Monday, May 16, 2016
We had the privilege of receiving Dr. Khajida Elmahad as a guest lecturer this past Monday. She gave an informative and enlightening lecture on issues surrounding migrant and refugee health in Morocco. Elmahad defined migration as the act to move from one place to another to reside, either temporarily or permanently. The purpose of migration could be voluntary or forced, and can be internal or international. Elmahad continued to explain that migrants can either be regular or irregular. The former term is used to describe someone who has passed through documented border checks, while the latter term is applied to migrants who have crossed borders undocumented. I was confused at her usage of the terminology of “regular” and “irregular,” because I had always interpreted undocumented migration as illegal migration. I asked Elmahad whether irregular migrants were the same as illegal migrants, but she told me that they were not equal terms in meaning or function. In fact, she explained that there is no legal term to define a migrant as illegal, it is more of a colloquial form of speech. Moreover, there are some migrants who are qualified as irregular but are not illegal. For example, those seeking asylum have been forced to migrate, and while their methods may have been irregular, they are not in fact illegal. I find that the term “illegal migrant” holds many more negative and stereotypical connotations than “irregular migrant.” To describe an action as illegal frames it as something that goes against a code of rules, whether it be civil, political or societal; something that should not be supported by the public in order to maintain order and justice. Yet, the term irregular does not have such negative connotations associated with it. To be irregular is to be outside of the norm, but not necessarily unsupported. Therefore, I think being conscious of the language we use to define migrants could have a significant impact on public perception and support of issues regarding migration and refugee health.
Morocco’s strategic geographical location, at the crossroad of continents, has always been a place that has experienced high levels of migration. Islam came to Morocco in the 7th century, and was established by a refugee from the Middle East (go figure!). Traditional Islamic teachings have rules about migration:
- You cannot refuse a person asking for asylum.
- The person should benefit from the asylum and be treated humanely.
- The asylum seeker should decide when they leave or how long they want to stay.
However, the traditional Islamic principles began to blur with modern French law from 1912-1956, when Morocco was under French protectorate. With their independence in 1956, Morocco became ruled under modern law, except for family law which remains Islamic. While a Law on Refugees was established in 1957, the law was not applied until 2003. In 2003, Morocco experienced a series of terrorist attacks in Casablanca which are cited to have sparked the implementation of this law. However, Elmahad describes the 2003 Law on Immigration as more of a Law on terrorism, or sanction law, claiming that it confused terrorists with migrants due to the fact that several of the individuals involved in the 2003 terrorist attacks had been migrants. Elmahad described that the immigration law touched the Sub-Saharran Africans the most, as those who had fled to Morocco became unwelcome, unwanted and criminalized by the 2003 law which made it illegal for Moroccan citizens to even offer them any assistance.
“What happened to the Islamic principles?!” Elmahad exclaimed, clearly exasperated by such a seemingly inhumane response. She proudly explained, and rightly so, that she was one of the first to criticize the law as one that sanctions migrants. However, it was not until ten years later that a subsequent attack of violence incited any logistical changes.
In 2013, a Senegalese man was murdered by a Moroccan on a bus for refusing to give up his seat. This gruesome event incited the Moroccan Human Rights Council to do a report on immigration in Morocco and published the following recommendations:
- Morocco should govern by Islamic, African and Arab traditions and principles in behaving with foreigners and international law.
- Morocco should legalize the situation of irregular migrants in particular cases. For example, minors, marital changes, the sick.
- New laws for immigration, refugees, asylum and human trafficking.
Following the publication of this report, the King of Morocco intervened and summoned a meeting, during which the “New Moroccan Immigration Policy” (NMIP) was established. The NMIP took into account the recommendations of the Human Rights Council, legalizing approximately 30,000 residents and recognizing their rights as resident citizens. Now, the major issues with immigration in Morocco are related to work opportunities and conditional issues. Notably, the question of whether migrants have adequate access to health. The International Organization of Migration has recommended that more studies need to be done on this issue so that adequate policies promoting health and equal access of migrants to health services can be developed. Perhaps most importantly, was Elhamad’s emphasis on the right to health as a human right. While politicians and government officials often cite the potential overburdening of the public health system with the additional care of incoming migrants, it is their right as a human being to receive care, regardless of their irregularity.