Separated Families and Lost Opportunities: The Cost of Closed Borders between Algeria and Morocco

Efforts to reopen the borders have repeatedly failed, and keeping them closed costs both countries billions of dollars annually. What are the prospects of reaching a compromise?

Algeria and Morocco are neighboring North African countries. They are ethnically, linguistically, and culturally similar, but have distinctly different political systems. Algeria has been a semi-presidential republic since its independence from France in 1962. Morocco, however, is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, one of the oldest hereditary monarchies in the world, founded by the Idrissid Dynasty in 788. Despite the original intimacy and familiarity of the two peoples, they have been separated by closed land borders since 1994.

On August 24, 1994, Moroccans awoke to the harrowing news that the Atlas Asni Hotel in Marrakech had been bombed by a number of masked terrorists resulting in the deaths of at least three foreign tourists. The event was tragic and painful for Morocco because it was the first terrorist attack in the country inflicted by foreign agents. The investigations later revealed that the attack had been perpetrated by a number of French nationals of Algerian origin together with some Moroccans. Morocco then pointed at the Algerian intelligence services and accused Algeria of plotting instability in the kingdom to export its own internal crises. The late king Hassan II decided then to impose a visa requirement on Algerian citizens wishing to enter Morocco; the Algerian government responded with more radical measures and announced the unilateral closure of the land borders between the two countries which remains in effect today.

The Atlas Asni attack marked the beginning of a new chapter of heightened tension between Morocco and Algeria, whose relations had already soured due to other issues after the respective countries’ independence. In 1963, they confronted each other in the Sand War over a border conflict. Algeria waged another proxy war against Morocco in 1975 fought by the Polisario Front, a separatist movement claiming the right to the Western Sahara and deeming Morocco’s presence there an “occupation.” The fighting lasted until 1991 when the two countries signed a ceasefire agreement under the supervision of the United Nations. Algeria’s stance on the status of the Western Sahara and its unwavering military, logistical, and political support of the Polisario is an obstacle that has always stood in the way of any reconciliation between the two countries.

Pragmatically speaking, the consequences of the closed borders between the two countries are heavy, particularly with respect to the lost economic opportunities for the two countries and for the Maghreb as a whole. The economic relations between Algeria and Morocco essentially amount to an economy of missed opportunities, given the enormous potential profits the two countries could have enjoyed had they developed a framework for economic integration. At a time when economic unions and bilateral economic cooperation are strategic decisions made by countries today to bolster their economic growth, the consolidation and fortification of walls along the Morocco-Algeria border seem incomprehensible.

Economists have estimated that the losses due to the border closure between Morocco and Algeria amount to about 2% of their economic growth rates. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also estimated the losses to the Maghreb Union countries due to the border closure at around $16 billion annually in total. The IMF noted that the absence of economic integration and the continuation of the customs barriers among the Maghreb countries wastes huge opportunities for international investment. According to various studies, the intra-regional trade of the five Maghreb Union countries, established in 1989 but stagnant ever since, represents only 3% of the total trade of these countries, making the Maghreb region the least integrated region in the world.

Activists from Morocco and Algeria have repeatedly called upon the authorities of the two countries to put their political conflicts aside and reopen the borders for their common good. On July 22, dozens of Moroccans and Algerians participated in a joint protest at the border post of “Jouj Bghal” in the eastern region of Morocco, demanding that the borders be reopened. The activists raised the flags of Morocco and Algeria and called on both governments to open the borders, asserting that the neighboring peoples are “brothers.” They also waved slogans and banners such as “Khawah Khawah Mashi Adawa” (“brothers, brothers, not enemies”).  

Such calls, however, have fallen on deaf ears. The legacy of political conflicts since independence has overshadowed the cultural and historical ties between the two peoples. In fact, Morocco has repeatedly extended its hand to Algeria demanding the reopening of the borders. In a speech on the 12th anniversary of his accession to the Alawite throne delivered on July 30, 2011, King Mohamed VI said that Morocco was determined to “start a new dynamic for the settlement of all pending issues as a prelude to a full normalization of bilateral relations between our two brotherly countries, including the reopening of land borders.” Other Moroccan government officials have echoed the king’s sentiment, but Algeria has so far ignored such overtures.

Investing in peace is wiser than preparing for war, and investing in economic growth will fuel the development of both countries and the region and capture the immense opportunity costs of the borders remaining closed. The current situation only serves the interests of the smuggling and drug-trafficking mafia that operates across the borders. The reopening of the borders and the signing of trade agreements between Algeria and Morocco would be mutually beneficial. Morocco could meet the Algerian market’s demand for agricultural and textile products as well as phosphates, while Algeria could provide Morocco with natural gas and petroleum products. As of now, the two countries suffer serious social and economic problems leading to ongoing social protests within their borders. Opening up the borders to trade, transportation, and tourism would go a long way to provide the economic opportunities and jobs the lack of which are driving much of the unrest, and boost both countries’ economies.