French minister’s “slip of the tongue” unleashes torrent of discussions over race and diversity in France.
On March 21, in downtown Rabat, Morocco, activists with GADEM, a group in support of refugees, held a press conference to announce the launching of the “first trans-Maghrebian campaign against racism“.
Volunteers, representing various associations supporting GADEM’s effort distributed fliers, T-shirts and hung yellow and black banners with the slogan “Ni Oussif, Ni Azzi, Baraka et Yezzi” (Neither Slave, Nor Negro, Stop That’s Enough), a statement highlighting the racial epithets hurled at blacks in North Africa.
This initiative, launched on the International Day Against Racism, comes two years after GADEM launched a similar campaign “Masmiytich Azzi”, (My Name is Not Negro), focused strictly on Morocco, and trying to gain legal status there for sub-Saharan migrants. This new campaign aims more broadly.
Focus on migration
With Western and Arabic-language media largely focused on migration from the Middle East into the eastern Mediterranean, the current initiative hopes to raise awareness of continuing sub-Saharan migration into North Africa and the western Mediterranean.
“The status of blacks in North Africa is shaped by regional trends,” says Khadija Souary, a researcher at GADEM.
Morocco has made the most advances in terms of developing a policy to deal with sub-Saharan migration, largely due to the activism of civic associations.
“Whether documented or undocumented, sub-Saharan migrants are subject to discrimination – and often, if there is a surge in violence in Libya, or a crackdown by police in Morocco, migrants will flee to Algeria or Tunisia and so on. So we are trying to coordinate across borders.”
According to a press release, this three-month campaign – which will include cultural activities in various North African cities – aims to combat “all forms of racial discrimination in the Maghrebian [public] space, between nationals, but especially towards migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa”, and intends to pressure governments in the Maghreb to adopt legislation “criminalising all forms of racial discrimination”.
“We are trying to educate the public, and we are starting with language and terminology – showing how inappropriate terms such as ‘azi’, ‘kahlouch’, ‘mon-ami’ are,” says Souary. “We realise that the term sub-Saharan can be problematic – and a distraction from simply saying black – but for now we are speaking of ‘sub-Saharan’ migration.”
According to the International Organisation for Migration, there are an estimated 100,000 sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco and more than half a million in Libya. In recent years, anti-racism activists in the Maghreb have made uneven progress.
Legacies of slavery
While activists in Rabat were holding a press rally, the Afro-Tunisian activist Saadia Mosbah – who heads the association M’nemti – was leading a caravan across southern Tunisia, trying to spark a national conversation about racial discrimination and legacies of slavery.
Mosbah notes that it is ironic that Tunisia, which abolished slavery in 1846 – before France or the United States – today has a liberal constitution (adopted in 2014) which does not define discrimination, or protect minority rights, or call for Afro-Tunisian representation in parliament.
In Algeria, the debate about discrimination has centered more on the Amazigh rights (culminating in recent constitutional reforms that recognised Tamazight as an official language), than on discrimination against Afro-Algerians and sub-Saharan migrants.
The organisers of the “Neither Slave, Nor Negro” campaign are keenly aware of the challenges facing them in Mauritania, where slavery has created deep social rifts, and in Libya, where the current conflict has devastated civil society.
Morocco has made the most advances in terms of developing a policy to deal with sub-Saharan migration, largely due to the activism of civic associations. In January 2014, following a report issued by the kingdom’s National Council for Human Rights, the Moroccan government began a process of “regularisation”, providing residency and identity cards to migrants. Two political parties – the Istiqlal, and the Authenticity and Modernity Party – are also purportedly developing legislation to amend Article 431, the section of the national penal code that deals with discrimination.
Influx of refugees
Yet the influx of Syrian and sub-Saharan refugees has also created a political backlash. In late February, four city councillors affiliated with the National Rally of Independents party, whose president is the Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar – issued a statement describing Syrians and sub-Saharan refugees in the southern town of Tiznit as invaders and “social disasters”, and calling for their expulsion.
While the letter was denounced as “irresponsible” by human rights groups, the episode indicates that parliamentary support for stronger anti-racism legislation in Morocco will be difficult to achieve.
Moreover, note activists, Moroccan state media have refused to broadcast the video “Bledi Bladek” (My Country, Your Country) developed by the late photographer Leila Alaoui, in which sub-Saharan migrants in various cities across Morocco, describe the indignities that they face daily.
The current campaign aims to jump-start public discourse and embarrass authorities into addressing the plight of migrants.
“The regularisation process is good, but the problem is there is little communication between Moroccan youth and migrant youth,” says Eric William, a Cameroonian migrant who heads ALECMA, an organisation based in the working class neighbourhood of Takaddoum in the Moroccan capital that highlights the plight of migrants.
“There are Syrian refugees in Takaddoum, but there is little dialogue between us and them. In 2013-2014, the Ministry of Youth helped us launch a basketball programme called Morocco Playground that brought together youth from different neighbourhoods. We’re hoping this campaign will generate more programmes like that.”
Hisham Aidi is a Harlem-based writer. He teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.