Syrian refugees seek sanctuary in Morocco

Hundreds of refugees have entered Morocco across the Algerian border, with many aiming to reach European shores.

Many Syrian refugees see Morocco as a jumping-off point to reach Europe [Reuters]

Rabat, Morocco – A small, worn-out building on a busy street in downtown Rabat, Hotel Africa has become a reference point for many Syrian refugees who come to the Moroccan capital. Dingy, barely furnished and quiet, the hotel is one of the cheapest options for hundreds of newly arrived Syrian refugees who have fled their war-torn home.

Hotel guest Mohammed, who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons, arrived in Morocco four months ago after a long and arduous journey from Damascus. He left behind almost all of his possessions.

“I never thought I would end up in a cheap Rabat hotel room, picking up the pieces of what’s left of a shattered life,” Mohammed, 40, told Al Jazeera. “I had to leave everything behind; even my family members are still waiting at the Lebanese-Syrian borders, because I could not afford to bring them all to such a remote country.”

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Mohammed initially left Damascus for Lebanon, where he took a plane to Egypt and then to Algeria. He entered Morocco from the Algerian border town of Maghnia, and then headed to Rabat.

Hundreds of refugees have entered Morocco across the country’s border with Algeria. While it has been officially closed since 1994, the border is porous; refugees can easily enter Morocco illegally with the help of human traffickers.

The Syrian conflict has grown in intensity and scope for more than three years, with more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced. Syrians could soon surpass Afghans as the world’s biggest refugee population, with their numbers expected to reach four million by year’s end, according to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.

The Syrian refugees are currently protected against deportation in Morocco... the government is offering its territory as a haven for Syrians, even if they have entered or are staying on Moroccan soil illegally.

by - Marc Fawe, UNHCR spokesperson

According to UNHCR-Morocco, more than 900 Syrians have registered in that country as asylum seekers. However, this number does not represent all the Syrian refugees in Morocco. “Unfortunately, there is no institution that has the exact number of Syrian refugees in Morocco based on a specific census,” agency spokesperson Marc Fawe told Al Jazeera.

Fawe said the Moroccan government plans to take over the registration of Syrian refugees from the UN with the intention of offering them temporary group protection. For that reason, UNHCR-Morocco has decided to stop the registration process.

“The Syrian refugees are currently protected against deportation in Morocco. In other words, the government is offering its territory as a haven for Syrians, even if they have entered or are staying on Moroccan soil illegally,” he said.

Dalal, 30, is from Aleppo and came to Rabat seven months ago. “Life has become unbearable in Syria. Death came in different guises. We were under siege for weeks, targeted by missiles, and we almost starved to death,” she told Al Jazeera, walking through the aisles of a Rabat supermarket with her son, Walid.

Her family took the same route as Mohammed, leaving Algeria because of the country’s complex residency rules. “We could not stay on Algerian soil more than three months, and to stay longer, we had to leave the country and [come] back again,” said Dalal, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons.

Morocco and Algeria accused each other in late January of mistreating Syrian refugees. While Morocco’s interior ministry issued a statement protesting “the rise in expulsion of Syrian refugees onto Moroccan territory by Algeria”, the latter denied the accusations and lashed out at the Moroccan media for “spreading anti-Algerian lies”.

“We just want to survive, and we want to stay out of trouble,” Dalal said.

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For many, Morocco is seen as a major jumping-off point to reach European shores. Many families attempt to enter the Spanish-occupied enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco, looking for ways to reach Europe.

“I have family in Europe and I hope I will be able to join them soon,” said 24-year-old Syrian refugee Khalid al-Ali. Originally from Homs, al-Ali said the countries of North Africa have been friendly to Syrian refugees, providing shelter for many of them. “I was luckier than many people who were stuck back home, but I am not rich to afford to live here without a job, so I need to leave as soon as possible,” he told Al Jazeera.

According to Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, more than 42,000 immigrants have arrived in the EU without authorisation, with Syrian refugees making up a large portion of these. Syrian refugees also topped the list in terms of clandestine entry, illegal stay and document fraud.

Our heritage, our past has been completely destroyed and there is no future for us.

by - Khadija, Syrian refugee

European countries have been accused of failing to provide a safe haven to Syrian refugees, with Amnesty International criticising Europe over the low numbers of refugees from Syria they are prepared to resettle. The organisation said just 55,000 Syrian refugees, or 2.4 percent of the total number of people who have fled Syria, have managed to get through and claim asylum in the EU. Germany was the recipient of the largest number of asylum applications in the region in 2013, followed by France and Sweden.

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While they wait for government assistance, Syrian refugees are supported primarily by friends and family, but many still struggle to survive.

Khadija, a 50-year-old woman from Homs, arrived in Morocco three months ago and now lives with her family in one of Rabat’s poor suburbs, sharing a house with other three Syrian families. “There is nothing left to say. Our suffering is not going to come to an end soon,” Khadija, who would not provide her real name, told Al Jazeera.

The two sides in the Syrian conflict sat down for two rounds of UN-mediated peace negotiations earlier this year, but the talks stalled, and no date has been set for a third session. Meanwhile, the violence continues.

“My family members were killed before my own eyes. Our heritage, our past has been completely destroyed and there is no future for us,” Khadija said. “The only thing that is going on full-steam in Syria for the moment is the killing machine. Our country is gone forever.”

Source: Al Jazeera