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MOROCCO: African Refugees Targeted

Daan Bauwens

RABAT, Jun 23 2009 (IPS) - More than 300 African refugees are gathered at the gates of the Moroccan United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), asking to be moved to another country because their rights are not respected in Morocco. Several refugees say they have been beaten up by Moroccan UN personnel.

Refugees outside the UNHCR office in Rabat. Credit: Daan Bauwens

Refugees outside the UNHCR office in Rabat. Credit: Daan Bauwens

On Tuesday morning, the refugees who are from Angola, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia and some other countries, entered their ninth day of protest in front of the Moroccan office of the UNHCR in capital Rabat. Their numbers are steadily growing.

"We intend to stay here until our right to reinstallation is respected," says Stéphane Gnako, spokesperson for the refugees. "We demand to be moved to a safe place where we are treated with dignity."

According to the UN charter, every refugee has the right to be moved to another country if his or her rights are not respected in the country where they received asylum.

Many refugees in Morocco say they are caught in a trap. "Even though we are recognised by the UN as refugees, the Moroccan government does not want to grant us our rights," Laura Thérèse from Cote d'Ivoire, who has been living in Morocco since 2004 tells IPS. "I've studied in this country, I have done an internship of three months, only to realise afterwards that I didn't have the right to work."

African refugees' children have no right to education. "We have no right to integrate, no right to work, and no right to reinstall, so what are we supposed to do?" Laura Thérèse adds.

Stéphane Gnako holds up his refugee card. "It's a beautiful thing, not? But it is of no use to us. It is the responsibility of the UNHCR to see to it that our rights are respected, but all of us are condemned to a life as beggars in this country.

"Moreover, we are the victim of racial discrimination and violence, there is no chance for integration." According to a Congolese woman in the group, stones are thrown at her sometimes when she is walking down the street with her children. Several others report random assault.

Michael McCullough, a refugee from Liberia, says refugees are also attacked by officials. "We are chased by the police because we hold no documents. And we frequently get beaten up by them. Moreover, people who ask for reinstallation are beaten up by the guards at the UNHCR office."

Several refugees speak of mistreatment by UNHCR security guards if they insist on reinstallation.

On Monday evening, a group of 40 musicians, dancers and actors took to the streets of the Yacoub Mansour neighbourhood of Rabat in a colourful march. This was a part of 'Rabat Africa', a festival that aims for the integration of African refugees into Moroccan society. The festival was organised by UNHCR and the Orient-Occident Foundation, an international network of socio- educational agencies for immigrants and Moroccans in impoverished neighbourhoods.

"This is the only Moroccan festival with a political message," says Rachid Badouli, development and strategy director at the Orient-Occident Foundation. "It is only by means of culture that we can fight the racism African immigrants face. At this festival, we see Moroccan families next to Congolese, Kenyan or Angolese families," he tells IPS.

The festival is organised in the Yacoub Mansour neighbourhood because this is where African immigrants regularly suffer from violence, in some cases sexual violence. Last year, three refugee boys under 18 were subject to rape.

"We ourselves are immigrants in Europe," Badouli tells IPS. "There are lots of reports about racism on the streets of Brussels or Paris, while we treat our own immigrants no better. This is also a critique against the Moroccan state, that still doesn't want to open its gates to whatever is new or different."

The protesters at the UNHCR office are not joining the Rabat Africa festival. 'The festival is sabotaging our protest," says Stéphane Gnako. "We don't want to be manipulated into African merchandising. It's not by chanting, dancing, tam tam and other clichés that we will improve our conditions; that is mere absurdity. Is showing African culture going to save us from violence, racism and arrests? The answer is no."

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