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How African migrants in the two regions are treated is determined by a number of factors, which should be examined for comprehensive understanding, including the domestic political and economic conditions in the host state, relations between neighbouring countries and the sending state, and relations between the migrants and the local population


States in the Middle East and North African (MENA) regions are primarily considered to be senders of migrants, despite the fact that they are also becoming countries of settlement for African migrants. This phenomenon is a direct result of the increasingly stringent border controls enacted by Western states since the end of the Cold War (de Hass 2007, Adepoju et al 2009, Fargues 2009, Szmagalska-Follis 2011). The International Organization for Migration (IOM) calls these former transit states ‘countries of settlement by default,’ implying that the new receiving countries consider permanent or semi-permanent migration to be undesirable. Generally, destination countries – otherwise referred to as ‘immigrant receiving’ countries or ‘traditional countries of settlement’ – have been Western states.[1] While these countries can be welcoming of migrants once they manage to penetrate a Western state’s border, in order to prevent unwanted migrants from doing so, Western states have found new means of fortifying their territories over the last two decades, including physical barricades, biometric scanning systems and special zones established for policing illegal migrants within the territory of another state.

Despite this pattern of increasing securitization, migrants continue to depart from their home states, though few are able to reach Europe or their desired destination country due to the prohibitive financial cost and risk of danger (de Haas 2007). Additionally, the price of a return journey via the same migratory route is often too high, or the opportunities available in a migrant’s home country are too limited for this option to be desirable. Consequently, many migrants choose the best available solution: remaining in transit states for an indefinite period of time. For many African migrants, these new destination countries are located in the MENA region.

For example, Egypt, the most populous state in the Arab world, attracts migrants because of its sizeable United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) presence[2] as well as private sponsorship programs to Canada, Australia, and the United States (Grabska, 2006). This resettlement system constitutes a strong pull factor for those who want to be resettled, attracting migrants primarily from Horn of Africa countries. Yet the post-9⁄11 measures taken by Western countries to tighten control at their borders and to contain migration has meant that the number of resettled migrants from Egypt are relatively small: an average of only 3,000 per year (Kagan, 2011).[3] Migrants to Egypt are thus particularly affected by the minimizing of legal refugee resettlement programs.

Like Egypt, Morocco has long been viewed as a country of transit. For approximately five decades it has served as the final transit country on one of the most popular routes for migrants from Africa en route to Europe. But due to the increasing difficulty and cost of reaching Europe, Morocco itself has become an option for Sub-Saharan African migrants. Several tens of thousands have settled in cities like Tangiers, Casablanca, and Rabat on a semi-permanent basis (de Hass and Nijmegen 2005). Both Egypt and Morocco are therefore among those countries affected by the increased stringency of Western migration regimes. These policies are causing a build-up of stocks of migrants in countries that were once viewed as temporary routes of passage for East African and West African migrant flows. While both Morocco and Egypt are experienced migrant-senders and have policies in place for managing the emigration of nationals, they have little experience with receiving or integrating migrants.


What kind of treatment toward African migrants can we expect to see in these new countries of settlement? If previous behavior is any indication, one might expect wholly negative treatment. The Egyptian government’s engagement with its African migrant population over the last two decades has been one of ambivalence punctuated by incidences of violence or exclusion, depending on the migrant group in question and the time period. One of the most extreme examples of violent policies toward migrants was the massacre of 26 Sudanese migrants by Egyptian security forces after refusing to disband a protest outside the UNHCR offices in the upper-class Cairo neighborhood of Mohandiseen in 2006 (Salih 2006). The Egyptian state will also periodically deport politically active African migrants if it considers them a threat to state security.

Morocco also has a history of violence toward African migrants and a long track record of complying with the requests of European countries for enhanced border security policies (Boubakri 2013). France and Spain are Morocco’s most important trading partners, with France receiving one third of Morocco’s exports and providing one fourth of its imports, and Spain receiving one eighth and providing ten percent (Arango and Martin 2005). Pressure from these two countries regarding enhanced migrant policing dates back to at least the early 2000s, but since the end of 2011 the Moroccan government has carried out a visible increase in internal policing and border security, supported and encouraged by European states in order to combat, ‘cross-border crime, illegal immigration and the trafficking of drugs and weapons’ (Médecins Sans Frontières 2013). This has resulted in a dramatic rise in wide-scale, indiscriminate raids on sub-Saharan migrant communities in Morocco, with daily raids carried out on communities in the Algerian border region and specific suburbs of cities including Rabat, Casablanca, Fes and Tangiers (ibid). The sub-Saharan migrants that are arrested during these raids are taken at night en masse to the border of Morocco and Algeria and expelled into the ‘no-man’s land’ separating the two countries.


What explains this type of state behavior toward African migrants in MENA states? Is it the singularist nature of MENA states that is exclusionary toward non-Muslims or non-Arabs? Singularism refers to the idea that the state community is constituted by a single and specific collective identity, and that the state is the embodiment of that identity (Butenschon 2000). Most of the countries in the MENA region embody a specific type of singularism: the Islamic state. In these countries, religion and the state overlap in various capacities (Brown 2002). With the exception of Syria, Lebanon and Turkey (and, of course, Israel), MENA countries declare Islam to be the state religion and Islamic law serves as a source – and sometimes the principal source – of law (Brown et al 2006).

However, even in states where Islam is specifically mentioned in the constitution, the Islamic character of the state is in tension with other schools of thinking; namely, pan-Arabism and the modern, secular conception of the nation-state. Pan-Arabism refers to the idea that each individual Arab country belongs to a larger ‘Arab nation,’ and was a prominent ideology at various points and in various forms throughout the twentieth century. And yet another school of thought, that of ‘regionalism,’ rejects the idea of pan-Arabism and asserts that the modern division of the Arab world into nation-states, and the subsequent rise of individual country-level nationalism (for example ‘Egyptian-ness’), is the defining feature of modern Arab countries (Abu-Sahlieh 1996).

Why do these different conceptions matter for migrants residing in them? As Abu-Sahlieh (1996) asserts, if a purely Islamic conception of the state is adopted then each Muslim is part of the Islamic ummah (‘nation’) and can travel wherever he or she wants in dar al-islam (the land of Islam), benefiting from the same rights as other Muslims. If the concept of pan-Arabismism is adopted, then Arab citizens benefit from rights that non-Arabs cannot have since they are considered to be foreigners. Lastly, if the modern concept of the nation-state is adopted, only the citizens of the state can benefit from all the rights and the others are considered as foreigners whatever their religion (ibid). Abu-Sahlieh (1996) argues that while the concept of the modern nation-state appears to have triumphed in regards to citizenship and residence, elements of the other two schools of thought are also present and persistently in tension with each other. For example, some Arab countries give preference in terms of naturalization to those who adhere to Islam, and some, such as Egypt, provide special rules for co-ethnics, or other Arabs (Parolin 2009).

If the Islamic or the regional conceptions of Arab states dominate in terms of legislation and policy toward outsiders, does this mean that African migrants will necessarily face exclusionary policies while residing in MENA states? I argue – no. There are two recent instances in both the Egyptian case and the Moroccan case that demonstrate the importance of a number of factors in determining policies toward migrants, not simply the religious or cultural character of the state alone.


The first is the case of Syrian refugees in Egypt. When Syrians began arriving en mass in 2012, former President Mohamed Morsi extended a relatively warm reception to Syrian refugees, in comparison to the country’s longer-standing population of Africans. Morsi announced in September of 2012 that all Syrian refugee children residing in Egypt would be able to enroll in public schools regardless of their UNHCR status, a service not extended to all refugee groups, and also allowed them access to public health facilities. It seems plausible to think that this demonstrated preference for Syrian as opposed to African migrants is related to the pervasive idea of a common Arab lineage, and support on behalf of the Egyptian populace for co-ethnic or co-religious migrants.

However, former President Mohamed Morsi’s rhetoric regarding Syria points more to an Islamic and sectarian ideology than one based on co-ethnic affinities. As clearly demonstrated just prior to his ousting, Morsi supported Syrian oppositional forces to the point of cutting diplomatic ties with the Bashar al-Assad government. On 15 June 2013, two weeks before the military coup, Morsi announced at a mass rally in Cairo that he would be closing the Syrian embassy in Egypt and that, ‘the Egyptian people and army are supporting the Syrian uprising’ (Al-Ahram 2013). Vocalizing support for Syrians was therefore a means of bolstering Morsi’s own support among Islamic factions within Egypt.

Following the military coup on 3 July 2013, Syrian refugees were again used by political leaders, but in a very different fashion. While technically the special treatment–healthcare and access to primary education–extended to Syrian refugees under former President Mohamed Morsi was upheld by the subsequent military government, the de facto treatment changed dramatically. Syrian refugees became the subjects of a government-organized media campaign that refered to them as ‘terrorists’ who were allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Mohamed Morsi’s supporters. Between July and December 2013, Human Rights Watch documented over 1,500 cases of prolonged detainment of Syrian refugees, as well as hundreds of cases of coerced refoulement, or forced return to Syria (Human Rights Watch 2013).

Egyptian activists argued that Syrians became ‘easy targets’ through which the military government could bolster its security state. Under former President Mohamed Morsi, policies toward Syrian refugees were used to garner further support among Islamic factions in Egypt by demonstrating an affinity with revolutionary groups in Syria. Under the post-coup leadership, exclusionary policies toward Syrians, under the label ‘state security measures,’ were used to sustain an existing climate of fear toward outsiders in order to further legitimize the actions of the military. The post-coup treatment of Syrian refugees demonstrates that co-ethnic affinity does not necessary lead to accommodating policies toward foreigners, and that African migrants are not the only group to have been subjected to such treatment in Egypt.

The second case relates to a recent political development in Morocco regarding migrants. In a meeting on 10 September 2013 between King Mohammed VI and several political officials, there was discussion of drafting a new ‘comprehensive policy on immigration’ that will attempt to normalize the situation of all migrants in Morocco, whether from Sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere (Lebbar 2013). That there was use of the term ‘integration’ during the meeting, and thus acknowledgement that these migrants will not be returning to their home countries in the near future, is substantive. However, the King’s Office also noted in its press statement that it would not be able to provide integration for ‘all’ migrants wishing to settle in the country. However, the statement denied the use of ‘systematic violence by the police,’ directly contravening the findings of the final report released by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) before the group shut down its Moroccan operations in March of 2013 in objection to the violence. Lastly, in parallel to asylum law, Moroccan authorities announced a process of regularization for six categories of irregular migrants, including humanitarian cases, persons married with Moroccan nationals for more than two years and their children or migrants able to prove that they live in Morocco for more than five years (UNHCR 2013).

This meeting on a new immigration policy and its promises for major reform may yet prove to simply be ‘cheap talk’ in the face of allegations over migrant abuse emanating from various NGOs, as the Moroccan government does not have a history of being particularly receptive to the requests of migrant-focused international organizations. Yet it is possible that the pressure that King Mohammed VI felt following Morocco’s ‘silent’ revolution of 2011 to maintain economic and social order in Morocco can explain his willingness to discuss immigration policy reform and the recommendations of NGOs. In Morocco, local civil society has been able to work in conjunction with migrant organizations and international organization, perhaps playing a role in bringing the issue of migration to the forefront. This may have helped make the plight of migrants inextricable from the plight of Moroccan citizens more generally, and helped place the issue of migration within the narrative of social change that has been the focus of Moroccan civil society since the revolution of 2011.


Both of these cases demonstrate that the treatment of African migrants in MENA states is not determined wholly by African origin alone. The Egyptian case shows that migrants of Arab origin, specifically Syrian refugees, have also been subjected to exclusionary and violent treatment by the Egyptian state, while the Moroccan case demonstrates that Arab governments may be willing to consider accommodating policies toward African migrants if incentives to do so exist. Overall, it is evident that we must take into account several factors –domestic political and economic conditions in the host state, relations with neighboring countries and the sending state, and relations between African migrants and the local population – if we hope to develop a comprehensive theory that is able to explain the treatment of African migrants residing on a semi-permanent basis in MENA states.

* Kelsey P. Norman is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at the University of California, Irvine. Her dissertation work examines migrants to Egypt, Morocco and Turkey, and her writing has appeared in Jadaliyya, The Postcolonialist, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, and the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism (CIHA) blog.


[1] Southern European countries like Italy and Spain are sometimes considered recent or non-traditional destination countries, through I group them together with other European countries because, a) they less recently became receivers of migrants than MENA states, and b) they share liberal-democratic features that makes them qualitatively more similar to other Western migrant-receiving countries than to MENA states.
[2] The UNHCR office in Cairo serves as both the Egyptian office and the headquarters for the region.
[3] According to Kagan (2011), the UNHCR resettled very few refugees from Egypt throughout the 19990s, often fewer than 300 annually. Kagan notes, “In 1998 the UNHCR increased resettlement to 1,364, up from 196 the year before, reaching an eventual peak of 4,110 in 2004. However, in 2004, the UNHCR suspended RSD for Sudanese, and for the next two years, the UNHCR resettled between 1000 and 2000 refugees per year. Then, in 2007 the number of refugees resettled by the UNHCR dropped to 443 and fell below 200 in 2008. In 2009 UNHCR resettled 712 (mostly Iraqis), and 671 in 2010” (ibid, 27).


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20. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 2013b. Morocco Newsletter – November 2013. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).



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