institute April 18, 2017,

[16] Charlotte Bozonnet, “Maroc: ‘La seule politique migratoire coherente de l’Europe, c’est mettre de la pression sur les pays de transit,’”Le Monde, November 2, 2018,

[17] «  S’exprimant à cette occasion, l’ambassadeur, chef de la délégation de l’UE à Rabat, Eneko Landaburu, a souligné que le soutien aux droits de l’Homme est un axe majeur et prioritaire dans la coopération entre l’UE et le Maroc : Dans la migration de l’Afrique subsaharienne vers le Maroc, il y a parmi les migrants de plus en plus de femmes et de plus en plus d’enfants, dont beaucoup sont non-accompagnés de leurs parents», a-t-il relevé, saluant à cet égard l’action de «Terres des Hommes», Gadem et l’association OEB, qui offrent un accueil humain aux femmes et enfants migrants au Maroc dans leur centre «Tamkine». Darcissac, Marion « Maroc: Terre des hommes renforce les droits des femmes et enfants migrants, » Terre des Hommes, (April 1, 2012).

[18] European Commission, “The European Agenda on Migration: EU needs to sustain progress made over the past 4 years,” Press Release, March 6, 2019,

[19] Fouzi Mourji, Jean-Noel Ferrié, Saadia Radi, Mehdi Alioua, “Les Migrants Subahariens au Maroc: Enjeux d’une migration de residence,” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2016,

[20]  “More for less? Europe’s new wave of ‘migration deals,’” European Council on Foreign Relations, October 8, 2018,  

[21] Council of the European Union, “EU-League of Arab States summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, 24-25/02/2019,”, accessed May 29, 2019.

[22] According to the European Commission, “the objective of regional disembarkation arrangements is to provide quick and safe disembarkation on both sides of the Mediterranean of rescued people in line with international law, including the principle of non-refoulement, and a responsible post-disembarkation process. Regional disembarkation platforms should be seen as working in concert with the development of controlled centres in the EU: together, both concepts should help ensure a truly shared regional responsibility in replying to complex migration challenges.” “Migration: Regional Disembarkation Arrangements: Follow-up to the European Council Conclusions of 28 June 2018,” European Commission, June 2018,  

[23] Human Rights Watch, “Morocco/Western Sahara Events of 2018,” World Report 2019,, accessed May 29, 2019.

[24] Human Rights Watch, “Algeria: Inhumane Treatment of Migrants: Pregnant Women, Children, Asylum Seekers Among Thousand Expelled to Desert,” June 28, 2018,  

[25] Jan Claudius Volkel, “Livin’ on the Edge: Irregular Migration in Egypt,” Middle East Institute, April 12, 2016,  

[26]David Brennan, “Humans for Sale: Libyan Slave Trade Continues While Militants Kill and Torture with Impunity, U.N. Says,” Newsweek, March 21, 2018,  

[27] Fouzi Mourji, Jean-Noel Ferrié, Saadia Radi, Mehdi Alioua, “Les Migrants Subahariens au Maroc: Enjeux d’une migration de residence,” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2016,

[28]Ben Quinn, “Morocco rejoins African Union After 30 years,” The Guardian, January 31, 2017,

[29] “Morocco-Polisario Western Sahara talks an ‘ice-breaker,’” News 24, March 12, 2018,; see also Amyne Asmlal, “Sahara: Les Bonnes Cartes du Maroc a Geneve,” Le360, March 15, 2019,

[30] Cecile Guerin, “Morocco’s ambitious investments in Sub-Saharan Africa full of risks and rewards,” Global Risk Insights,” May 26, 2017,

[31] Riccardo Fabiani, “Morocco’s Difficult Path to ECOWAS Membership,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 28, 2018,  

[32] Ibid.

[33] Kirsten Schuettler, “A second regularization campaign for irregular migrants in Morocco: When emigration countries becoming immigration countries,” World Bank, January 13, 2017,

[34] Alami, “Morocco Unleashes a Harsh Crackdown on Sub-Saharan Migrants.”

[35] Human Rights Watch, “Abused and Expelled: Ill-treatment of Sub-Saharan African Migrants in Morocco,” February 10, 2014,


Anna Jacobs

Anna Jacobs

Anna Jacobs is an independent researcher based in Doha, Qatar. She currently works as the senior research assistant for the Brookings Doha center. She was formerly the Academic Director for the SIT Study Abroad program, Field Studies in Journalism and New Media, as well as a lecturer in politics and media at the Ecole de Gouvernance et d'Economie (EGE) in Rabat. She also worked as a freelance political risk consultant on Morocco and Algeria. Her research has primarily focused on politics in the Maghreb, democratization and political reform in the Middle East and North Africa, media and civil society, and migration, as a student at the University of Virginia, the University of Oxford, and as a Fulbright Scholar in Morocco. She was most recently published with Public Books, The Brookings Markaz Forum, Jadaliyya, and Muftah magazine.

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