Morocco’s Inadvertent Transformation into Destination Country

Spain and Morocco’s effective border control of the western Mediterranean sea passage has reduced irregular migration in the region, but also inadvertently transformed Morocco from a destination country into a transit destination, according to migration consultancy firm Altai Consulting.

Pedestrians at Kasbah Walls, Rabat, Morocco. Photo: Adam Jones

The influx of migrants into Morocco has forced the north African nation to adjust its policy migration, and it has done so “in a humanitarian way, in accordance with international law and in a framework of regional cooperation,” Altai Consulting reports.

The study, Migration Trends Across the Mediterranean: Connecting the Dots, was commissioned by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and launched last week in Geneva. Research was carried out between November 2014 and February of this year.

Altai Consulting has delivered an in depth analysis report on the Western and Central Mediterranean routes, commissioned by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). It brings special attention to the rather forgotten situation of Morocco and Spain, which counts with its territory the exclaves of Ceuta and Melillia on Morocco’s north African coast.

The territories are remnants of Barcelona’s colonial history in North Africa and which, however, remain a part of Spanish territory. But right up till 2010, these European territories on North African shores were attracting thousands of migrants each year.

Spain was a hotsop, seeing its migrant population soar between 2000 and 2010, from 924,000 to 5.7 million. But then things changed. The Altai Consulting report takes a look back at developments over the past years and gives a snapshot of what the situation is like for these two countries linked by migration. Here are the highlights in brief:

  • Irregular immigration to Spain has diminished, ”inadvertently” turning Morocco into a destination country
  • Majority of migrants to Morocco are economic migrants, seeking better employment opportunities.
  • Migrants in Morocco are predominantly from: West Africa: Cameroon, Guinea, Senegal, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire.
  • Nigerian women are trafficked through Spain into Europe for ”purposes of sexual exploitation”.
  •  90% of irregular migrants currently in Spain are visa overstayers.

In 2006, over 30,000 West Africans arrived in Spain by boat via the Canary Islands, that is now down to a few hundreds each year.

Simultaneously, there was a stead trickly of migrants entering Ceuta and Melilla. The Spanish authorities had built border fences in both exclaves in the 1990s. However, the three-metre fences did not prove effective.

Moreover, in 2005, migrants were shot at by Spanish and Moroccan authorities with rubber and live bullets respectively after masses of migrants tried to scale the barriers. At least 13 migrants were killed, causing an international outrage.

As a result, the fences were extended and equipped with sensors and cameras, but Spain also devised a long-term plan that engaged both Morocco as well as several countries of origin.

Migrants caught on night vision CCTV trying to scale three-metre fences in Melilla in 2006.

Migrants caught on night vision CCTV trying to scale three-metre fences in Melilla in 2006.

In 2006 Operation Seahorse Atlantic was born – a regional cooperation between Portugal, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Cape Verde, Gambia and Guinea Bissau with the goal of preventing irregular migration.

This was in addition to a special cooperation agreement with Morocco to step up joint control at the borders.

The initiative was a success from the Spanish perspective. Irregular migration via the Canary Islands fell drastically. In 2014 only 288 people arrived in Spain through this route, compared to 31,678 when the plan was put in place.

Irregular boat arrivals boat arrivals at the Canary islands 2006 -2014

Source: Spanish Ministry of Interior , Chart provided by

An phenomenon that the report does not really look at the possible effects of the Spanish economic collapse, which happened to coincide with the dwindling of the numbers of migrants attempting to cross into Spain.

The Spanish economy was hit particularly hard by the ripple effects of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. In 2012, Marjano Rahoy’s right-wing government was forced to ask for a bailout €100billion to rescue its financial sector.

The economy was plunged into a recession, unemployment hovered above the 20% mark and the construction industry, which gave work to thousands of migrants, virtually imploded.

Whatever, the reason, the successful diversion of migration away from Spain effectively shifted the the flow into Morocco itself, according to Altai Consulting.

”Intentionally or inadvertently, Morocco is starting to change in this regard and is becoming increasingly a destination country purely for the fact that it has become so difficult for migrants to cross over into Spain.” the report says.

Morocco does not only operate as a holding pen for migrants, many are drawn to to it due to increased employment opportunities; the biggest ”push” factor for migrants leaving their home country in West Africa.


The Ceuta border fence in Morocco, one of the main instruments used to prevent migrants from passing into Spain.

But the North African state has had to adjust its policy in respect to migration. In September 2013, the Rabat government announced a ”campaign for the exceptional regularisation of foreigners with an irregular administrative status in Morocco”.

In the first year of its implementation, Morocco received some 27,000 applications for regularisation and accepted almost 18,000 of them.

The numbers were not greater because despite the legal changes many sub-Saharans are still wary of applying for Moroccan regularisation due to fears over becoming ”visible” to the Moroccan government.

According to Altai Consulting, the reason for this is mixed. For instance, some gay Cameroonians fear being targeted if they registered with the authorities in Morocco.

However, along along with the economic migrants, Morocco is attracting a lot illegal activity.

Women, in particular from Nigeria and Cameroon (as many as 90% of Nigerian women, 70% of Cameroonians) are often trafficked into Morocco and forced to work in the sex trade, for instance.

The majority are single and many of them get pregnant during the journey to Morocco. The Nigerian women are often manipulated by their exploiters through recourse to belief in Voodoo – an ancient West African religion of spirits.

However, the situation is helped by an established circuit of aid agencies that operate effectively form the territory. The Altai report makes a list of some of the main players, which include: Caritas, GADEM (Le Groupe Antiraciste de Défense et D’accompagnement Des étrangers et migrants), Medicines sans Frontiers (MSF), Terres de Homme, Fondation Orient-Occident, Medicines du Monde and Delegación de Migraciones.

The actors serve as advice bureaus for migrants providing ”humanitarian assistance, medical and psychological support, legal assistance, advocacy, and integration”.