“The situation that the sub-Saharans are living in Morocco is very hard, we don't know what to do”

Coronavirus crisis hits informal sector workers in the neighboring country, in particular sub-Saharan immigrants
Image of a sub-Saharan citizen in the center of a desert Rabat as a result of the confinement measures decreed to combat COVID-19 in Morocco

PHOTO/REUBEN YEMOH ODOI  -   Image of a sub-Saharan citizen in the center of a desert Rabat as a result of the confinement measures decreed to combat COVID-19 in Morocco

“The life we live is very difficult, but we don't have any other choice than to resist”. This is the view of Congolese woman Fifi Lembé, who answers the phone to Atalayar from the Moroccan capital, where she lives with her three children. Her husband is confined in Benin, where he went to buy materials he planned to sell in Morocco on his return. As in the case of Lembé's family, the crisis of the coronavirus is hitting in a special way the populations that make their living in informal sectors of the economy - that supposes more than 20% of the Moroccan GDP, more than 60% in the commercial area -, among which the groups coming from Central and Western Africa stand out for their precariousness. Rabat decreed a state of health emergency - with strict general confinement - on 20 March and is due to be extended until 20 April. 

Between 2014 and 2017, the Moroccan authorities regularized the situation of 50,000 people, a large part of them from other African countries. It is estimated that at least half of the residents with sub-Saharan roots work in the informal economy, making their situation extremely vulnerable. Other sources consulted suggest that several thousand more live on Moroccan soil in an irregular situation. Many of these people live in precarious jobs and literally day-to-day. Those who are lucky enough to work legally tend to do so in call centres. (However, in Morocco almost 60% of salaried workers don’t have a contract, a reality that affects locals and foreigners alike.)

The situation for the Moroccan authorities is particularly complex, with several million people working in the informal economy and therefore without social protection. Among the measures taken by the Moroccan authorities to help the most disadvantaged groups is a monthly allowance of $120 for those families in which the member making the largest financial contribution to the household has been made unemployed as a result of the pandemic. 

The assistance reaches $200 per month for employees of private companies affiliated with the Moroccan Social Security. Initially, workers in possession of the national health card, which can only be applied for by Moroccans, can benefit from the aid. In addition, the Moroccan Government was housing more than 3,000 homeless persons in schools and stadiums to prevent them from sleeping on the public highway during the state of health emergency. 

La secretaria general del Consejo de Migrantes Subsaharianos en Marruecos (CMSM) y presidenta de la Comunidad Congolesa de Marruecos, Aimee Lokake, posa en una imagen de archivo
PHOTO/AIMEE LOKAKE - The Secretary General of the Council of Sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco (CMSM) and President of the Congolese Community of Morocco, Aimee Lokake, in an archive photo

“Many of these people are completely lost. They have lost their jobs, they are unable to access grants and they cannot pay their rent or electricity. They cannot leave their homes either. They have nothing to eat. They are blocked”, explains to Atalayar the Congolese Aimee Lokake, secretary general of the Council of Sub-Saharan Migrants in Morocco and responsible for external relations of the Platform of Sub-Saharan Associations and Communities in Morocco (ASCOMS). 

Lokake highlights the particularly critical situation of 180 single women and 35 unaccompanied minors and orphans - from countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Cameroon - who are assisted by the association in Support of Women and Children in Morocco (SFE), which he also presides. “They are locked up at home, the children can't continue their studies online because they can't afford an internet connection. They have no income. They were working as domestic servants or prostitutes before the pandemic struck,” Lokake told this publication in a telephone conversation from the Moroccan capital, where she lives with her two children. 

The association provides them with basic foodstuffs such as rice, oil or sugar or basic medicines from the Catholic Church in the Maghreb country or from the Moroccan NGO Fondation Orient Occident. “The legal situation of many people is becoming another problem, because without a rental contract they cannot renew their residence permits,” she said. “We don't know what to do, the situation is very hard,” laments the Congolese woman, who is calling for funds to help these people. 

The dramatic testimonies are repeated. This is the case of Saddou Habi, a 30-year-old Guinean who has been living in Morocco for two years. “I had to help my four other roommates who are in a worse financial situation than I am,” he told Reuters. “We respect all the measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but we need urgent help to get out of these hard times,” he added. Habi, who lives in the Rabat district of Hay Nahda - one of the lowest income areas in the Moroccan capital, south of the city - is waiting for a residence permit which has not yet arrived.

The National Council for Human Rights and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights have asked the authorities to speed up aid to these particularly vulnerable groups, according to Reuters. It should be recalled that officially the main foreign community in Morocco of African origin is the Senegalese (with 6,066 people in a legal situation) followed by the Algerian (with 5,710 people). 

“For these people, Morocco is no longer just a country of transit, it is a country of destination,” explains Senegalese Diop Mountaga, president of the Kirikou organization, to Atalayar. The Rabat-based organization has been working since 2013 on the integration of immigrants from other African countries into Moroccan society and the labor market. It does so specifically through an intercultural day-care center, training and integration for women and help for isolated minors. And these days it is focused on helping - by sending private material donations - people who are in a situation of necessity. 

“We take the food from neighborhood to neighborhood, with people from our association in each district, because the restrictions imposed by the confinement make it impossible for us to transport the products in any other way,” explains Mountaga. “A positive dynamic is being created these past few weeks. The local administration is urging the Moroccan population to be lenient with the immigrants. The Moroccan Red Crescent, where I work, has drawn up a plan for humanitarian aid. It' s an aid that is going to be coordinated with the Ministry of the Interior, which is in charge of distribution to vulnerable populations. However, more is needed. The big problem, apart from food, is rent, we need a moratorium on payments,” explains this young man who has been living in Morocco since 2012.

Dos ciudadanos de procedencia subsahariana residentes en Marruecos sostienen una bolsa con productos de primera necesidad en la sede de la asociación intercultural local Kirikou
PHOTO/KIRIKOU ASSOCIATION - Dos ciudadanos de procedencia subsahariana residentes en Marruecos sostienen Two citizens of sub-Saharan origin living in Morocco hold a bag of basic goods at the headquarters of the local intercultural association Kirikou
Multiple barriers 

“The West and Central African immigrant community in Morocco is fragile for many reasons: discrimination, difficult access to health care and adequate accommodation, as well as difficulties in accessing training and social assistance. During this COVID-19 period, they are particularly vulnerable because they survive on a daily basis and depend on regular mobility on the streets to survive on mendicancy, the creation of informal businesses, etc.”, says Ghanaian consultant Reuben Yemoh Odoi, who from Rabat has launched a campaign to raise money through networks to help migrants from West and Central Africa in Morocco.  

The Ghanaian - who runs the association Yemoh & The Minority Globe, which began in 2009 and today has as its main objective to help young African artists in Morocco - is employed these days in distributing food to members of these communities living in Casablanca during these days of confinement. “We will use the food stamp method in collaboration with supermarkets in districts with a high density of migrants in order to limit the risk of crowding; the idea is that each person or family will take home food according to their needs,” the also artist and photographer explains to Atalayar from Rabat. “This method is recommended by most NGOs in Morocco, such as Caritas and the migrants' platforms. In this way, the beneficiaries are independent in their purchases and movement, presenting their coupons whenever they wish in their neighborhood supermarket,” he says.

The language barrier - as we are talking about English-speaking groups - is one of the main problems of immigrants in Morocco, as “they lack access to information,” Odoi reminds this publication. “Most French-speaking immigrants know where to go in case of need, but those who don't speak this language are invisible to NGOs,” laments the artist, who arrived to Morocco in 2005. 

This multi-faceted Ghanaian emphasizes the special vulnerability of one subgroup: women and girls from Nigeria's Edo State. “The situation of these women is extremely precarious. They are almost all victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation on their way to Morocco, where they are waiting for an opportunity to reach Europe. Unfortunately, they arrive in Morocco with many traumas. They live from begging, prostitution and street trade,” Odoi explains. 

El activista y artista ghanés Reuben Yemoh Odoi, rodeado de sacos de alimentos en una fotografía de archivo
PHOTO/REUBEN YEMOH ODOI - A group of people from sub-Saharan Africa living in Morocco collect food and other necessities at the height of the coronavirus pandemic

It is clear that the category 'sub-Saharan immigrants' doesn't constitute a homogeneous whole; not only because of the diversity of countries of origin, but also because of the different economic, personal and educational situations of these people. In a conversation with Atalayar, Mehdi Alioua, professor of sociology at the International University of Rabat, distinguishes three major groups in relation to their vulnerability to the COVID-19. 

“There is a first group of people who come with few resources and money and are blocked without anything, often living in forests, near the borders of Ceuta and Melilla; a second group of people who have lived in other countries before arriving in Morocco, who have made the international migration in stages, some are refugees, and who get survive by chaining low-skilled jobs; both groups are being especially hit by the coronavirus and are in a precarious situation,” explains Alioua. 

“Finally, there is a third group of people who have arrived directly to Morocco with the idea in many cases of crossing to Spain, although not necessarily; they have an urban way of life, studies and begin to join the middle class; they try to improve their social condition and are part of the African intra-continental migration,” continues the also professor at Science Po Rabat. “This group has also been affected by the coronavirus, but not exactly in the same way, they will get out of the situation better because many of them continue to work, are in a legal situation and maintain links with their families; their reality appears on television much less,” he continues. 

“The first group is in an absolute emergency situation, they have been having serious problems getting food for three weeks now; they are now heading for the cities thinking that they will be helped, but because of the confinement the NGOs will not always be able to help them,” the Moroccan sociologist warns this publication. “The second category of people, those who live from low-skilled jobs, for example working on building sites or in the street trade, are in a very difficult situation also because the confinement measures have stopped the activity of the sectors in which they work and their economy is based on social contact in the street,” warns Alioua. 

“Finally, the third group is in a less urgent situation, but if the state of emergency is prolonged it will be increasingly problematic: many will lose jobs and, as most of them don't have a work contract, they won't have access to social benefits either. In many cases, their residence permits are also expiring, which means that they are unable to obtain aid or even to withdraw money from the bank,” the sociologist points out.  

Dos ciudadanos de origen subsahariano recogen alimentos de la sede de la organización Kirikou, con sede en Rabat
PHOTO/KIRIKOU ASSOCIATION - Two citizens of sub-Saharan origin collect food from the headquarters of the organization Kirikou, based in Rabat
Moroccan Solidarity

However, in the midst of adversity there is space for hope. “Things have changed a lot in the last six or seven years. As sub-Saharans we live a very hard reality, but we feel the solidarity of the Moroccans more and more,” explains Atalayar Fifi Lembé, who arrived, pregnant, in Morocco from her native Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013 after an odyssey through Mauritania, Mali and Algeria. Today she makes her living in the capital's popular neighborhood of Yacoub el Mansour. 

The Congolese woman has been working since 2015 with the Kirikou association, which helped her by providing her with educational training upon her arrival. She now looks after children of both sub-Saharan and Moroccan origin in the association's nursery. “In our nursery, children from different backgrounds live together naturally, and that makes us very happy,” she confesses. She also gives educational and sewing workshops to women who have come to the Maghreb country from other parts of Africa. But the COVID-19 crisis has dealt an unexpected blow to all this work. 

“The love between the foreigner and the Moroccan has resurfaced these days. We'll see what happens when the crisis is over. As Morocco's civil society grows stronger, we are also strengthened in our status and consideration. In the 2000s, the reality of sub-Saharan immigrants was taboo,” Kirikou's president, Diop Mountaga, declares. 

Foto de archivo de una actividad de la asociación intercultural Kirikou, con sede en Rabat, con su presidente, Diop Muntaga, en el centro de la imagen
PHOTO/DIOP MOUNTAGA - Archive photo of an activity of the intercultural association Kirikou, based in Rabat, with its president, Diop Mountaga, in the center of the image
Added complexity in northern Morocco

In the northern areas of Morocco, especially in the areas near Ceuta and Melilla, the situation is even more complex for these groups, who are waiting for their chance to reach European soil. Many of them take refuge in wooded and mountainous areas in the provinces of Tetouan or Nador, which border the Spanish autonomous cities.  “The people here in the north who have tried to cross the Strait these weeks and have been rescued are bearing an extra burden; their situation is much more precarious in these moments of crisis due to the coronavirus. The protocol keeps them in quarantine and in some cases the authorities send them to other distant parts of Morocco without being able to use public transport,” explains Cynthia Gonsalez, an American researcher from the University of Michigan, from Tangier to Atalayar. 

“I believe that NGOs are equipped to manage aid to many immigrants, their capacity is limited. Meanwhile, there is a mobilization of the foreign communities themselves to help their members,” says Gonsalez, who works on the immigration reality in the city of the Strait.  

Without moving from Tangier, Cameroon's Sedrick Royal tells Atalayar about the situation in the former international city of members of the sub-Saharan community. “They keep going out, despite the confinement, without masks, to the big avenues and roundabouts, where they are engaged in begging. The Moroccan middle classes are the ones who, with their help, are helping them to survive,” explains this jurist who arrived to Morocco in 2009. 

“Although his dream was one day to cross the Strait and live in Europe, his destiny, he confesses to this publication, is to "be at the service of his community” in Tangier, where he gives legal advice to people coming from different African countries. Royal emphasizes that more organization is needed in the distribution of aid and a better evaluation of needs. He emphasizes that any contribution is small because “the demand is always greater than what can be provided”. “Between 40 and 60% of these people live on what they get every day. Let's not forget that they are the most exposed to coronavirus infection,” warns Royal. 

The truth is that the crisis of the COVID-19 doesn't stop the boats in the Strait nor the attempts to access Spanish territory. On 15 March, the Civil Guard of Ceuta intercepted a recreational boat with ten immigrants, in this case Moroccans, heading towards the coast of Cadiz and arrested two people who were skippers, both of Spanish nationality, the Efe agency reported at the time.

Imagen de varios kits con productos alimentarios destinados a personas especialmente golpeadas por la crisis del coronavirus en la sede de la entidad marroquí Kirikou
PHOTO/ASOCIACIÓN KIRIKOU - Image of several kits of food products for people particularly affected by the coronavirus crisis at the headquarters of the Moroccan entity Kirikou

According to sources at the armed institute, the intervention took place when Maritime Service agents warned of a boat crossing the waters of the Strait. The two captains of the boat will be charged with a crime against the rights of foreign citizens.

More recently, on April 6th, more than 300 people of sub-Saharan origin tried to enter the territory of the city of Melilla. About fifty of them were able to jump over the fence, reported the Moroccan digital H24info quoting Efe.  According to the Spanish agency, this is one of the most violent attempts at entry by migrants for months. The people who managed to enter went to the Temporary Stay Centre in Melilla.

And from north to south, because on this occasion the greatest tragedy took place in the southern waters of Morocco. On the 3rd of April, the shipwreck of a boat was registered on the coast of Tantan, which resulted in the death by drowning of two immigrants and the disappearance of another 19, according to information from the Spanish Maritime Rescue Service reported by Efe. Two days earlier, two boats with 54 immigrants of sub-Saharan origin on board, including seven children, arrived during the early hours of the morning in Gran Canaria and Tenerife, according to the Spanish agency, citing sources from the Red Cross and 112.

Furthermore, the Royal Moroccan Navy intercepted on the same Friday, April 3, a group of 32 immigrants coming from different countries of sub-Saharan Africa while they were travelling in a fishing boat to the Canary Islands, according to security sources cited by the state agency MAP. The rescue took place one hundred kilometers south of the city of Dakhla. The coronavirus crisis seems to be reactivating the flux towards the archipelago. 

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Morocco. The number of infections has already exceeded two thousand. At the close of this text, 2,251 infections and 128 deaths had been recorded.