Rabat, Morocco - A Moroccan campaign that denounces racism against black people has stirred significant controversy about the integration of migrants into the North African country.
Last month, the anti-racism collective, Papers for All launched a traditional- and social-media blitz, with photos, banners and T-shirts reading "Massmytich Azzi" ("My name is not Negro," in Moroccan Arabic). The campaign came just a few months after the Moroccan government, which has been widely criticised over its treatment of sub-Saharan Africans, launched an initiative to document migrants.
"Since the campaign of giving papers to migrants started, they have been discriminated against even more than before," Youssef Haji, a coordinator of Papers for All, told Al Jazeera. "Our campaign isn't just a campaign against racism, but also a campaign to remind the Moroccan government of its commitment to the rights of migrants."
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In recent years, as European countries have tightened controls to stem the flow of migrants from Morocco, the North African country has faced increasing difficulty in integrating these newly arrived people.
Human rights groups have reported abuses that undocumented migrants have suffered at the hands of Moroccan authorities, including beatings and theft of their property. Last year, Doctors Without Borders pulled out of the country in a show of protest, and in February, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 79-page report detailing the abuses.
| Papers for All has launched a campaign to raise awareness about racism and to push for migrant rights [Photo courtesy of Papers for All/Al Jazeera]
The country is still trying to figure out new policies that will allow it to control its borders while improving the treatment of sub-Saharan migrants and asylum seekers, HRW said in the report.
"One change since October is that Morocco is no longer dumping sub-Saharans on the Algerian border but is transporting them instead to cities in Morocco far from the Spanish enclaves," said Eric Goldstein, HRW's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"They announced a new initiative on migration. It is a work in progress," he told Al Jazeera. "There is still a hardline policy when it comes to preventing sub-Saharans from approaching the land borders with Spain. This has resulted in the continuing police violence against sub-Saharans in these areas and the forced displacement."
At a time when the Moroccan king toured African countries for weeks, trying to build strong economic ties with other African nations, it seemed like the country had no other choice but to attempt to polish its international image, observers say.
However, obstacles still remain. A few months ago, media reports showed signs on buildings that said: "We don't rent to Africans." Life in Morocco has been hard for migrants. Many who arrived by land were frequently detained for days following mass arrests. It has also been challenging for them to integrate into Moroccan society.
"I was attacked twice and people call us negro on the street," Rachel, a hairdresser, told reporters on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. "We are human beings like them [Moroccans]. They shouldn't treat us like dogs or like slaves."
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Camille Denis, a coordinator for an organisation called the Anti-Racist Group to Defend Foreigners and Migrants, or Gadem, from its French name, said there were no statistics available about the number of attacks against sub-Saharan Africans because in most cases, victims do not file complaints.
In people's minds, black skin equals undocumented.
Last year, a number of migrants died after being subjected to police brutality or racist acts, prompting human rights groups to intensify their efforts to force the government to act and sensitise Moroccans to the issue.
Sub-Saharan Africans are most vulnerable to attacks not just because of their skin colour, Denis said, but also because being black is associated with being undocumented and hence being a threat to people's safety.
"In people's minds, black skin equals undocumented," she told Al Jazeera. "We see it with the case of Toussaint [Mianzoukouta], a [Congolese] teacher who had his papers and was arrested by accident and then killed while being transported by the authorities."
Government spokesperson Mustapha Khalfi called the HRW report "unfair", according to the state-run agency Maghreb Arabe Presse. "The report is clearly and explicitly unfair and omits the new immigration policy adopted by Morocco," he said. Khalfi said the report mentions past events that may have happened during attempts by migrants to cross to Melilla, but noted there was an ongoing investigation.
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Hundreds of people have already been granted asylum in Morocco, and the country has also facilitated access to education and healthcare for undocumented migrants.
"The migration policy in Morocco is positive. Before, refugees were not recognised by the authorities," said Marc Fawe, external relations director for UNHCR in Rabat. "If, for example, a refugee rented a place for 50 euros, and then his landlord decided to raise the rent, the refugee, even if protected by international laws, couldn't do anything."
Still, there are ongoing abuses recorded by human rights organisations, including allegations of beatings and other forms of abuse by the country's authorities, Fawe told Al Jazeera.
The campaign against racism has drawn significant support from civil society and public figures like Moroccan soccer player Aziz Bouderbala and World Cup champion Lilian Thuram. But others have called the campaign elitist and out of touch with the realities in Morocco.
Mounir Bensalah, a coordinator at the Mouvement Anfass Democratique, a group that proposes policy reforms, said it was the right time to launch the movement as expressions of racism have been on the rise.
"Discrimination against migrants, unfortunately, is real," he said. "In Morocco, racism or xenophobia aren't an ideology yet, but we must sensitise Moroccans to the dangers of such behaviours."