How bus ban reflects Morocco's broader migration policy

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Article Summary
The well-known Moroccan bus company CTM denies accusations that it prevents "Africans" from boarding some of its buses.

Earlier this month, images circulated online of a poster in a Moroccan bus station. Apparently hung by the major transport company CTM, it announced it would be "strictly forbidden to sell CTM tickets to Africans" traveling to cities near Europe if they couldn't produce a valid Moroccan residency permit.

It was clear “African” referred to black sub-Saharans and not Moroccans.

The images caused an uproar. A flurry of critics denounced the measure as a discriminatory and unethical attempt to limit the movement of black migrants. They also bemoaned the fact that it would turn private bus employees into migration police.

Though the poster’s words came as a shock to most, the policy behind them has been in practice for several years, migrants say. And rather than the intended effect of curbing migration, such policies have only cultivated illegal trafficking networks. 

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At a crossroads

Morocco, a country of both origin and transit for migration, is a tense middle ground. The kingdom is the closest African country to Europe and shares land borders with two Spanish enclaves, making it a practical conduit for migrants. After Turkey and the European Union signed a border deal in 2016 and Italy closed its southern ports in 2018, scores more migrants headed for Morocco. 

Most are from sub-Saharan African countries. Tens of thousands of sub-Saharan migrants have passed through Morocco to Europe in recent decades. An estimated 700,000 currently reside in the kingdom, many without legal permission to do so.

Responding to criticism of its harsh treatment of these migrants, Morocco announced a new “humanitarian approach” to migration policy in 2013. Regularization campaigns in 2014 and 2017 gave nearly 50,000 undocumented migrants (mainly sub-Saharan and Syrian) one-year residency permits. 

But at the same time, Morocco, facing pressure from Europe, has aggressively policed their presence. Since 2018, authorities have taken sub-Saharan migrants from their homes and the streets in border cities and bused them hundreds of miles to the south. The EU has given 232 million euros to Morocco to manage migration, most of which is spent on border policing. 

Out in the open

"It's important to remember the CTM ban on migrants using buses is not new,” said Cynthia Magallanes-Gonzalez, a researcher of migration and race in the Maghreb. “What was new was that it was the first time it was explicit. It was proof of discrimination, simply stated,” she said.

Sedrick Royal, a Cameroonian living in Morocco, recounted how he was required to show his residency permit to buy a CTM bus ticket over a year ago. An hour into the trip, the police stopped and boarded the bus, looking for undocumented migrants. Royal, a migration activist, has a "carte de sejour" — the legal permit to reside in Morocco — so he was able to travel. 

Five years ago, even traveling away from border cities like Oujda required a carte de sejour or passport. “If you didn’t have it, you couldn’t even buy a ticket and the police would immediately stop you,” Royal said, adding, “It was only after the regularization in 2014 that things changed a bit.” 

Pressure on migrants has fluctuated with pressure from Europe to prevent migration. New policies in 2014 lifted some weight, but after hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants breached the border fences of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in mid-2018, Morocco cracked down. 

“That’s when Spain and the EU started putting a lot more pressure on Morocco,” Magallanes-Gonzalez said. She added, “When international deals were at stake, financial compensation to the kingdom was at stake, we started to see hardened migration policies.” 

Omar Naji, president of a Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) chapter, told the publication Yabiladi that his office has observed discriminatory practices “for at least a year in Nador with various transport companies, even though no law obliges travelers to provide ID to move within the country.” According to sub-Saharan migrants living in northern cities, public taxi and bus drivers have upheld a de facto ban on carrying undocumented migrants for several years.

But the CTM poster “was the first time migrants could prove they’re being discriminated against,” Magallanes-Gonzalez said, adding, “Non-migrants who were not affected before are able to see it now."

By whose authority

After the furor, CTM’s administration quickly denied its involvement, shifting the blame to its employees. Critics roundly dismissed the dodge. 

“It’s an empty apology,” Magallanes-Gonzalez said, adding, “It isn’t up to the employee’s discretion to decide whether or not he’s going to sell tickets to a black person. Even if you’re blaming it on an individual, what steps are you taking to make sure that your employees do not discriminate?” 

CTM administrators were not reachable for comment. 

Soon after the poster circulated online, it was followed by the leaked minutes of a meeting at the state transportation department in the region of Laayoune. In it, the department head said that bus companies “must coordinate with their central directorates to give instructions to their northern agencies to not carry illegal migrants who do not have residency permits.”

Off-target

Whether or not an official directive, the CTM poster hit all the wrong targets. Sub-Saharan Africans buying the company’s relatively expensive tickets are likely regularized and working in Morocco, not undocumented, Magallanes-Gonzalez said. “It’s like a slap in the face. It reminds documented migrants that the policy that promised them integration and access to social services — the policy they thought offered them hope in this country — may not be fully in practice," she added. Moreover, she said, “It reminds them that because they’re black, they’re being targeted.”

Moroccans are not subject to the same treatment, though they are also arriving on Spanish shores in droves. Thirty-one percent of migrants who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 2018 were Moroccan; 70% of Moroccans under the age of 30 have considered leaving, according to Arab Barometer.

Policing everybody traveling north is impossible, unhelpful and not the point, Royal said. Rather, the state should govern migration without racial profiling or racist harassment.

Migrant rights associations like GADEM have made clear that racism persists in Morocco and affects black migrants acutely. As Royal sees it, the problem is institutional — the CTM poster just expressed it outwardly. “Tomorrow it could be stores; it could be housing — like they do in Tangier, preventing sub-Saharans from renting — it could be hospitals. That’s the problem," Royal said.

Rerouting

These policies won’t stop migration, Royal said; rather, they will just create trafficking networks.

A recent UN Development Program report on migration confirmed that "efforts to coercively prevent or otherwise deter [migration] are questionable, even unrealistic." Young Africans have “a will to migrate and an ability to do so, yet legal channels facilitating migration remain largely closed to this class of traveler,” it stated.

Lacking legal options, they turn to traffickers who may exploit them and put them in deadly situations. EU border policing, combined with a broken Libyan state, led to migrants being sold as slaves in Libya in 2017 and 2018. 

Policing Morocco’s bus lines allows smugglers to charge migrants exorbitant prices for transport northward, said Magallanes-Gonzalez. This makes migrants vulnerable to exploitation because traffickers know authorities won’t protect them, and migrants know they have nowhere to turn. “It’s kind of a loophole for migrants’ rights to be violated, and the state is complicit in this, directly or indirectly," she said. 

“The problem is how to reduce the [number] of people who migrate by illegal means — means that benefit traffickers,” Royal said.

Found in: Human rights

Sebastian Bouknight is a freelance journalist, photographer, and radio producer based in Morocco. Coming from a multi-disciplinary background, he reports on the environment, migration, human rights, and music.

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