Doing migrant solidarity at the time of Covid-19
Updated: Aug 13
This paper discusses migrant solidarity in Morocco, drawing on long-term work with migrants of different nationalities from Western and Central African countries residing in Morocco as well as on migrant solidarity activism in the country. Many of these people on the move arrived in Morocco with a plan on continuing their journeys to the European continent. But they ended up staying in Morocco because of enhanced border control measures and outsourcing of the European Union’s borders to the African continent (e.g. Andersson 2014; Casas-Cortes, Cobarrubias & Pickles 2015).
Along these ‘fragmented journeys’ (Colley 2007), people on the move have organised different practices of ‘circumstantial solidarities’ (Bredeloup 2013) . These are based on the shared precarity mounting to daily struggles for survival, including shared places of residence in makeshift campsites and crowded apartments. Since the visible migrant protest from 2005 onwards, they have also formed more established associations and organisations (e.g. Üstübici 2016). These latter influenced the new migration policy in Morocco, in the making since 2013. They were active and indispensable contributors in public debate and specialized commissions, and had direct contacts with broader migrant community.
However, since August 2018 there has been a severe backlash against migrants’ rights activism in the country (e.g. Kynsilehto 2019). This evolving context where the global pandemic has posed additional challenges, both immediately and potentially in the long-term has highlighted persistent structural issues. These relate to migrants’ access to rights such as healthcare, food and accommodation that have become all the more precarious during the Covid-19 pandemic; but also the migrant solidarity movement’s possibility to testify and denounce violations by the authorities when these steps are increasingly criminalized.
Global health crisis contributing to broader social crisis
With the outbreak of Covid-19 in Morocco, all the country was locked down. The sudden closing of the whole country created uncertainty of what could happen. Even of how to best survive in the midst of global health crisis and, very simply, where and how to find relevant information as regards to measures in place.
Migrant communities were particularly affected by this uncertainty as at first relevant information was distributed in Arabic, such as in the government web page devoted to the pandemic. This was where migrant organisations stepped in by seeking to map those in need of specific support, such as lone mothers, families with small children and pregnant women.
At the same time, information on the pandemic and the measures in place to contain it was quickly translated into different languages in order to inform everyone. Serge Aimé Guemou, the president of the French-speaking umbrella organisation 'Conseil des Migrants Subsahariens au Maroc' (CMSM), distributed a video and written message on the measures everyone needs to remember during the pandemic (Guemou 2020). An important one of these was the permission needed to justify any outdoors activity such as grocery shopping or visit to a health centre.
Earlier Mr. Guemou had also reminded migrant community leaders of this possibility when seeking to reach out to the most vulnerable individuals (personal communication, 21 March 2020). Hence, the first obstacle to be mounted was the overall restriction on mobility, and understanding what was permitted as reasons for moving about.
Despite different projects and measures put in place over the years in order to enable migrants’ access to health care, this remains problematic. Not only in terms of the present pandemic but also during times of the ‘old normal’. Regular check-ups on permanent diseases or follow-up of pregnancies have been halted. Registered migrants have, in paper, access to universal healthcare (RAMED) reserved for all those with low income (Akhnif, Macq & Meessen 2019).
This system has, however, been unevenly accessible for migrants even in normal times, prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic. For example, health care centres may have asked for a valid residence permit in the original version, and refused entry for prospective patients whose residence permits were being renewed - a notoriously lengthy process.
Moreover, the support measure of some 800 to 1200 dirhams for low income families during the Covid-19 lockdown and resulting practical unemployment concerns only those migrants who had been able to have a valid RAMED card at the end of 2019. This according to Moroccan sociologist and migrants’ rights activist Mehdi Alioua.(El Ouardighi 2020).
Access to work has become impossible for many daily laborers during the lockdown resulting in de facto unemployment and complete lack of revenue. It has thus impacted in many ways, the migrants and the communities they form. Lack of income makes it difficult, even impossible to pay rent for the shared apartments and rooms; and creates shortages of food, leading to hunger crisis that migrant solidarity groups try to alleviate the best they can (El Ouardighi 2020).
Moroccan associations mobilized swiftly to support of migrants (Yabiladi 2020). Soup kitchens and other forms of collectively organised solidarity put in place in times of crisis prior to the present pandemic, for example in Greece under the austerity measures and the so-called refugee crisis in Europe (e.g. Rozakou 2016), have needed to adapt to the changed context of social distancing.
For migrant groups, some of which organised according to nationality, lack of income has created an additional problem. The activities of these community groups rely largely on small contributions ('cotisations') of all members, which it has become extremely difficult for the members to contribute. For this reason, independent allies and funders stepping in from outside would be warmly welcome.
Health emergency enabling further criminalisation of solidarity
Morocco provides an unfortunate example of how emergency measures undertaken because of the global pandemic, can serve as an excuse for restricting individual freedoms - beyond the necessary precautions due to the need to contain and stop the global health crisis.
In the context of migrant solidarity, the case of human rights activist Omar Naji provides an important example. Resident of Nador, the emblematic border town shouldering the Spanish city of Melilla, Naji has been involved in migrants’ rights activism for many years. Naji reminded Moroccan authorities of their duties vis-à-vis foreigners and denounced publicly their excessive use of force during frequent raids and mass arrests and subsequent forced removals. He was arrested and accused for posting this kind of information in social media, under the pretext of recent regulation forbidding such activity.
This regulation was passed in haste and in secrecy under the state of emergency due to Covid-19. It has remained unclear what possible connection this interdiction would have for doing anything to the health crisis - however, it has been immediately implemented. It is clear, that this example of Moroccan authorities’ attack on a well-known migrants’ rights activist attests to remain alert to states’ attempts to use the health emergency to implement control measures that go beyond health concerns in order to silence critical voices.
As the above suggests, the present pandemic highlights the inequality among different populations and persisting structural problems people on the move face in their country of settlement. As a first step forward, there is a collective call from migrant activists across North Africa and beyond - being able to access a regular residence status - is a primordial requirement for accessing other fundamental rights.
This became clear, for example, in the webinar organised by 'Maghreb Social Forum' on the 30 May, 2020, addressing the additional challenges Covid-19 poses to migrants without regular migration status in the country they reside. This was one amongst many recent collective online meetings. They offer an exchange across countries and regions, and a possibility for collective mobilisations in times of crisis that impedes international mobility.
At this time they are a necessity for this global health emergency. They may also offer further learning opportunities for movements that rely on in person meetings where it is difficult for those with limited access to (international) mobility to take part.
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Anitta Kynsilehto is Senior Researcher at the New Social Research -programme and Tampere Peace Research Institute, Tampere University, Finland. She works on global mobility and solidarity activism with people on the move, and her publications include Gender and Mobility: A Critical Introduction (with Elina Penttinen), published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. In 2012-2018, she served as board member of EuroMed Rights -network as the person in charge of migration and asylum. anitta.kynsilehto AT tuni.fi