European lifeboats

“You can’t stop immigration by sea at sea, you can only save lives.”


The Italian Coast Guards is responsible for an area equivalent to half the Mediterranean (Photo courtesy of Juliette Keeley)

So we were told today at the headquarters of the Italian Coast Guard in Rome. While the EU is struggling for an effective political response, the Italian Coast Guard has long been dealing with the realities of migration at sea. Since 1991, 638,612 migrants at distress in the Mediterranean have been saved, thanks to search and rescue missions led by the Italian Coast Guard.

In 2015 alone, 154,018 mostly Sub-Saharan migrants paid hundreds of thousands of Euros to smugglers to board overcrowded rubber boats or fishing vessels – hardly able to make the journey from the shores of Libya, Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt or Algeria to the coasts of Lampedusa or Sicily.

Despite new technology and satellite phone equipment on many refugee boats, the sheer size of the area surveilled by the Italian Coast Guard (about half of the Mediterranean) poses a great challenge to its work, despite support from the EU’s border guard agency Frontex. Due to the lack of a Libyan rescue service and Italy’s commitment to the highest standards of humanitarian rescue at sea, Italian ships patrol off the Libya coast to rescue vulnerable migrant boats. As a rule, any boat carrying migrants is deemed worthy of rescue; if not yet in distress, they pose a significant risk to other shipping. So reliable is rescue by the Italians that smugglers typically order their passengers to call for assistance – regardless of the state of their vessel – when away from the Mediterranean’s southern coast. Unlike the images of refugees beaching on Greek shores, now all but a handful of refugees headed to Italy are rescued out at sea.

Equally impressive is the work of the Red Cross, which provides crucial assistance to refugees at the point of disembarking, including medical checks and the provision of food, water and clothes. As explained by two of its Italian representatives today, the Red Cross disregards any legal differences between a “migrant” and a “refugee” and provides assistance simply according to the need of any human being, regardless of his or her legal status.

At the same time, the Red Cross today strongly countered allegations that naval search and rescue missions, such as the “Mare Nostrum” operation in 2013 have led to an increase in migration flows. Both made it clear that migrant flows had begun in force before these rescue efforts and show no sign of abating. Our meetings, however, also made clear that migrants have to be better informed about the risks of migration and the potential myths that lead them to undertake the dangerous journey to Europe.

Johannes Laepple


The Hand that Feeds

Heavy legalistic reforms are rarely the best way to manage migration flows. Instead, two weeks in Morocco have convinced us that temporary and flexible mechanisms are needed to effectively deal with migration challenges.


The Italian Red Cross puts total emphasis on its humanist principles

With our Moroccan experience in our backpacks, we have now arrived at the European shores of the Mediterranean. Our first meetings with Italian experts have already highlighted the frustration around migration issues. Much of this stems from the lack of an effective European response to Europe’s migration crisis.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 153,052 migrants arrived in Italy by sea in the year 2015. Due to the increased operations of the coast guard and NGOs, many refugee lives – at huge risk at sea – were saved. At the same time, local NGOs as well as international organizations, such as UNHCR, Save the Children and the Red Cross are helping to receive migrants arriving by boat in Italy.

Yet the real challenges often begin after migrants have landed in Italy. Due to the Italian authorities’ inadequate efforts at integration, immigrants are soon left on their own. In theory, refugees gain the same rights as Italians, including the right to work in Italy, but the lack of sufficient financing for integration programs and insufficient information provided to migrants by Italy make such work permits useless in practice.

Most migrants are aware of their limited prospects on Italian shores. But often they know that according to the Dublin Convention they are obliged to stay in Italy if registered as a refugee upon arrival. While numbers are extremely difficult to confirm, the Italian Ministry of Interior estimates that in 2014 about 100,000 migrants slipped through the mandatory registration process in Italy in order to move on to countries like Germany, Norway or Sweden. By all accounts this seems deliberate; it is useless to place our faith in the fact that prospective asylum seeks are ignorant of EU law.

Above all, the low quality of integration in Italy has made the country a transit country, rather than one of destination. This is unlikely to change, as more integration efforts are politically sensitive. According to the IOM, however, this attitude is shortsighted. Without immigration, the Italian labor market is eventually going to collapse, due to Italy’s aging society. Already, 11-12% of Italy’s GDP is made up of immigrants, which represent only 7% of the Italian population. Migrants working in Italy currently pay 60,000 Italian pensions.

Migration fuels our future.

Johannes Laepple

Touching the ‘Other’

Responding to remarks about certain moments of subtle yet interrupted intimacy between the protagonists of Horses of God (2012), Moroccan-French filmmaker Nabil Ayouch highlighted the relationship between intimacy and space. The film tells the story of the gradual radicalization of four young men from the Sidi Moumen shanty town on Casablanca’s outskirts that took part in the co-ordinated terrorist attacks that rocked the city in May 2003.


Four Horses of God follows four young street boys on their journey towards the suicide attack they carry out

Speaking to the #InTheSameBoat team as part of our research, Ayouch highlighted the insular shantytowns of Casablanca as symptomatic of Moroccan society in general – both lacking spaces where human relationships can develop. If there is no space where a boy can tell a girl that he likes her, if there is no space for two individuals to spend time with one another, be it in public or in private, then the development of sustained and healthy intimacy is suppressed. Without this, personal and social development can only suffer, especially in a diverse society that confronts individuals with a whole spectrum of day-to-day norms.

The four young men in Horses of God all experienced poverty, injustice, violence, unemployment; but what made them particularly vulnerable to the influence of Islamic radicalization was social isolation, according to Ayouch. The fact that the shanty town residents were completely cut off from the metropolitan area of Casablanca made that space unfamiliar. By extension, it made the protagonists potentially much more vulnerable to a rhetoric that branded the city and its inhabitants as decadent infidels – the ‘Other’ par excellence.

We usually think about intimacy in terms of bodies: the phrase ‘physical intimacy’ is usually a euphemism for sex. By extension, intimacy is considered to be something found exclusively in the private sphere. Yet drawing the connection between intimacy and its correlation with the availability of space makes intimacy relevant in a social context, too. Whether in the family home or the public space of the urban environment, intimacy is fundamentally shaped by the ways in which humans are encouraged to, or deterred from, forming links with those around them.

les-chevaux-de-dieu2If we consider intimacy to be one kind of model for interpersonal relationships, then we must ask the question of what kind of space is required to foster intimacy or at least familiarity across diverse ethnic, religious, cultural or groups? If the four young men from Sidi Moumen had a link to the world outside the slum, a sense of social intimacy with the metropolis of Casablanca and its diversity, would they have been able to commit the terrorist acts they did in 2003?

This becomes particularly pertinent when talking about migration and xenophobia in Morocco but in any other country facing similar issues: if we want to imagine a multi-ethnic, multicultural society, then we also need to imagine the spaces required to foster familiarity via physical contact and interaction with the various ‘Others’. The matter then expands beyond creating opportunity in terms of socioeconomic means: it must include provisions for shared spaces, and an infrastructure that facilitates moving about and around such spaces.  

-Argyro Nicolaou

Hail to the Bus Driver


Representatives from ASGI speak with the group. Photo Courtesy of Argyro Nicolaou.

As part of a refreshing approach to the issue of migrant access to the Italian labor market, the ASGI (Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration) offered us a recommendation that is as original as it is socially progressive: give migrants and refugees jobs that make them socially visible.

While we have often heard about the suitability of agricultural jobs for migrant or refugee workers – as such work requires neither language nor cultural familiarity and since agriculture is a major economic driver in Europe – this solution seems to relegate migrant labor to a sector that has traditionally taken advantage of disenfranchised social groups and communities, with limited opportunities for development and mobility to boot. That these are ‘jobs that Italians do not want’ seems to add to the convenience offered by the proposition. The constant references to agriculture as a cookie-cutter solution to the problem of migrant labor was often brought up in our meetings in Morocco as well: in that case, the mass movement of Moroccans to urban areas only amplified the inevitability of the link between migrant workers and low-skill agricultural work.

In contrast to this, ASGI’s intervention aims to give migrants and refugees access to the kinds of jobs most readily available in Italy: civil service jobs – especially those at a local government level such as municipalities – that make up almost 50% of the country’s work positions.

By adopting a government watchdog position, ASGI is trying to make sure that the government or other public entity that offers these jobs does not discriminate against non-Italians with resident and work permits when hiring. According to Italian law a refugee or regularized migrant has virtually the same rights as a native resident of the country, bar the right to vote. To give migrants and refugees access to jobs such as nursing or driving a bus would not only push the implementation of a much-needed strategy of professional training and language learning – thereby facilitating (currently-absent) broad integration in Italy – it would also give migrants a place at the center of the Italian social structure.

No longer excluded from participating in public spaces in roles of shared social responsibility, migrants will begin to be perceived as an integral, and integrated, part of Italian society. Such a move can only help overcome the stereotypes that dominate public perceptions on immigration in Italy.

Argyro Nicolaou

Morocco’s Mirror


Outside the Ministry of Moroccan Expatriates and Migration Affairs in Rabat. Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Garbern.

One of the trickier questions our team has grappled with over the past weeks is the issue of motivation behind political action. While the answer is surely multifaceted, a theme that keeps resurfacing is Morocco’s preoccupation with global image, or as described by one interviewee, its resolve to project a “bright, shiny Morocco” to the rest of the world.

This global image takes many forms, as a protectorate of human rights, an island of political stability in the MENA region, and a hub for investment and economic activity. Large amounts of funding are reportedly spent on PR abroad, and the prioritization of image is manifested in an eager compliance with policies the external world sees as positive. Similarly, incidents that garner negative attention are an impetus for action to erase the “shame Morocco does not like to have on a global level.”

Speaking with Moroccan organizations, it seems that a consequence of this is the “co-optation” of NGOs by the government in order to project an image of progressive reform to the international community. One NGO readily admitted the organization’s role as a convenient vehicle with which the government could reference its commitment to social change. However, this NGO refuses to be exploited for the government’s gain. They made no qualms of using their relationship with the government to promote their own policy priorities in return. The result? Projecting Morocco’s image abroad might just mean looking in the mirror.

Emily Franchett


Looking Beyond the Horizon


Artist INTI’s mural in Rabat depicts the importance of Morocco to many Sub-Saharan migrants. Photo Courtesy of Juliette Keeley.

Europe likes to be the centre of attention.

This summer, rubber dinghies streaming across the Med, their passengers packed aboard like livestock, filled Europe’s front pages. All that Europeans saw was the waves of desperate humans beaching on its shores. Little thought was paid to where they had come from. Few eyes looked beyond the shores of the Mediterranean.

Morocco has never had the luxury of such ignorance.

A North African country of transit for the tens of thousands of people heading North each year, Morocco is keenly aware of where they come from. While most of Europe’s refugees this year are Syrian, the majority that Morocco sees are from Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a result, Morocco’s internal policy on migration is inextricably linked to its relations with regional governments. Rabat’s African ties have long been difficult, mainly due to its stubbornness to reconsider its sovereignty over the provinces claimed by the Polisario as the independent state of Western Sahara. As a result, Morocco remains excluded from the African Union – the continent’s foremost political body – and has long been something of an ‘island nation’ bordered by the desert, the ocean, and unfriendly neighbours.

King Mohammad VI has sought to overturn this. Aided by the void left by the fall of Libya’s eccentric dictator Muammar Gaddafi, he has made improving Morocco’s regional standing a priority. Lacking Libya’s oil reserves with which to lavish investment on the African continent, the management of Morocco’s migration flows from West Africa has become a key international bargaining chip.


ICRC’s new headquarters in Rabat opened in 2015. Photo Courtesy of Emily Franchett.

The ICRC told us they now view Morocco as a key regional influencer – a fact that played no small part in their decision to press the government for permission to open a headquarters in Rabat. For a Moroccan government keen to maintain this position, image is everything. Headlines of police abuse against economic migrants, racism against refugees and asylum-seekers trapped in bureaucratic limbo are a costly threat to Morocco’s regional status. With most migrants across its borders headed to Europe anyway – and these concentrated around the Spanish enclaves along the Mediterranean coast – Morocco’s national policy response to migration seems to only occasionally go beyond sitting back and watching. Intervention is a risky, and costly, business.

Europe has its ideas on how Morocco should manage its migration. But Morocco might just have their own.

Joseph Ataman


Struggle, Sacrifice and Subjugation


La Fondation Orient-Occident staff at their welcome center in Rabat. Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Garbern.

Visiting La Fondation Orient-Occident in Rabat today, we were introduced to selected refugees, most of whom were teenagers. After numerous meetings with NGOs and government officials prior to this point in our field course, we were eager to hear firsthand accounts of migration – the struggle, sacrifice, and subjugation that make for such a difficult topic but are at least coming from the source. There is a distance that separates a bureaucrat talking about policy and statistics from the travails of one who travels for months on end, enduring unspeakable pain, based upon the faint hope of a better life.

La Fondation Orient-Occident provides a creative outlet for individuals who have been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Rabat. Training in language and computers is available, women design clothing for fashion shows and sale, and the center is a self-styled “bridge” between East and West.


Staff from La Fondation Orient-Occident in Rabat describe the purpose of the center. Photo Courtesy of Argyro Nicolaou.

What did we hear today? Sifting through the common stories of hardship and loss and perseverance, there is a chasm between what the Moroccan government’s policies look like when presented in an official briefing and what is actually being encountered when refugees try to assimilate into the local community. Xenophobia and racism certainly exist, while job opportunities and hope for a positive future are in extremely short supply. La Fondation Orient-Occident represents a paternalism-free space for refugees to congregate and relax – an acknowledged shelter from what lies outside.

Many of the teen refugees hope for a sponsor to take them to Europe or North America. The reality is they are stuck in Morocco without work.

Something needs to change.

– Dan Cnossen

Window dressing Government


World Bank economist speaks with the group at their office in Rabat. Photo Courtesy of Argyro Nicolaou.

As highlighted during our visit to the World Bank’s office in Rabat, the local institutional environment is crucial for development. But while Morocco has pursued a policy of copy and pasting institutional templates that have succeeded elsewhere – so-called isomorphic mimicry – more deep-rooted changes are necessary.

Additionally, Morocco’s national institutional actors are arguably in a suboptimal equilibrium, with each favouring a position of mutual limited benefit rather than communal gain, causing inertia and preventing social change or hindering economic reforms.

Ultimately though, as has happened in the past, Morocco’s concern with its international image could become a main driver to pursue further economic and institutional reforms in the country, particularly with regard to its migration policies. International organizations can support this change but their neutrality is crucial in order to gain access to decision makers. Talking to the International Committee of the Red Cross they made this clear: in a country like Morocco, the form of their work is often as important as its substance.

– Johannes Laepple

The Long Road to Asylum


Staff from L’association de Droit et Justice meet with the group in Casablanca. Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Garbern.

Asylum-seekers from Syria, as well as from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa like Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali, face many barriers to asylum in Morocco. Today, we met with the director and legal staff from L’association Droit et Justice (Association of Law and Justice), a Moroccan non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting the rule of law and providing legal assistance to vulnerable populations in the country including refugees.

The lack of a law on asylum complicates the granting of refugee status in Morocco, even though the government did sign the Geneva Convention of 1951 relating to the status of refugees. Consequently, the government has an obligation to protect those that the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees considers vulnerable. In practice this doesn’t happen. Having set up their ad hoc commission to vet UNHCR refugees for eligibility – a move that the UN agency has backed as a sign of the government shouldering its responsibility – the Moroccan government is able to manage its refugee influx according to its own criteria. In recent years, Morocco has refused to accept all of those designated as refugees by UNHCR. The reason why is still unclear.


Outside the UNHCR office in Rabat. Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Garbern.

Regardless, a confirmation on the status to be given to those Syrians accepted as refugees is as yet undecided, leaving them in bureaucratic limbo, with access to education but banned from working. However with 80% of Morocco’s economy in the informal sector, these refugees have ample access to the work that they need to feed their families. Behind its administrative fortress of paper screens, the government seems happy to turn a blind eye.

A bill on asylum has now been in parliament for over two years although it is unclear when, or if, the law will be passed, adding to the confusion regarding Syrian refugee status in the country. Additionally, people fleeing conflict rarely possess the knowledge of host nations’ bureaucratic systems to even apply for asylum. This which is where local NGOs such as L’association Droit et Justice are critical in assisting people with navigating such systems.

Without them, few would care for these most vulnerable populations.

– Stephanie Garbern