Outside a supermarket in one of Morocco's most affluent neighbourhoods, a woman begs with her hands uplifted to reveal her passport – a move that has come to distinguish Syrian refugees in Rabat. Like clockwork, right after Friday prayers end at the mosque down the street, she and other Syrian women head to the supermarket, where they pray and beg. The lives of these refugees are now determined by a routine – favoured locations, schedule, passport as testament to refugee status – despite the chaotic nature of the exodus from Syria, which has been continuing since August, 2010, and the absence of any stabilizing infrastructure to establish a place for them in Moroccan society.
Having flown 2,240 miles from the Middle East and across the length of the Mediterranean to North Africa, many Syrians had landed in Algeria because there are no visa requirements between Syria and Algeria, but left due to lack of opportunities. From Algeria, they walked through the Oujda border into Morocco – ironically, in search of more opportunities.
But like many other refugees fleeing to Morocco, including West Africans, they have encountered a dearth of policies and a set of systems completely detached from the reality of Morocco's influx of refugees – some of whom want to settle in Morocco and many of whom hope to take advantage of Morocco's proximity to Europe, a few miles across the Mediterranean.
She and others like her can be seen throughout Rabat and surrounding areas, in front of supermarkets, mosques, and restaurants. They follow their routes from their working-class neighbourhoods to the mosque and supermarket and back resolutely. The converge in parking lots to discuss their routes and schedules and break apart to beg again, while sharing stories of their hardships with passersby. With families at home and no assistance, they have no choice but to repeat their routes on the weekend. In a country that has left the responsibility of providing refugee social services to chance charitable impulses, the ant-like labour of survival has become essential for their community.
Over the years, Morocco has been urged to reform its asylum and migration policy, and indeed last September the government announced a new system in accordance with international standards that would examine cases individually and offer legal status to undocumented migrants. In response, thousands of migrants lined up in Rabat to file their application last month.
But despite improvement, stories of Syrian refugees being shunted back and forth by security forces from both sides of the Algerian and Moroccan border emerged only last month. In addition, a Human Rights Watch report this month, albeit focusing solely on sub-Saharan migrants, claims that despite some improvement since September, Moroccan authorities still expel migrants and refugees without due process. Moreover, they have not established reception centres for asylum seekers to ensure that basic needs are met.
Since 2004, when the refugee office was eliminated, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been the sole agency to recognize refugees as such, to distinguish them from asylum seekers and other migrants. But recognition of refugee status by UNHCR has no official weight for national authorities. Not since 2004 has Morocco had an administrative body to ensure that recognized refugees are protected and provided with temporary residence and the necessary documents to live, work and study in Morocco.
Thus, when it comes to assistance from the Moroccan government or associations, it is not hard to believe Syrian refugees when they claim they have seen none. Having few resources and no work documents, they have had to rely on handouts on the street, mosque donations, and each other.
They have access to an existing network of other refugees with whom they come to share housing, contacts and experience. After all, UNHCR doesn't even have a current estimate of Syrian refugees in Morocco (it stopped registering them in January of last year, but has recorded the number of Syrian asylum-seekers at 913. None have been granted asylum).
In total, there are 2.5 million registered Syrian refugees internationally, but this doesn't account for asylum-seekers and unregistered refugees. Women and children make up more than 80 per cent of this population. The UNHCR has registered 141,000 Syrians in North Africa, about 127,000 of them in Egypt.
A collection of NGOs and governments working together to organize refugee and migrant flows belies the reality of an exodus of desperate migrants who are forced to manage the tumult of urban resettlement mostly on their own. Without the most basic needs to sustain themselves – starting with documentation to reside and work in Morocco – Syrian refugees have mobilized to create order out of the chaos. Even though they are quite visible in here in Rabat – many residents can identify where the refugees live, gather, and beg – they are relegated to legal obscurity.
Like other undocumented communities, they resort to informal channels to survive. One man worked on a hashish farm before it was raided by police; now he works in one of Rabat's Syrian restaurants, which looked the other way when it was time to verify his papers. Another sells vegetables in a street stall and tries to escape police notice as much as he can. He and his wife have applied for asylum but their children remain out of school without proper documentation. They, like many other refugee families, share housing with other Syrian refugees in the same predicament – struggling to survive despite the lack of a refugee and asylum infrastructure.
Nahrain Al-Mousawi is a writer and academic based in Rabat, Morocco.