North Africa: Racism, sexism and violence against sub-Saharan African migrant women


“Political platforms using security discourse to stop mafia organisations have actually strengthened human trafficking networks, that are now turning to women and children. If a woman has full access to her rights she will not need to turn to these trafficking networks,” according to migrant and human trafficking researcher Helena Maleno Garzón. The intersections of racism, sexism and and violence create entrenched problems for migrant women in North Africa.

By Mégane Ghorbani - 5 December 2014

Morocco is a country of migration, both inwards and outwards. But, more than twenty years after ratifying the UN Convention on the Protection of Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the Moroccan government has failed to guarantee its implementation. Not only do security forces commit human rights abuses, but Sub-Saharan migrants are victims of gender and racial discrimination that marginalizes them within Moroccan society. In Tangier, Morocco's main gateway to Europe, civic groups even engage in  " Sub-Saharan migrant hunts", which have given rise to sexual violence against women and the murder of a young Senegalese migrant last August.

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A demonstration for migrants' rights in Lausanne, Switzerland in June 2014. Photo: Gustave Deghilage

The politics of border militarization has led to women migrants’ rights abuses

Following the externalization of borders and the politics of border militarization by the European Union (EU), Caminando Fronteras, a regional advocacy network, composed mainly of women from several disciplines (physicians, directors, nurses, social workers, journalists, etc), decided to work closely on the issue of women migrants’ rights abuses in the border areas in North Africa (Mauritania, Algeria, Morocco, Mali) and Spain.

The growing security discourse spread by EU leaders in EU migration policy, resulted in the establishment of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (Frontex). This agency was created in 2004, and “can sign agreements with third countries, organise joint return flights  and, since the revision of its mandate in October 2011, exchange personal data with police cooperation Europol and initiate land and sea operations to control Europe’s borders”, according to the campaign Frontexit. This security policy goes against human rights, including the right to asylum and the freedom of movement. Consequently, border-crossing areas have often been reported as spaces where human rights are not respected.

Criminalisation of migration has lead to further violence against of women, who are more vulnerable at border crossings, where they are at great risk of sexual violence by military forces. Maleno Garzón says: “Political platforms using security discourse to stop mafia organisations have actually strengthened human trafficking networks, that are now turning to women and children. This is about the right to freedom of movement - if a woman has full access to her rights she will not need to turn to these trafficking networks.”

Throughout Morocco, there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Sub-Saharan migrants, although access to accurate date is complicated. According to Maleno Garzón, the proportion of women migrants has been increasing over the last few years. “Women are approximately 15-20% of the total but in certain communities they are the majority”. There are a huge number of women in the Nigerian, Cameroonian, Ivorian, Senegalese, Malian and Congolese (from DRC) communities;  “Many Cameroonian women also migrate to Oran, Algeria, where they fall prey to trafficking networks. The final destination is Europe, often with experiences of sexual exploitation in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.”

Most women migrants come with their children, who are also sometimes victims of trafficking. Maleno Garzón talks about the current research they are conducting on children whose mothers’ are migrants, refugees or victims of trafficking in Morocco. “Many of these children are adopted by white families, and their mothers don’t know where they are. For example, on the border with Algeria, the Mafia kidnaps children and gives them to other women to migrate to Europe. The trafficking network then abandons the children after the crossing; after which they get adopted. As a result, we see many cases of mothers looking for their missing children. This happens in cases of forced returns where migrants’ rights are not respected and the child is usually unregistered, meaning if a child is kidnapped, we won't be able to report the disappearance. There is also the problem of children born to women victims of trafficking. According to the Palermo Protocol, these children must be protected and treated as victims of trafficking, but in reality, the leaders of trafficking networks decide for both the child and the mother.” 

Intersections of racism, sexism, discrimination and sexual violence

Maleno Garzón explains that “There is deep racism in Morocco against which authorities take no action. The degree of discrimination varies by gender, religion (Christian or Muslim), skin color and economic resources. There is a situation where women who have a different lifestyle from the norm are insulted and denigrated. In addition, they do not even have access to informal jobs and often have to resort to sex work. They are also at risk of sexual assault, not only from the migrant community that experiences significant gender-based violence internally, but also from society at large, and from Moroccan security forces. As a result of these sexual assaults, many women get abortions, but since abortion is illegal under any circumstances in Morocco, they are done clandestinely,often by using the drug, Cytotec, purchased on the black market in Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish autonomous cities. Migrant women experience such high levels of sexual violence, that we have seen cases where women have had abortions using this medication up to eight times in one year.”

Accessing education is also a challenge for children of women migrants’, who don’t attend school or when they do, it is done informally - meaning they will not receive a certificate showing they’ve finished a cycle of study. Their right to health is also violated because they do not have the same rights as nationals.

Tangier, in Northern Morocco, at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, has become a site where tensions between Moroccans and Sub-Saharans have crystallized. Maleno Garzón says that since the spring of 2014, organized racist civic groups have been attacking migrants. In the Boukhalef neighborhood, where many migrants live, some homes have been attacked and women have been sexually assaulted, without intervention from the police. Maleno Garzón, was herself a victim of sexual violence, on the night of August 15 to 16, 2014. She tells us that during this night of riots, violent civic groups armed with machetes attacked migrant women and children, burnt migrant houses and sexually assaulted women. The police watched the scenes of violence without doing anything.  The leader of the attack has not been arrested and is still the neighbourhood. Even today, women tell me, "the man who raped me is living two doors down from my home." It’s a situation of total impunity.” This impunity led to another attack against migrants two weeks later in the same neighborhood, resulting on the slaughter of a young Senegalese. According to Maleno Garzón, the evening of this murder, “ the police were even walking alongside machete-armed groups.”

Since the attacks, many migrants have been deported to their countries of origin without regard for the law, as they have not even been identified by their embassies. Maleno Garzón believes “Spain and Morocco have made northern Morocco a police state that takes precedence over rights”.

Working for the rights of migrant and trafficked women in Morocco

Feminist organizations often forget migrant women and although some organizations in Morocco support migrants, they adopt a humanitarian approach, rather than a women’s rights-based approach. According to Maleno Garzón “they do not really understand the challenges faced by women, who they see as vulnerable, or as beneficiaries. These associations are prejudiced about women in general. We are in a country where women's rights are not respected, even for Moroccan women, so the first bias is because they are women and the second because they are black.”

Challenging these difficulties, Caminando Fronteras works with women’s organizations within Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Nigeria and Cameroon,. “In Europe, we work with grassroots activist organizations like ourselves. We try to accompany women in the long term. It's a social process and that is why we are trying to see how to guide these women in other associations to help during their migration. For us, the only way to fight against violence and migrant trafficking networks is through access to fundamental rights  - one of those rights being the freedom of movement.”

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