Turning the Euro-Moroccan Tide: A Reappraisal of Migration Cooperation beyond Existing Areas of Engagement

Nabil Ferdaoussi

Doctoral Research Fellow at HUMA-Institute for Humanities in Africa (UCT)
Associate Researcher at Center for Global Studies (UIR)
Associate Researcher at LMI MOVIDA

In February 2021, the European Commission launched the New Agenda for the  Mediterranean on a Renewed Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood. The  motto that runs through the fabric of this agenda is a cooperation that is premised  on “tailor-made comprehensive, balanced and mutually beneficial partnerships”  (European Commission, 2021). Apropos the EU’s migration cooperation with southern  neighbours, Morocco holds the largest migration portfolio in North Africa and has  long-standing relations with EU countries (Hadji, 2021; M’hamdi, 2021). Yet as the  year of 2021 draws to a close, the EU-Moroccan migration cooperation has been in  the doldrums—starting with the diplomatic logjam between Spain and Morocco in  May to the more recent move by France in halving the number of visas for Moroccans  (Ferdaoussi, 2021). Similar measures have been taken against Algeria and Tunisia—  presented as a punitive response to the countries’ alleged refusal to facilitate the  return of their undocumented nationals from France (Bloomberg, 2021). To be sure,  this simmering geopolitical scenario reignited the as yet unsettled EU-Moroccan  negotiations over the joint agreement of readmission and visa-facilitation, which were  suspended by Morocco in 2015. 

Though negotiations over a readmission agreement with Morocco started in the  2000s, it was not until the two parties signed the Mobility Partnership (MP) in 2013 that  visa facilitation policy gained momentum (Carrera et al., 2016). This policy instrument  is regularly criticised as a mere bargaining chip meant to foster greater migration cooperation from southern neighbours, by offering a relaxation of visa restrictions  and developing legal pathways through the launch of Talent Partnerships (TPs). 

In October 2021, a draft of the European Commission’s Action Plan on migration  was leaked, revealing the urgent need of maintaining a “partnership of equals” with  Morocco through “dialogue, responsibility sharing, mutual trust, and respect”. Owing  to its geopolitical importance and longstanding cooperation, Morocco is considered  by the EU as “a key partner in the shared challenge of preventing and tackling irregular  migration, countering the smuggling of migrants, and thereby saving lives”. The  existing areas of cooperation listed in the Commission’s draft include (1) asylum and  support to the hosting countries, (2) addressing the root causes of migration, (3)  migration governance and management, (4) cooperation with EU agencies, (5) the  joint agreement of readmission and visa facilitation, (6) legal mobility and regional,  (7) south-south migration cooperation.   

How Does the EU-Moroccan Migration Cooperation Look Like Up-close? 

As to asylum and protection in host countries, the EU encourages Morocco to adopt  pending legislations with regards to asylum and human trafficking. It promised to  strengthen the Moroccan National Strategy of Immigration and Asylum (SNIA) with  “operational support” and “capacity building” provided by the European Asylum  Support Office (now ‘European Union Agency for Asylum’), aiming to foster better  integration of migrants stranded in Morocco and as well as the reintegration of  Moroccan migrant returnees. 15,755 refugees and asylum seekers are registered  with UNCHR from more than 48 countries in Morocco (UNCHR, 2021). And yet law  enforcement frameworks to process applications have not been put place since  the launch of SNIA. In December 2021, migrant communities and activists sent a  memorandum to the recently elected government, wherein they underline the legal  and socio-economic conditions of migrants and refugees. In particular, they urge  the government to adopt the legal arsenal on asylum and immigration and racial  discrimination provided by SNIA (ENASS, 2022). The development of a legal arsenal  for national asylum was dedicated a budget of €35 million under the support  programme MFF 2014-2020 (European Commission, 2021b). Reforms included in  the SNIA should amend the discrepancies that pose legal hurdles for migrants to  renew their residence permits (particularly law no. 02-03), as well as the promulgation  of specific laws that penalize racial discrimination and those that ensure the socioeconomic  integration of vulnerable migrants, including women and children.

 On the emigration aspect, 8,421 arrivals from Morocco to Spain and Canary Islands  were registered on a yearly basis as early as August 2021, compared to 5,709 in the  same period of 2020. As of September 2021, 6,775 applications for asylum have been lodged by Moroccan nationals (European Commission, 2021b). This trend  places Morocco among the 10 main origin countries in the EU, most of which are  war-torn. To address the root causes of clandestine migration, the EU offers to  support “the migration legislative and institutional framework of Morocco,” promoting  social inclusion, reducing socio-economic disparities at the regional level, enhancing  employability of the Moroccan diaspora and migrants settling in Morocco. For instance,  the ENABEL-implemented programme ‘Déploiement des politiques migratoires au  niveau régional’ was awarded a budget of €8 million under the EU Emergency Trust  Fund for Africa (2018-2022) to tackle these objectives. 

A partnership that is premised on real institutional democracy, rule of law and creation  of socio-economic opportunities for desperate youth is a promising instrument to  tackle clandestine migration. While these areas of engagement are important, most  of the funding disbursed to address and redress the root causes of irregular migration  is handled by European organizations, giving short shrift to local civil society and  migrant communities who have direct influence on the lives of vulnerable migrants.  It is the onus of Morocco to ensure the socio-economic welfare of its citizens all  the same. As revealed in the Commission’s draft, a total of €21.1 million is allocated  to these programmes, while €144 million is allocated to the border management  package alone. This imbalance reflects the persistent tendency of the EU to keep  the ‘migration problem’ at bay. The externalization of the EU border control, along  with the readmission of migrants from all EU Member states, purports that the  most controversial responsibilities in the areas of migration management will keep  being shifted to international partners such as Morocco (Lemberg-Pedersenet et al.,  2021). In principle, this approach contradicts the motto of “partnership of equals”,  while it may also result in grave violations of international and EU law, notably  illegal pushbacks which are covertly orchestrated by border patrols and southern  neighbouring countries(EPRS, 2021). 

Fostering Migration Cooperation beyond Existing Bilateral Agreements 

Morocco has signed readmission agreements with Spain, Germany and France. The  Commission’s draft wishes that Morocco would sign readmission agreements with  all EU Member States. While countries have legal obligations under international  law to readmit their nationals, the EU’s insistence to include a clause relating to the  readmission TCNs has frozen negotiations and caused deep friction with Morocco.  On this aspect, Morocco seems unwilling to compromise its engagement vis a vis  African partners to satisfy European interests. . It is important to note that Morocco’s  migration policies are driven primarily by diplomatic considerations, counterbalancing  the geopolitical interests of its traditional African allies, on the one hand, and its  domestic interests on the other hand (Norman, 2020). 

This joint agreement is far from being cost-effective for Morocco due to its unfair share  of responsibilities, and EU efforts on the readmission of TCNs are likely to fall short  of an all-encompassing agreement. For a start, Morocco is home to at least 40,000  West African migrants, not to mention the ever-fluctuating number of those transiting  its territory to enter Europe. Besides being subject to socio-economic exclusion and  structured illegality, West African migrants are victims of racial discrimination which  remain unsanctioned in Morocco, given the incomplete adoption of law enforcement  frameworks of the SNIA. As such, the readmission of TCNs contributes to intensify this  xenophobic trend and results in further racial tensions. These trends of containment  and abandonment are amplified by the rampant racism against black migrants in  Morocco even after the latter’s New Migration Policy reforms (Gross-Wrytzen, 2020).  Furthermore, the sensationalist media coverage of black migrants in Morocco favours  xenophobic representations in the public discourse. 

The joint communication of the European Commission all the more stressed the  importance of exploring south-south cooperation in migration governance. However,  cooperation with African southern neighbours in migration governance may negatively  affect Morocco’s overall engagement on the continent. More worryingly, the EU’s  failure to systematically conclude agreements with countries of origin suggests that  all West African migrants transiting through Morocco face limited prospects of being  taken back to their countries of origin (Abderrahim, 2021). Indeed, as the situation in  the Western Mediterranean keeps drawing policy-makers’ attention (Frontex, 2018),  it is likely EU pressure on Morocco to ensure border control and cooperate on TCNs  will remain high. Long-term reception of TCNs demands solid institutional, legal  and infrastructural frameworks, which Morocco can barely provide to fix the socioeconomic  ills of its nationals (Carrera et al., 2016). 

The findings of the survey conducted by theEMM5-EuroMeSCoshow that 46%  Moroccan respondents consider the absence of policy instruments on return and  reintegration as the stumbling-block for Euro-Moroccan cooperation. Along with  these legal infrastructures, 31% of Moroccan respondents consider the weak socioeconomic  infrastructures no less an issue to Euro-Moroccan cooperation in terms  of readmission of nationals and TCNs alike. Furthermore, while 34% of Moroccan  respondents suggest that the EU support to Morocco should be directed towards  post-return reintegration assistance in the country, only 4% of respondents consider  capacity building for local authorities responsible for voluntary return programmes as  needful of EU support. 

What we glean from such metrics is that it is far-fetched to believe Morocco can  effectively assume the role of the ‘waiting room’ of Europe’s gated communities in  light of such infrastructural absence. The EU should reconsider its cooperation with  Morocco in migration governance through humane and democratic policy instruments that are sketched out in the Joint Communication on the renewed partnership with  the Southern Neighbourhood. While only 12% of Moroccan respondents assessed  the Euro-Moroccan cooperation on return and reintegration as positive, 28% of  respondents consider it as negative. A balanced and mutually beneficial Euro-  Moroccan migration partnership should go beyond the existing agreements that rely  solely on financial assistance and unequal division of responsibilities. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

Meanwhile, it is noteworthy to weigh the incentives of the visa facilitation against  the structural challenges arising from the readmission of TCNs. Safe and orderly  migration through visa facilitation favours primarily skilled labour, thus benefiting  exclusively the privileged citizens who are already internationally mobile. As such, it is  unclear how such policy instrument will gain traction in the case of Morocco. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

This implies that disfranchised social categories in Morocco will not benefit from such  policy instruments and might keep envisaging clandestine channels to enter Europe.  As such, while the EU has been successful in deploying visa facilitation as a negotiation  incentive with Turkey, such incentive is less popular within Morocco (El Qadim, 2018). As evidenced by the EMM5-EurMeSCo public survey, 50% of Mashrek respondents  assessed the visa-facilitation negotiation mechanism as effective, whereas only 31%  of Moroccan respondents are positive about it. Along with the financial and logistical  resources, visa facilitation is far from being an enticing incentive for Morocco when  weighed against the otherwise burdensome repercussions of acceding to the EU’s  demand of TCNs readmission. 

Redressing Migration Governance: Steering Euro-Moroccan Cooperation away from  Security-driven Approaches 

The stringent border control that followed the outbreak of the pandemic reshuffled the  entire migratory landscape. New migratory trends keep arising, with distinctive patterns  of mobility for families, women and unaccompanied minors from Morocco, sub-Saharan  Africa and further afield, which have been propelled by the contingency of the pandemic.  Such trends in North Africa have brought the EU’s counter-smuggling policy in North  Africa under critical scrutiny (Sanchez, 2020; Sanchez et al., 2021, Fakhry, 2021). Whilst  migrants fall prey to acts of violence, threats and scams at the hands of smugglers, a  copious body of literature challenges the moral economy attached to smuggling, moving away from the dominant Western narratives that peg smugglers as villains, criminals and  law-breakers (Achilli, 2018; Brachet, 2018; Achilli et al., 2019; Zhang, 2019).  Similar narratives surround the EU’s counter-trafficking policy, producing polarised  discourses of vulnerability and criminality (Serughetti, 2018; Tyszler, 2020; Ferdaoussi,  2020). These stacks of literature contest ill-informed policy studies with little to no  empirical evidence to support claims of existing nexus between smuggling, crime and  terrorism. Forced and clandestine migration is driven by socio-economic and stability  factors, as is evidenced by the findings of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo survey. 79% of  Moroccan respondents suggest that lack of economic prospects as the main driver of  Europe-bound Moroccans, 69% of the same respondents consider political instability  as the main driver of sub-Saharan migrants transiting through Morocco. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

Indeed, the abrupt socio-economic repercussions that followed nationwide lockdowns  have had a clear effect in terms of border crossings. The resurgence of communitybased  migration propelled a large number of migrants to engage in auto-smuggling  of their friends and families, with no criminal or lucrative intentions whatsoever. In  fact, turning to clandestine means is the last resort for North Africans who have been denied a visa and are distrusting of the EU member states’ claims of encouraging  regular, safe and orderly migration (Capasso,2021). Sub-Saharan migrants transiting  through Morocco undergo double displacement, induced by a combination of lack of  economic prospects and political instability. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

Quite recently, a dozen of West African countries have witnessed a comeback of  military coups, harking back to the ‘coup culture’ of the 1970s (Campbell, 2021). A  large number of sub-Saharan migrants are forced to escape such politically unstable  contexts, and many of them transit through or sojourn in Morocco before reaching  Europe. As part of the EU’s externalization strategies, indiscriminate clampdowns on  sub-Saharan migrants by authorities, sometimes by local communities, fuel racism  and result in the expulsion and dispersal of vulnerable groups such as women and  children. Although these measures set out to combat smuggling and trafficking  networks, little substantial evidence has been brought forward. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

As suggested in the findings of the survey, addressing the root causes of forced  displacements should be the centerpiece of the EU’s cooperation area with transit and  origin countries. Without such a step Mediterranean neighbours, including Morocco,  will not assume the responsibilities of countries of origin, nor will they be able to  cooperate with them, given their own ongoing political turbulence. More than that, the  EU would benefit from reconsidering its approach to cooperation assistance. Fostering  multi-level governance of urban migration by building capacities of local authorities,  NGOs and migration communities through resources and legal competences should  be a priority in this regard, since they are stakeholders who have more tangible impact  on the lives of vulnerable migrants. This strategy is more likely to bear fruit than the  current focus on security-driven programmes.   


ABDERRAHIM, T. (2021). A Tale of Two Agreements: EU Migration Cooperation with Morocco and Tunisia. PapersIEMed, 7-38.

ACHILLI, L. (2018). The “good” smuggler: the ethics and morals of human smuggling among Syrians. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 676(1), 77-96.

ACHILLI, L., & TINTI, A. (2019). Debunking the smuggler-terrorist nexus: human smuggling and the Islamic State in the Middle East. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 1-16.

ALAOUIM’HAMDI, N. (2021). The New EU Agenda for the Southern Mediterranean: Prospects for Morocco, in Towards a Renewed Partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood, 110-27.

BRACHET, J. (2018). Manufacturing smugglers: from irregular to clandestine mobility in the Sahara. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 676(1), 16-35.

CAMPBELL, J. (2021). Coups are Back in West Africa. Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/blog/coups-are-back-west-africa.

CAPASSO, M. (2021). From human smuggling to state capture: furthering neoliberal governance in North Africa. Journal of Labor and Society.

CARRERA, S. ET AL. (2016). EU-Morocco cooperation on readmission, borders and protection: A model to follow? Centre for European Policy Studies. Retrieved from https://www.ceps.eu/system/files/EU-Morocco%20Cooperation%20Liberty%20and%20Security%20in%20Europe.pdf

EPRS. (2021). Pushbacks at the EU’s External Borders, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/689368/EPRS_BRI(2021)689368_EN.pdf.

ENAAS (2022). Immigration, le gouvernement interpellé sur les Cartes de séjour, http://enass.ma/2022/01/09/immigration-le-gouvernement-interpelle-sur-les cartesde-sejour/.

EL QADIM, N. (2018). The symbolic meaning of international mobility: EU-Morocco negotiations on visa facilitation. Migration Studies, 6(2), 279-305.