The Belgian organization Bouworde has canceled its volunteering projects in Morocco, based on the advice of the Belgian Embassy in Rabat.
Rabat – Bouworde has been working in the Taroudant region of Morocco for more than 15 years, sending groups of young volunteers from Belgium to work on infrastructure projects like water canals, schools, and a women’s center in the area.
However, following significant media attention in Morocco this week, the organization has chosen to cancel its upcoming volunteering projects.
On Saturday, Moroccan media shared videos and photos of a group of young Belgian volunteers from Bouworde building a road in the remote village of Adar, east of Agadir. The initiative earned praise for the girls from people across Morocco.
However, the girls’ attire, short shorts, also attracted strong criticism.
“[…] Their heads should be cut off so that no one else dares to challenge the teachings of our religion,” a 26 year old teacher from northern Morocco wrote about the girls in a Facebook group of more than 500,000 teachers.
The National Judicial Police, in coordination with the Directorate General of Territorial Surveillance (DGST), responded to the comment quickly, arresting the teacher on Tuesday, August 6, for inciting terrorism.
Morocco takes terrorist threats seriously, particularly following the murder and beheading of two Scandinavian tourists in the Atlas mountains late last year.
A parliamentary member of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) Ali El Asri also criticized the group. “Since when do Europeans do construction work in swimwear?”
He also suggested the group’s volunteer initiative had an ulterior motive.
“Is it humanitarian or does it have other goals, bearing in mind the region is still well known for its conservatism and intolerance towards westernisation and nudity?” he said.
The president of Tiwizi, an association from the Taroudant region that works in partnership with Bouworde, responded to the comments, expressing his support for Bouworde and emphasizing the positive relationship between the volunteers and the people of Adar.
In response to the threat of beheading, Hassan Ait Addi, the association’s president said: “That extremist does not know anything about the region, nor about the suffering of the population,” reported Moroccan news channel Goude.
Ait Addi also commented on the controversial Facebook post by PJD member El Asri. “I want to tell him that you do not understand anything and you don’t deserve a place in the parliament,” Ait Addi said.
Advice from the Belgian Embassy in Rabat
Bouworde sought advice from the Belgian Embassy in Rabat. According to the organization’s press release yesterday, the embassy assured the organization that the safety of the volunteers who are currently in Morocco was guaranteed by the government, and by the presence of the Moroccan police.
However, according to the press release, the embassy advised the organization not to allow a new group of volunteers to go to Morocco “under the current circumstances and given the large “publicity” of the case through the press and social media.”
“We will of course follow that advice. This is why Bouworde decided to cancel all subsequent camps in Morocco,” the organization adds.
When contacted by Morocco World News, the Belgian embassy did not provide further comment in relation to whether they had provided advice to the organization, and the nature of any advice, if provided. The embassy directed all queries to the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels.
The Ministry’s deputy spokesperson in Brussels, Nadia Benini recognized that the matter had drawn significant controversy, but told Morocco World News that the Ministry “did not have any specific advice on this matter.”
“We do refer back to our online travel warning page, which does say there is a real risk of terrorism against individuals” she told Morocco World News
“But it is up to the organization to see how they will address this matter. We imagine they may have chosen to leave following all of the media attention,” she explained.
Morocco has not issued any official comment.
Bouworde has given the volunteers the opportunity to return to Belgium early. Three out of the 37 volunteers have so far opted to go home.