Migration and its role in Morocco's political agenda

Migration and its role in Morocco's political agenda
Analysis: Morocco is using the refugee crisis to build a trade deal with Europe, reports Habibulah Mohammed Lamin.
3 min read
22 November, 2018
Sub-Saharan migrants seek shelter in Morocco, but many are turned back [Getty]
With waves of would-be refugees travelling to Europe through Morocco, the north African kingdom has offered to intervene on behalf of regional authorities, promising a wave of its magic wand would end Europe's "migration crisis".

Throughout the past two decades, the border fence at Melilla has been a major obstacle to migratory flows, with Sub-Saharans having to cross if they seek a better life in Europe.

Those coming from war-torn nations from Somalia to South Sudan and even other partially stable states, have always been a nightmare for populist politicians in the EU, and have provided a trump card for Morocco to play in the international political arena.

In recent months, hundreds of young Sub-Saharans trying to cross the fence have been deterred by Moroccan authorities. Morocco's government said it would "deport them to their countries of origin".

So why has Morocco chosen now to become strict against migrants?

The crackdown comes at the same time as intensive efforts by the European Commission to renew an EU-Morocco agri-cultural trade deal revoked by the EU Court of Justice because of its inclusion of the disputed Western Sahara territory.

Morocco considers the Western Sahara as part of its territory and is keen to include its exports in the trade deal.

Last summer, the European Commission paid a visit to the Moroccan-controlled cities of Western Sahara.

The delegation were introduced to civil society figures considered by pro-independence activists to be lobbyists for the Moroccan state.

The EU Commission's biggest challenge to securing the deal in exchange for blocking the migration route is the ECJ decision that without the "consultation" of the indigenous people of Western Sahara, the deal is legally invalid.

A referendum on the future of the territory has been promised to Sahrawis for more than forty years, but has yet to materialise.

This complicates the Commission's mission, with the peace process slowly creeping on but without tangible results.

The UN Security Council continues to place an emphasis on dialogue and restating the aging UN commitment to a resolution.

By directly getting involved with civil society players from Western Sahara, the EU commission appears to be pushing forward to strike the deal with Morocco once more.

Its proposal has been presented to the EU Parliament but has not yet been agreed. Some MEPs have demanded more clarity on the proposal.

Morocco is obviously watching these developments closely. King Mohammed VI, in a speech commemorating the Moroccan Green March - which led to the extension of the kingdom to Western Sahara after the Spanish withdrawal from the territory - invited Algeria "to cooperate" to overcome their differences and reopen borders to fight migration and terrorism.

The message was a clear sign that the Moroccan king has taken the initiative to put the ball into the Algerians' court, building a stronger narrative on the domestic and international stage that Morocco is willing to open a new chapter with its Eastern neighbour.

Given that Algeria and Morocco are of vital importance to Europe's stability and its interests in the North African region, Morocco has been praised by figures in the European Union.

The call for restoring relations came a month before UN-sponsored round table talks scheduled for early December.

Although Morocco has so far shown its soft power to win over the EU, it is evident that Morocco will return to the migration dilemma to gain the upper hand in its future regional and political battles.

Habibulah Mohamed Lamin is a journalist formerly based in the Western Sahara refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. He has worked as a translator and is director of Equipe Media Branch, a group of media activists covering Western Sahara. His work focuses on the politics and culture of the Maghreb.

Follow him on Twitter: @habibullahWS