“YALLAH”: Morocco on the Migration Path to Europe -  Civil Initiatives and Policy-making Attempts

This study, prepared within the context of the artist residency program hosted by the Racines association (Casablanca, Morocco) between 1 November – 1 December 2018, which I participated in thanks to the opportunity given by amberPlatform[1], focuses on the organisational structures of the civil societies and solidarity networks against censorships and rights violations in Casablanca, Tangier and Rabat, the three most populated cities of Morocco with the highest rates of immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Based particularly on my personal observations, in this research I examined the resistance of North African natives “Amazighs”, the use of public spaces in Casablanca, migration routes and the migrant festival. In addition, I provided important points about the third edition of Les Etats Généraux de la culture au Maroc, organised by Racines, which I had the chance to attend to and which focuses on Morocco’s regional cultural policies, street art and circus. The current literature review for this research was done by reviewing the archives of newspapers that defend independent journalism.[2] I conducted face to face interviews with L’Atelier de l’Observatoire, GADEM, Racines, Les Etoiles and Think Tanger; and used Open Edition and Academia for accessing the papers of authors whose research I wished to study.

This article can be seen as an introduction[3] for discussing the transformative effects of arts initiatives and civil society organisations through participatory practices and education in situations when the government fall short in terms of making migration and cultural policies in Casablanca, Tangier and Rabat. The first part of the article covers the role Morocco plays for the people emigrating from Sub-Saharan Africa into Europe. In the second part, I tried relaying the suggestions of initiatives and non-profit organisations regarding cultural and social problems as well as problems about living that have arisen due to Morocco’s failed migration policy as well as many external factors. In the last part of the article, I shared my personal experience and opinions regarding the situation.

Despite the negative meaning of the word “Yallah” -the title of this paper- in Turkish, it means “Let’s go” or “Hurry” in Arabic. It is a good expression for civil society to create a space of action immediately after an event takes place; it is also a fitting word with both its meanings in these two languages for a group of people who are displaced from their homes and also not welcomed in their new adopted lands.


With its 3500 kilometres long coastline, Morocco, which is the last stop before Europe for immigrants from Sub-Saharan African countries, is one of the most widely used countries for illegal immigration by sea. The immigrants, mostly from Niger, Mali, Senegal, Congo and Côte d'Ivoire[4] try to reach Europe through Oujda, Taourirt, Tangier; or go to Ceuta and Melilla, the coastal autonomous cities that are located in Africa but belong to Spain, Morocco’s border neighbour (Feliu, 2009).

Like Turkey, Morocco receives funding from the European Union under the context of “border management”.[5] The huge impact of the Schengen system on the migration routes within the Mediterranean basin (Alioua, 2015) and the security policies imposed by governments cause these migration routes to continuously change (Feliu, 2009).

Despite being the first Maghreb country to sign the convention protecting the rights of migrant workers and their families dated 18 December 1990[6], Morocco introduced restrictions to immigrant rights soon after the terrorist attacks of 2003. In 2003, 12 terrorists organised simultaneous suicide attacks at five different locations in Casablanca within thirty minutes. The attacks were carried out by 14 bombers from the shanty town of Sidi Moumen. Shortly after, Al-Qaeda took responsibility for these attacks. The monarchy held an emergency meeting and made decisions regarding their methods for fighting against terrorism and the strategies to be developed regarding the foreigners in the country. The law which deals with these two topics together, in which immigrant rights are not thoroughly detailed, established a perception management which still links the fact of terrorism to the “foreigner” (Belguendouz, 2005). In this way, immigration is associated with transnational organised crime, poverty, insecurity and death.

The role and power of visual-audio media for moulding public opinion, especially in a country with a high rate of illiteracy (Feliu, 2009) can be emphasized here. While the independent print media helps shape a critical perspective, TV and certain newspapers, on the other hand, use epithets and harsh terms for Sub-Saharan Africans such as “black crickets”[7] and “tsunami.”[8]

Previously just a stop in transit immigration, Morocco has now become a country that hosts immigrants. Since 2013, when the monarchy softened the migration policy, there have been new regulations constantly; and the number of people that want to become “regular” immigrants and wish to get residence permit in order to stay in the country has increased day by day.[9]

According to the IOM report, the Moroccan migration route through Mediterranean has become the busiest migration route, and Spain now hosts the highest number of immigrants in Europe. In 2018 only, 42.000 immigrants entered Spain, 38.000 of them by sea. This is twice the number of immigrants that entered Italy through Libya.


Apart from the demands of the newcomers for their rights, North African native people Amazighs are demanding their rights back, their linguistic rights being in the first place, which have long been overshadowed by the hegemony imposed not only by Morocco but by all of North Africa.

“It would be incorrect to see the Amazigh movement as a singular movement,” suggests Marguerite Rollinde (1994). In her paper, she included an interview with a 27-year-old militant: “Amazigh is a free folk; I am a Berber-Amazigh first and an African second. I am not Moroccan; because I describe Moroccans like arabophones and the people with power speak Arabic, the orientalists.”

The Amazigh people resisted for years to have their mother tongue Tamazight[10] officially recognised using the slogan “No democracy without Tamazight”. Since 2011, Tamazight has been recognised as the second official language of Morocco. There is a national channel broadcasting news, entertainment programs, panels, interviews and religious content in Tamazight language.

“Amazigh is an ancient civilization that demands its rightful place. All Moroccans are actually of Berber origins but they sometimes deny it. Today we have the necessary conditions not only for the language but also for rewriting history,” says Driss Khrouz, Director of the National Library of the Kingdom of Morocco.


With transit migration becoming impossible for Sub-Saharan Africans, new ways and methods for living together are being tried out in Morocco for the country’s oldest inhabitants, native people and the newcomers. In a system where the centre and periphery are distinctly separated from each other, where women are usually invisible in the public arena, where the socioeconomic divide is defined by the deprivation of the middle class; immigrants are of course not the only ones responsible for the insufficient infrastructure. However, despite this sombre picture, the unique endeavours of arts organisations and civil society organisations supported by local and international funding create places of freedom and relaxation in the big cities which accommodate the highest number of immigrants.

In the following part, I will talk about GADEM, Racines, L’Atelier de l’Observatoire and les Etoiles; organisations whose visions, missions and methods differ but which have the same ethical values and work towards creating a common future; and I will try to describe their areas of activity.

Founded in 2006 to establish more humanitarian conditions, GADEM (The Anti-Racist Group for the Defence and Assistance of Foreigners and Migrants)[11] has been working to have laws enforced and rights recognised for 12 years.

The fences surrounding the only European territories on mainland Africa – the Spanish enclaves – were first put up in the 1990s with the aim of stopping irregular migration and drug trafficking. They have continuously been reinforced since then, notably in 2005 after large groups of sub-Saharan Africans tried to jump the fences, resulting in 13 deaths and many more being seriously injured. Over 31 million euros were spent on increasing the height of the fences surrounding Melilla and installing surveillance systems. Similar works on the fence in Ceuta in 2005 cost almost 8 million euros, the highest annual expenditure in the last ten years.[12]

Through its intercultural works, GADEM organises trainings against discrimination, programs to promote common sense in non-profit organisations and schools, supports immigrant initiatives, and informs the media. It also provides legal consultancy to foreigners and immigrants regarding the topic of defending foreigners’ rights, another area of influence, and develops programs for people in the field of law. Lastly, it closely follows European and Moroccan migrant policies and creates fields of action on national, regional and international levels.

In its report[13] about the expulsion of immigrants from the northern cities of the country to the southernmost cities during the second half of 2018, GADEM recorded that even the regular immigrants were sent away from the European border and were transferred to Agadir and Tiznit, located at the southernmost part of the country, and left at locations far away from city centres.

Khadija Souari from GADEM team points out that there are laws to be followed even for people without any legal status.[14] Souari states that the 9th edition of the migrant festival, festival Migrant’scene, that was planned to take place in Tangier in early November 2018 was obstructed by the local authorities, as well, saying that after the first two days of the five-day festival, the event was halted due to the “pretext of missing documentation”.  Souari added “This was not the first time a non-profit organisation was blocked,” and “They did not want GADEM in Tangier.” In previous years, the festival, which is organised with great efforts and endeavours, was held in Rabat, where GADEM’s headquarters is located. It is supported by La Cimade France, an association that has been organising migrant festivals in France for years.

Racines’ slogan is “In case of emergency, use culture”. The association underlines the anthropological meaning of culture, and aims to create a pluralistic platform that goes beyond aesthetic concerns by using culture. It deems it necessary to use local languages, dialects, mother tongues and not be limited by colonial languages; to tackle priority issues such as artists’ status, supporting production processes, copyright, and youth participation; and believes in the constructive impact of gathering around these common causes. It highlights the importance of being open and receptive to different cultural levels and paying attention to the “experts in the matters of daily life” while diversifying education styles and scopes. It proposes that new forms of democracy can arise and participatory democracy can be accepted only in this way. According to Racines, the general problem in African and Arabian countries is comprised of failing to defend the right for culture as a basic human right, the impotence in the creative industry, lack of education for the actors in the field, and as a result, not having any power of sanction on the government with regards to cultural policy making. In this regard, Racines works on creating cultural policies (researching, defending, and mapping); utilising arts and culture for social improvement; increasing capacity for entrepreneurs, artists and cultural actors; and on the rights and status of artists.[15]

As part of “FADAE”[16], one of the projects it has developed, Racines strives towards defending artistic expression styles, cultural rights and freedoms; helping people, especially women, minorities and all marginalised groups find their place in inaccessible public spaces; and towards starting a real discussion around this topic. Through its “artmap” project, it maps all cultural actors in various structures, disciplines and activity fields throughout Moroccan and diaspora territories; brings them visibility and recognition; and creates a resource for statistics and researches by using web-based mapping technique. Racines also seeks to convey concepts such as rights, tolerance, and citizenship to new generations through its children’s books. It prepares reports on the Moroccan people’s cultural consumption, their cultural consumption preferences, amateur arts practices and their habits for their free time using demographic, economic and social criteria. As part of its “MARSAD” project, it keeps inventories and prepares publications with the goal of creating a cultural policy together with its partners in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, i.e. Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia.

Racines turned this research into a book in which it scrutinized the cultural policies of all local authorities in Morocco. In the book, the association stressed the significance of the “Nayda” movement, the seeds of which were first planted in 2003. The movement, which is affiliated with the public who rose up to defend the rights of 14 young musicians who were arrested in 2003, was initially called Moroccan Movida[17], which can be translated as “awakening” or “standing”. Nayda is especially fuelled by local avant-garde hip-hop and rap music culture. In the annual L’boulevard festival, Moroccan youth with rap or fusion background take the stage; they improvise, respond to and compete with each other. Through young directors like Khalid Benkirane and Zakia Tahiri, the festival has also gained a cinematic dimension. The non-profit Casamémoire association, which preserves and safeguards Casablanca’s collective memory, has played a key role in the movement as it transferred its entire network into L’Boulevard, to which a lot of people soon joined, facilitated, and provided space for (Coubet, 2011).[18]

Who decides what happens in a city? Who designs cities? L’Atelier de l’Observatoire team focuses on making public spaces public again, helping the residents take ownership of their neighbourhoods, carrying out studies on memory, writing macro-history through personal and collective stories by discovering what is private and what has been forgotten. In addition to its many other activities, its “The Greenhouse” project (La Serre), which I have been attending, has been continuing since 2015. It is located in an area of 150 square meters, in and around a big green tent. The “greenhouse” which is installed in a different part of the city each time was installed on the roof of the urban works initiative (Association Initiative Urbaine) in November 2018 and was named The Greenhouse on the Roof[19]. It invites audiences, inhabitants of the neighbourhood, artists, students, researchers, cultural operators and scholars to collectively participate in this shared space; to develop and bring into life new projects; and to form different perspectives outside the dominant visions. It consists of a library, a meeting and workshop area, a photography studio, a listening area and a rug to have picnic on.

There is an interesting project in Tangier to build the city together: Think Tanger. It is a project that was brought into life to develop collective suggestions for Tangier, which is becoming a metropolitan. It aims to make joint decisions for the developing city, and to collectively work on participatory researches and city practices by increasing collaboration among disciplines.

Is it possible to change the fate of a neighbourhood and rid it of all stigmas attached to it? It is interesting that the 14 bombers involved in the 2003 terrorist attacks were all between the ages of 20-24, single, uneducated and unemployed[20] (Pargeter, 2008), and perhaps the most important of all, they were all from Sidi Moumen, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Casablanca. Les Etoiles, founded by the Ali Zaoua Foundation, is changing the fate of the young people of this neighbourhood via its theatre and dance halls, music studio, workshops and rap school. Ali Zaoua Foundation, named after the first film of French-Moroccan film director Nabil Ayouch, gives countless young people and their families in Sidi Moumen, which is still a shanty town[21], the opportunity to transform their lives through creating and producing.


When I went to Tangier to understand the censorship on the migrant festival, to get to know the city and to meet the founders of Think Tanger, the bus that was carrying us left us at a location quite far away from the city. I instinctively followed the people in front of me to get to the main road. When we arrived at the end of the road, people began to go across the highway in ones and twos. I tried to take a leap of faith and do the same, as well, but I couldn’t. Call it nonchalance, call it faith – the faith that “God will save us” – but I did not have that same feeling. Then I realised that there was a safer road close by for passing the highway. I was one of the only two or three people that got off the bus and chose that road. When I arrived at the city centre, I began to hear the sounds of seagulls and smell the sea; I walked towards the sea. When I realised that Spain was on the opposite shore, I was astounded. The waves were so high, Spain was so close... I thought the ones that took a leap of faith and went across the highway must have been acting on the same feelings as the ones that risk their lives and flee to Spain.[22]

As many third world countries, Morocco has few constants, and its variables depend on external factors. It can be said that the circumstances in which people rise up are usually directly related to values. When we consider the studies on memory and micro history that are carried out in Morocco, just like in Turkey, it seems that all these studies on the past are an effort to prove and remind that many lost places and values did indeed exist at some point. An ad I saw on a construction site on my very first day in Casablanca was very familiar to me: “The city is re-creating its past.” I remember it well, it was around eight o’clock in the evening… Yet, we will never be completely sure of this… Because in the early autumn of 2018, no one knew what time it was in Morocco; just like in the autumn of 2015 in Turkey. In the days that followed, the students that got out of their schools opposed this “arbitrary” decision. During my stay in the country, I visited five cities. The high school students in each city all had the same discontent. They protested as loud as they could with the police walking by them. There were constant protests on the street that I rented a house at, as well.[23] The slogans of the thousands of Amazighs in their mother tongue I heard on that street on 25 November took my breath away.

Here, people make politics on the streets, as well.[24] This is why oppression on the streets increases. Collective discontent… Yet, everyone says they love the king when you ask them.

You can see pictures of the king all over public spaces. The king -the “commander of believers”- and the government usually work together; and it is not always transparent who makes the decisions. Since there are many more reformative moves compared to the past dictatorial era, people feel gratitude. On the other hand, the banning of Ali Amar’s book Mohammed VI, the big misunderstanding[25] (Amar, 2009) and the imprisonment of Walid Bahomane, a minor who drew a caricature of the king, indicates that there is no other option than loving the king.

How could it be possible to not criticise the Moroccan regime which, in January 2019, decided to shut down the above-mentioned Racines association, which hosted the residency that I was a part of as a member of amberPlatform under the exchange program of the trans-making project carried out within the context of H2020? How should it be seen that an organisation which worked towards freedom of cultural and artistic expression, citizenship, equal rights; which did this based on a pluralistic structure for everyone, be it immigrant, native, Moroccan, Berber, “regular”, or “irregular”; which wanted to give everyone the opportunity of being able to use public spaces; and which for this goal, examined the cultural policy and strived towards developing alternative policies for its shortcomings was closed down? Despite many existing local parameters, it should be noted that the problem goes beyond being merely a local problem.

At the Les Etats Généraux meeting, Aadel Essaadani from Racines stated that we must decipher what domination constitutes. According to him, we need a new concept of “citizenship” that is universal; one that involves the mobility in the world, the new technologies and the internet, ecology and climate change. Following his remark “First comes the perception of citizenship, then one becomes a citizen,” he reminded us of Jean Vilar’s words: We must first be a society, after that we will perhaps have good theatre.[26]

The concept of “networking” is important for the circulation and recognition of artistic works; similarly, the same network is important for protecting each other’s rights. Creating a transnational public opinion... I believe the greatest significance of Racines and the other organisations I have mentioned above is that they provide a space for ideas and movements to gain legitimacy: such environments, in which civil opinion is formed through initiatives, provide a system where a participatory cultural policy can be developed. They take the necessary steps to create a policy that goes beyond a particular political party or regime; one that can be created by respecting the history of the shared place, by making room for newcomers, protecting their rights, and inviting marginalised groups.

As Mehdi Alioua, political sciences lecturer at the International University of Rabat, sociologist and previously the head of GADEM, stresses on every occasion, Morocco needs a more “humanitarian” migration policy. Recently, after developments like Israel hitting Hamas targets in Gaza, and Donald Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights with Netanyahu; Pope Francis went to Morocco and met with King Mohammed VI, and discussed the Jerusalem issue as well as paying a visit to the immigrants. Regarding this, Mehdi Alioua and GADEM expressed on their Facebook profiles that Pope Francis’ visit to Morocco was an opportunity to keep Morocco’s migration policy on a humanitarian level. In his remarks, the Pope said: “There is a road that brings us all together; the immigrants and the autochthonous people.”[27] Raising tolerance in the society, and as Racines suggests, “Being able to see immigrants as a positivity instead of a negativity” seems to be something that can be realised by changing the terminology employed.


Alioua, M. (2015) Un monde en mouvement, du transit à la transmigration. In Khrouz, N., & Lanza, N. (Eds.), Migrants au Maroc: Cosmopolitisme, présence d'étrangers et transformations sociales. Rabat: Centre Jacques-Berque.

Amar, A. (2011). Mohammed VI le grand malentendu. Paris: Calmann-Lévy.

Feliu, L. (2009). Les migrations en transit au Maroc. Attitudes et comportement de la société civile face au phénomène. LAnnée Du Maghreb, (V), 343–362. doi:10.4000/anneemaghreb.611

Rachik, A. (2016). La société contre l’Etat mouvements sociaux et stratégie de la rue au Maroc. Casablanca: La Croisée des chemins.

Rollinde, M. (1999). Le mouvement amazighe au Maroc : défense d’une identité culturelle, revendication du droit des minorités ou alternative politique?, Insaniyat, pp. 63-70.  

Pargeter, A. (2008). The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe, London/New York: I.B. Tauris. 


[1]This residency was organised under the context of the “trans-making” (https://trans-making.eu/) project supported by the European Community’s Horizon 2020 program, which 20 institutions and more than 150 individuals from 14 countries are directly a part of. I participated in it through amberPlatform / BIS, one of trans-making’s partners in Turkey, which I am a member of. trans-making.eu

[2]Such as Telquels, H24 avec le Figaro, Le Desk, Huffpost Maghreb

[3]This article is expected to be reviewed and criticised not as an expert paper, but as a personal evaluation based on interviews and research on the topic.

[4]IOM, 2005.

[5]European Commission newsletter headline: “Western Mediterranean Route: EU reinforces support to Morocco”, Brussels, 14 December 2018

[6]International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW)

[7]Criquets noirs.

[8]Among the harshest headlines were « Morocco is the human excrement ground of Sub-Saharan Africans » from Al-Haraka, the media outlet of the Democratic and Social Movement Party; and « Northern Morocco is infested with black crickets » from Tangier’s weekly newspaper Ashamal (Feliu, 2009).

[9] National Human Rights Council, Operation for the regularization of foreigners in irregular administrative situations November 22nd, 2017, Rabat

[10]Tamazight is recognised as an official language in Morocco and Algeria, as a national language in Niger and Mali, and as a dialect in Libya.

[11] Groupe antiraciste d'accompagnement et de défense des étrangers et des migrants

[12]Fear and Fences, Europe’s approach to keeping refugees at bay © Retrieved from Amnesty International’s 2015 report.

[13]The original title of the report is “Expulsions gratuites - GADEM - Note d’analyse sur les mesures d’éloignement mises en œuvre hors tout cadre légal entre septembre et octobre 2018”.

[14]Souari, Khadija. (2018, November 23). GADEM. Interviewer: Z. Okyay Rabat.


[16]This was initiated by Racines and is supported by the European Union, Minority Rights Group International (MRG), The Civic Forum Institute Palestine, Andalus Institute for Tolerance and anti-Violence Studies, Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development.

[17]« movida à la marocaine »

[18]Caubet, D. made this statement in an interview with Mathias Chaillot for madeinmedina.com on Jan 26, 2011 on La Petite Histoire de la Nayda.

[19]La Serre sur le toit

[20]These “jihadists” were clearly ill-educated, inexperienced young men living on the margins of a society that offered them nothing and who, like so many others who have carried out similar attacks, believed that through their actions they were securing their passage to paradise. Yet these attacks were removed from the idealism that marked the Afghanistan experience or indeed that jihad in neighbouring Algeria. The Casablanca attacks conversely appear to be more of a cry of frustration and despair and an act of wanton destruction from a group of desperate young men with little else to live for. (Pargeter, 2008)

[21]Kadiri G. (2019, January) Au Maroc, l’abandon des bidonvilles, Le Monde

[22]From the author’s notebook

[23]Located on Lalla Yacout boulevard.

[24]For a more detailed reading on the types of uprisings and protests in Morocco, refer to Abderrahmane Rachik's book La société contre l’état. Mouvements sociaux et stratégie de la rue au Maroc.

[25]Original title: Mohammed VI, Le Grand Malentendu

[26]Il s’agit de faire une société, après quoi nous ferons peut-être du bon théâtre – Jean Vilar

[27]«Il y a un voyage qui nous engage tous, migrants et autochtones [...]. »  Chambraud C. (2019, April) Au Maroc le pape François plaide la cause des migrants, Le Monde