“We know that living in another man's country without papers is not acceptable, and we know that things are difficult for everyone ... but we are human, we are crying for help.”
The COVID-19 outbreak is ongoing in Morocco and the summer sun is scorching, but you still see them in the streets begging for money, with dirty, overworn face masks or no masks at all. Single mothers, hopeless fathers, young girls and boys, and even barefoot children—sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco are facing the same struggle.
“My house is gone,” says Hadgey, a migrant from Cote d’Ivoire. “They used to come to my house and threaten me, because I owe them two months, and I had no money to pay them.”
Paying the rent has become a heavy burden on the shoulders of many sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco like Hadgey, who is now sleeping in the streets of Rabat after he lost his only shelter.
And while many are panicking at the idea of catching COVID-19, the only concern of Hadgey and his community is hunger.
“If the virus doesn’t go away, there will be another big disease, which is ‘hunger disease,’ and this one is more of a burden than COVID-19,” Hadgey says.
“We have nowhere to work, we only beg in the streets to get food and hopefully survive … we have no shelters, and no help from anyone.”
The impact of COVID-19 on migration and mobility
Since the majority of African migration takes place within Africa, sub-Saharan migrants experience through an arduous winter and summer on the journey to Morocco.
For some, Morocco represents a springboard, where they can catch their breath before continuing their pursuit of the “European Dream.” For others, Morocco is the final destination.
However, many are struggling under the Moroccan government’s strict measures to flatten the curve of COVID-19.
This situation is a call for serious reflection on the feelings of exclusion and lack of belonging that many sub-Saharan African migrants in Morocco experience as unjust burdens. It is an awakening sign to reset our mindsets, and migration policies.
Ali, a migrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, explains how living under lockdown is difficult.
“They ask us to stay at home, like it’s that easy for us. But if we stay at home who will pay our rent? And who will feed us?” says Ali.
“Honestly, if Coronavirus continues, I don’t think we can survive.”
To keep a roof over his head, Ali is currently living in a small, crowded room with more than eight of his friends. Like many migrants, he lives in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Rabat.
Although Ali is among the lucky migrants who received some basic foodstuffs such as rice, oil, and sugar from a Moroccan NGO, he explains that it is not enough to save him from long-term hunger.
“Some of my friends call me crying for help as their kids are starving, but I find nothing to give them. Because even when some organizations give us food, it lasts for a day or two maximum, and after that, we go back to starving again,” he says.
The impact of COVID-19 on migrant workers
COVID-19 has brought to the fore some well-known existing challenges. The impact on sub-Saharan migrant women is particularly significant, since many are unemployed.
One woman agreed to share her story, even as she is going through painful trauma following the death of her husband.
Fato, a migrant from Senegal, hopes that her story will soften the hearts of people and push them towards merciful actions.
“It is becoming difficult to simply feed my kids, especially without their father, who used to support me,” laments Fato, barely holding back her tears.
“It is unbearable to live in these precarious conditions, I don’t know what to do anymore.”
Fato is now the sole source of income for her three children, ages 7, 5, and 18 months. Her only way to survive during the pandemic is by sending her children to beg for handouts while she looks for a job as a hairdresser or a cleaner. But this is now more difficult.
For Fato’s children, education in Morocco has been an unreachable haven, especially during the shift to digital learning. Her children are considered “off-record” and left illiterate while spending their time begging in the streets of the Moroccan capital.
For many sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco, access to jobs, whether formal or informal, is now even more uncertain, particularly for those with irregular status.
“If we went out to find jobs the first thing they will ask about is the Moroccan [residency] card. If you don’t have it, they will not give you the job. And when you call some organizations and cry for help, they don’t show any interest,” laments Ibrahim, a migrant from Mali.
Like many migrants with irregular status in Morocco, Ibrahim is living in a state of fear and insecurity, and he is vulnerable to exploitation. This leaves him with one last survival plan: Begging.
“We know that living in another man’s country without papers is not acceptable, and we know that things are difficult for everyone … but we are human, we are crying for help,” he says.
Article 9 of the Moroccan Labour Code prohibits any kind of employment discrimination based on race, color, gender, religion, or any segregation. However, some Moroccan employers tend to feel more “reassured” while hiring locals or Arab migrants such as Syrians, due to a shared religion, culture, and language. This leaves some sub-Saharan African migrants with fewer economic opportunities in Morocco.
Trapped between COVID-19 and stigmatization
The community of migrants in Morocco is one of the most impacted by COVID-19 and its devastating socio-economic repercussions. This is not a coincidence, as most are not guaranteed access to the job market, education, or health services.
And this is not even the end of their hardship. In addition to multiple layers of exclusion, rumors of a heightened “risk of getting an infection” from having any contact with a sub-Saharan migrant can spread in this time of uncertainty.
COVID-19 has laid bare the existing discrimination and racism that many sub-Saharan migrants encounter in Morocco, which is another great burden that strongly impacts their sense of belonging, security, and integration.
“Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I avoid giving charity to sub-Saharan migrants when they are in groups because if I did, I will find endless hands entering through my car’s window. But when just one or two approach me I do,” says Taoufik, a Moroccan from Agadir.
“I find myself in a difficult situation, because on one hand, I prefer to give charity to sub-Saharan migrants rather than locals, as I know they are the most vulnerable. But on the other hand, I feel annoyed and I don’t want to encourage the dangerous practice of begging,” he explains.
Even when COVID-19 has decreased the usual hospitality of many Moroccans, who are similarly suffering immense economic hardships, some choose to support sub-Saharan migrants, as Hadgey explains.
“Moroccan people are very nice, we have a Moroccan friend who used to help us every day with food, especially during Ramadan,” says Hadgey.
‘Music is my only refuge’
Despite the hardship, some sub-Saharan migrants show resilience, adapting their work to the current restrictions.
Isaac Ebanda, from Cameroon, is a talented pianist and owner of a start-up called IEM.Musique.
“During the lockdown, it was a bit difficult because I could no longer work, and I had to stay locked up with stress. But I had to digitize my work,” he says.
Isaac teaches children and young people, including Moroccans and foreigners, musical art, such as music theory, piano, guitar, drum, and singing.
“Amidst COVID-19, music is my only refuge … I believe that it can help people to forget about the serious impact of COVID-19 on their mental health,” explains Isaac.
Leave no migrant behind
From the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 has clearly affected everyone around the world. In Morocco, sub-Saharan migrant communities are notably among the hardest-hit.
For decades, they have been in limbo, keeping their heads down, hushing their voices, while swallowing mistreatments, including violence, racism, and discrimination.
And due to the ongoing pandemic, their endless hardship is exacerbating. Now they are surviving under lockdown in cramped living conditions, starving, impoverished, marginalized, excluded, and deprived of their basic rights.
They suffer constant fear of testing positive for COVID-19, losing their livelihoods, or seeing one of their children die from hunger.
Despite our shared uncertain future and overlapping threats, leaving no migrant behind must become the new normal.
The alarm bells should ring loud and clear. Morocco can still protect its sub-Saharan migrant community and prove its pan-African and humanitarian values.
Most names have been changed to protect identities.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.
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