by Simon MARTELLI
TANGIERS, Morocco- In a cluster of white-washed houses on Morocco’s north coast, newly-arrived Syrian families have found shelter thousands of miles from their ruined homeland but are struggling to rebuild their lives.
Since the summer, more and more Syrians have crossed from Algeria into Morocco without visas, part of the massive displacement caused by a conflict now thought to have killed more than 115,000 people and created the worst refugee crisis in nearly two decades.
Rabat has yet to offer the Syrians refugee status. This means that while their presence is tolerated, they remain illegal immigrants with no right to work or enrol their children in Moroccan state schools.
Abdelkader, 36, used to work in a dental clinic in Damascus but fled with his wife and children four months ago, after an assault on their rebel-held area by Syrian troops. He said they hanged his neighbour “because he was Sunni.”
Last month he left his family in Lebanon and travelled to Morocco via Algeria, to rent an apartment and look for work.
But when he started enquiring about jobs, the police told him he needed to obtain refugee status from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) because he didn’t have a visa.
“I came here to look for work because I couldn’t afford to stay in Lebanon. It was costing me 50 dollars per day,” said the father of four, surrounded by other young Syrians hanging around outside their temporary homes on the Tangiers seafront.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do next. My family can’t come because they don’t have passports and we have no money.” He says returning to Syria is inconceivable. “There is nothing there now. People are eating grass.” No work, no money, no future
Abdelkader’s experience is shared by other Syrians, haunted by the horrors of war and finally welcomed into Morocco at the end of a difficult and uncertain journey.
Until they are recognized as refugees and allowed to find work to support their families, they cannot envisage staying here, but there are few alternatives.
Mohamed, 50, arrived in Tangiers two months ago from Algeria with his wife and seven children, and lives in a crowded apartment on the sixth floor of a building now inhabited by more than a dozen Syrian families.
His sparsely furnished sitting room has a television set tuned into a Syrian channel reporting on the conflict and a balcony with a tantalising view of southern Spain, whose mountains are clearly visible across the Strait of Gibraltar.
“I’ve asked for a visa but got no response. So there’s no work and no money. The people are kind and bring us food. But there’s no future here,” says the former clothes salesman from the central Syrian city of Homs.
Like numerous other recent arrivals, Mohamed initially took his family to Cairo after fleeing the fighting. But he says life became difficult for Syrians after the Egyptian army overthrew president Mohamed Morsi in July — people assumed they were linked to Syria’s Islamist rebels and supported Egypt’s deposed Islamist leader — so he and his family left for Algeria.
The UNHCR has no figures for the number of Syrian refugees living in Morocco, having stopped registering them in January, but until then it says 843 Syrians had requested asylum status. None of the requests were granted.
The UNHCR’s country representative Marc Fawe says the agency has been discussing the issue with the Moroccan authorities for months, but the registration process is currently “on standby.” “We hope it will resume,” he said.
Fawe says Morocco’s desire to help the Syrian people is demonstrated by its funding of a military field hospital at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan since July 2012 and its tolerance of Syrian nationals in the country. “But it is true to say that a specific programme for the assistance and protection of Syrian nationals is lacking in Morocco today.” Begging for help.
In the absence of any such support programme, or income, Syrian refugees can increasingly be seen begging outside mosques and supermarkets.
At one mosque in Tangiers built by the existing Syrian community in the 1970s, refugees started coming to ask for money about a year ago, especially on Fridays, always showing their passports to prove they are Syrians.
Often the men go into the mosque to pray, while the women and children stay outside to beg. Mohammed, 38, came to Morocco from Algeria two weeks ago with his wife and six children, and moved to Rabat, where he says he depends on the nearby mosque for support.
At the modest Afriquiya hotel in downtown Rabat where they are staying along with 17 other Syrian families, washing hangs out to dry on the balconies and children play on the pavement next to a tram station.
The former shopkeeper from Aleppo says he knows Syrians who have been in Morocco for seven or eight months and still haven’t managed to be seen by the UNHCR.
“Why do they let us into the country but don’t give us a visa or a place to stay? This is the only hotel that would help us. If the mosque didn’t give us money we’d be on the streets.”