North Africa’s colonial borders

by Genny Plumptre

Nearly three months into my internship at the Conseil national des droits de l’Homme (CNDH), I went on a brief trip to Ceuta, an autonomous city on the northernmost tip of Morocco. It was not until discovering the location of my internship in Rabat, Morocco (and spending many a lost study hour catapulting myself around the region on Google-street view) that I learned of Ceuta’s existence. Even from within Morocco, it is accessible only by shared taxi from Tetouan, a city some 50 kilometers away. The experience of crossing the Morocco-Ceuta border led me to reflect, as I often have this summer, on the ways that citizenship regulates access to human rights, including the right to mobility.[1]

Ceuta is one of only two territories on mainland Africa to remain under European governance. Due to its strategic importance as a military base and centre for trade, it was never relinquished by Spain during the period of North African decolonization that began in the 1950s.[2] Arriving at the land border by taxi, visitors are confronted with an immense barbed wire fence that runs along the city periphery, policed by Guardia Civil officers and Moroccan security forces. In recent years, Ceuta’s border––like that of Melilla to the east––has been the scene of violent clashes between state forces and both Moroccan and sub-Saharan migrants seeking refuge in Europe.[3]

Any non-Arabic speaking foreigner travelling to Morocco will quickly come to learn the word marhaba, meaning “welcome.” Indeed, Moroccans are experts at welcoming others into their country, whose economy depends heavily on international tourism––including a large population of Moroccan expats who return to visit their families during the summer months.[4] The ethos of hospitality that underlies interactions between nationals and non-residents comes through in daily gestures of kindness and concern, as when a work colleague whom I had scarcely met took off the necklace she was wearing––typically Moroccan, she explained after I complimented her on it, with a pattern of red and yellow beaded triangles––and insisted that I keep it. In the medina where I lived, it was not long before I felt myself part of a small ecosystem of neighbours and shopkeepers who greeted me each day on my way to and from work.

This culture of welcome finds expression not only in the strength of Morocco’s tourism industry, but also in its national migration policy. In 2013, following years of campaigning by civil society and the CNDH, the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, announced plans for a series of in-depth reforms aimed at introducing a “humanitarian approach” to migration, consistent with the country’s international commitments, such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and, more recently, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration.[5]  This changed policy orientation stands in stark contrast to the security-oriented migration discourse that predominates in the EU. Although implementation of the 2013-2014 migration policy remains incomplete, limited by other foreign policy objectives and EU pressure to control the border with Europe, it has so far led to the regularization of some 50,000 so-called “irregular” migrants.[6] It is based partly in the recognition that, if in the past Morocco primarily served as a country of transit for migrants, today it is increasingly considered as a country of destination.[7]

Despite Morocco’s historical role as physical, cultural, and political bridge between Europe and Africa, travel to Europe remains out of reach for most Moroccan citizens. The cost, delays, and complications involved in obtaining a Schengen entry visa are a source of frustration for many.[8] Since 2020, Spain has also denied its southern neighbour visa-free access to Ceuta under the pretext of ongoing, pandemic-related mobility restrictions[9]––a situation that one co-worker described as “humiliating.” Describing my “weekend away” to a friend later that week, I felt a certain embarrassment in acknowledging that, although she lives and grew up just an hour’s drive to the south, she could not have joined me on such an impromptu trip.

Ceuta itself is a beautiful and eerie place. To the north, lush cactus-strewn hills sweep into waters of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic; to the south, approaching the border check point, crowded apartment buildings house many of the city’s poorest residents, the majority of whom are Muslim, in the neighbourhood of el Principe.[10] For people on both sides of the border, the barriers to mobility are multiple––not only physical but also legal and economic. Over 65 years after Morocco’s independence, Ceuta is a reminder of the colonial boundaries that continue to sew resentment and racial inequality across Africa and worldwide, and that add to the complexity of governing a region that has long served as a place of convergence between different peoples and cultures.

[1] See Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA Res 21 (III), UNGAOR, 3rd Sess, Supp No 13, UN Doc A/810 (1948) 71, article 13.

[2] See Saïd Saddiki, World of Walls: The Structure, Roles and Effectiveness of Separation Barriers (Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2017) at 57–81.

[3] See Samir Bennis, “The reasons behind the Spanish-Moroccan crisis” (25 June 2021), online: FIKRA Forum <washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/reasons-behind-spanish-moroccan-crisis>.

[4] “Morocco” (2022), online: OECDiLibrary <oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/409d3fd2-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/409d3fd2-en>.

[5] “HM The King Delivers Speech On Occasion of 38 Anniversary of Green March”, 7 November 2013, online: The Kingdom of Morocco <maroc.ma/en/royal-speeches/hm-king-delivers-speech-occasion-38-anniversary-green-march>.

[6] See Anna Jacobs, “Morocco’s Migration Policy: Understanding the Contradiction Between Policy and Reality” (30 June 2019), online: Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis <mipa.institute/6872>.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Aurélie Colas, “A System ‘Unworthy of France’: For Moroccans, Obtaining a Visa is an Obstacle Course”, Le Monde (5 June 2022), online: <lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2022/06/05/a-system-unworthy-of-france-for-moroccans-obtaining-a-visa-is-an-obstacle-course_5985793_4.html>.

[9] See Yassine Biyad, “Nearly 11, 000 People Crossed the Borders of Ceuta-Morocco” 20 May 2022, Morocco World News, online: <moroccoworldnews.com/2022/05/349179/nearly-11-000-people-crossed-the-borders-of-ceuta-morocco>.

[10] See Marta Moroto, “The Muslim woman fighting Islamophobia in Spain’s African enclave” (19 June 2022), Middle East Eye, online: <middleeasteye.net/news/muslim-woman-fighting-islamophobia-spain-african-enclave>.

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