Learning Between the Lines: Protecting Immigrant Children’s Right to Education In Morocco

As more sub-Saharan immigrants settle in Morocco, advocacy groups urge the government to ensure education access with comprehensive new immigration laws. Under the Constitution, Morocco guarantees everyone living in the country the right to education. In practice, many immigrant children are left out of the classroom.
Learning Between the Lines Protecting Immigrant Children’s Right to Education In Morocco

On a summer day in Fes, 20 activists, social workers, and administrators gathered in a municipal conference room to envision a brighter future for immigrant children’s education in Morocco. They represented a patchwork of local groups: those that advocate for the rights of sub-Saharan immigrants, those that advocate for the social development of Moroccan youth, and those that bridge the two.

Including young immigrants in the concerns of Moroccan youth advocacy is a relatively new pursuit, that has evolved in parallel with the country’s shift from being a place of transit to a destination for immigrants.

Tens of thousands of immigrants have come to Morocco in the past two decades, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries that have visa-free travel agreements with Morocco. Most had been in transit, seeking ultimately to emigrate to Europe. Many still are, but, as Europe aggressively hardens its borders, thousands are changing their plans and now intend to stay in the North African kingdom. Those that stay face daunting hurdles to integrate into Moroccan society, hurdles not limited to those of language, culture, documentation, and bureaucracy.

For immigrant parents seeking to settle in Morocco, questions about their children’s education loom large. While Moroccan legislation guarantees education to everyone living within its borders, immigrant and refugee children face multiple barriers to entry into the school system.  

The UNHCR reported that, as of September 2017, 4,924 refugees were registered in Morocco, 1,262 of whom were school-age children. Of those, only 72 percent of eligible students were enrolled in primary schools and only half in higher education.

The statistics show an improvement in refugee education over previous years, but they do not represent all foreign nationals living in Morocco. Sixty-seven percent of registered refugees in Morocco are Syrian, whose integration into society is eased by cultural and linguistic similarities.

For the tens of thousands of non-refugees living in Morocco, mostly sub-Saharan immigrants, societal integration and access to education is much more difficult. Accurate, official statistics about the educational status of this population are few and far between, which immigrant advocates say hinders progress in ensuring their education and integration.

Studying the Problem

In an effort to bring clarity and eliminate the barriers preventing immigrant children from going to school, the Rabat-based Collective of sub-Saharan Communities in Morocco (CCSM) is pursuing a campaign called Droit à l’Education. The driving assertion behind the campaign is that “education is a universal right.”

CCSM Administrative Coordinator Mamadou Diallo told Inside Arabia that the campaign has two goals: to habituate immigrant parents to the Moroccan system and impress upon them the importance of ensuring their children’s education, and to persuade the government to support parents and reform the integration process.

Learning Between the Lines Protecting Immigrant Children’s Right to Education In Morocco
Photo credits: CCSM

Like other advocacy groups, CCSM considers a substantive rewrite of nationwide immigration and education laws to be essential. The laws currently on the books, they say, fall well below adequately protecting immigrant children’s right to education. Diallo explained that even if a government ministry takes a step in the right direction, “when the minister changes, everything changes.” While Morocco is a signatory to international conventions that affirm immigrants’ right to education, it lacks its own national law to make that right a reality.

To help solve that problem, the CCSM recently presented a report to the Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs. It outlines eleven specific steps for the Moroccan government to take toward ensuring equal education to all immigrant children. All of the suggestions demand a serious restructuring of the legal and educational systems.

As part of the research process, CCSM convened the meeting in Fes on September 7. It was one of a series held in cities around the country with local players in the immigration and youth advocacy landscape.

Learning Between the Lines Protecting Immigrant Children’s Right to Education In Morocco
Photo credit: CCSM

In Fes, Houda Benmbarek, an independent consultant on gender and immigration in North Africa, led the day-long conversation. Over half of the participants were themselves immigrants from sub-Saharan African countries: Cameroon, Guinea, Chad, Congo, and the Republic of the Congo. Among them were leaders of immigrant rights organizations, teachers and artists. The Moroccan participants represented government ministries and social development NGOs. American funders USAID provided support, as part of a wider project to strengthen civil society in Morocco.

Over the course of the day, the group broke down the situation for immigrant children in Morocco. In theory, the Moroccan state guarantees access to education for all children living within its borders, regardless of national origin. The kingdom’s 2011 Constitution, written and enacted in response to a wave of pro-democracy protests, guarantees “foreigners under Moroccan jurisdiction” the fundamental freedoms recognized for Moroccan citizens. It also states that “basic education is a right of the child and obligation of family and state.”

While the Constitution enshrines the welcome of immigrants, it never explicitly outlines a legal process for integrating them into society. In 2013, the advocacy group Terre des Hommes called Morocco’s integration practices “still embryonic.” Their extensive, 2014 E.U.-funded report on immigrant education access outlined 31 practical recommendations for migration policy, which were far from fully implemented.

Facing Morocco’s new status as a destination country for immigration, its government adopted the National Strategy of Immigration and Asylum (SNIA) in 2013. This new framework assured the integration of “immigrants and refugees into the formal and informal school system.” Under this measure, immigrants and refugees have the same access to schools as Moroccans.

Further, it brought about two rounds of regularization that granted residency permits to tens of thousands of immigrants, giving them–on paper, at least–access to employment, education, healthcare and social housing. The first wave, in 2014, registered around 25,000 people. The second, which began in 2017 and is still pending, has so far registered at least 14,000.

However, while regularization of immigration status may provide legal standing, access to work and education are largely still out of reach, and opportunities are in short supply, immigrant activists say.

The group in Fes criticized the emerging pattern of governing bodies adopting policies but failing to follow through. Much of the conversation targeted the inefficacy of a 2013 memo sent by the Secretary General of the Moroccan Ministry of Education to the country’s public and private school administrators. The memo’s intent was to help integrate sub-Saharan immigrant children into the Moroccan school system, but the consensus at the meeting was that it had done little to provide a sturdy, enforceable legal framework.

The memo mentioned international conventions on migration and the 2011 Constitution as precedents for the universal right to education, but rather than laying down legally-binding dictates, the Ministry merely “invited” school administrators to help enroll immigrant children.

Participants at the meeting in Fes explained that school directors are not required to implement the administrative procedures suggested by the memo. Some directors, they said, have not even been informed of the memo. Others have simply ignored it.

Paper Barriers

CCSM’s Mamadou Diallo is currently helping one Guinean women through the process of enrolling her daughter in school. Mariam (name changed to protect her privacy)  immigrated to Morocco some years ago with her two children, both of whom were born in Guinea. Her seven-year old daughter is ready to begin school, but the family lacks a home. Without a home, it is difficult for her to get a Moroccan residency permit. Without residency, her daughter cannot register for school. For Diallo, finding Mariam housing is the difficult first step.

Other immigrant parents face obstacles of different kinds. Documentation presents a major barrier. If a child was born in their home country but lacks documentation, the parents must apply for birth certificates and other papers at their country’s embassy in Morocco. Diallo explained that this can be a serious challenge for parents who are living far from an embassy, are illiterate, or who themselves lack basic documentation like birth certificates.

Without prior documentation, it can be difficult for a parent legally to prove that their child is in fact their own. This is especially true for very young children and those born en route to Morocco during their parents’ migration.

Overland migration routes to North Africa are long, arduous and fraught with extreme danger. Smugglers and traffickers routinely hold migrants hostage to extort more money from their families. North African governments have caught and expelled thousands of migrants into desert borderlands. Some migrants end up penniless in remote locales, having been robbed or abandoned by smugglers, and must work to be able to pay for the next leg of the journey. Others are forced into slavery. Sexual violence against women and children is rampant.

The length and unpredictability of the journey means that some pregnant migrants will give birth en route in precarious circumstances dangerous to both mother and baby.

Children who are born while their mothers are in transit are often left stateless, unrecognized as citizens of any country. Besides the deep insecurity statelessness brings, it cuts off access to immediate needs like social services and education. Single mothers or mothers migrating without their partners are particularly vulnerable, as they must present marriage papers in order for the Moroccan state to recognize legally their children.

If parents are able to round up the proper papers, getting official validation from their embassy typically takes a few weeks at the very least.

Children who are born in Morocco to immigrant mothers are hampered in other ways. Unlike children born to immigrants in the U.S., they do not automatically receive citizenship. For a child even to be registered in the Moroccan system and receive a birth certificate, his or her mother must declare the birth within 30 days. If she misses the deadline, she incurs a fine of up to MAD 1,200 (nearly $130) and puts the child’s legal status and legitimacy at the discretion of the courts.

Diallo explains that some mothers are misinformed about the unfamiliar system and quickly leave the hospital to avoid what they think is an immediate fee. When they later learn of their mistake, they have to argue in front of a judge and spend money that could add up to one and two months of rent. Some may forgo the trouble, leaving their children without papers.

At CCSM’s meeting in Fes, the discussion group targeted the birth registration system as an unnecessary barrier that should be removed. Helene Yamta, a Chadian child psychologist and president of Voice of Women Migrants in Morocco, was adamant that this deadline and fee keeps too many children trapped in a limbo without access to education. Yamta, who has lived in Morocco for 18 years, added that the system is even more inaccessible for children who immigrated without parents and those who became separated from their parents en route. The question remains who will take charge of these children, she said.

The group agreed that neither money nor ponderous bureaucracy should bar immigrant children from receiving recognition from the government. Perhaps equally important, they said, is the clear communication of information in a format and language accessible to anyone.

So far, communication has been poor. Anglophone immigrants, who make up a significant part of the population, are put at a particular disadvantage; the entire system is conducted in either French or Arabic.

If a parent manages to get a hold of the necessary identification and, crucially, a Moroccan residency card, the wilaya (state government office) must then validate the documents in order to enroll his or her child in the school system. This adds another couple of weeks to the wait. Both public and private schools require the same valid legal resident status.

Among the six documents required for enrollment by the 2013 Ministry of Education memo are annual school certificates from the child’s country of origin and copies of the child’s and the parents’ birth certificates. As Diallo explained, such documents—and the many other documents required throughout the process—are often either hard to access or were not priority baggage for migrants on the road north.

The government’s approach to integrating immigrant children into schools may be well-intentioned, the Fes group agreed, but it does not address the daily realities facing parents. Faced with an unwieldy and foreign system and immediate needs for work, food and shelter, it is not surprising that some parents would prioritize the latter. Unemployed parents are most likely going to spend their time looking for ways to afford daily bread rather than to navigate a complicated system, says Diallo.

Cultural Divides

Bureaucracy alone is not the sole impediment to progress. Parents’ mindsets matter too. Some of the many non-Muslim immigrant parents are hesitant to send their children to Moroccan schools, Diallo explained, because they fear that they will become “Islamicized.” They incorrectly assume that the Moroccan school system is a religious one; Islam is studied in Moroccan schools, but as a separate class alongside science or literature. One Moroccan teacher at the meeting in Fes said, “Arabic is a language, Islam is a religion; you can’t say they are the same.”

In general, Diallo says, immigrants can tend to be “conservative” in their social habits, preferring to stay within their communities and neighborhoods, but insularity is by no means universal.

Parents’ concerns about sending their children to Moroccan schools are by no means unfounded. While the 2013 Ministry of Education memo “invited” school directors to “take all necessary measures to ensure [immigrant children’s] schooling, including pedagogical support and . . . a flexible approach in classrooms,” parents report that many schools have not been accommodating.

At the meeting in Fes, some in the group argued that, as much as immigrant children need to adapt to their new schools, Moroccan school teachers need to adapt to the new students. According to Yamta and other immigrant advocates, many public school teachers do not have the capacity to teach adequately in French, which is a de facto official language of Morocco and usually the only language shared between Moroccans and most immigrant children.

In these classes, sub-Saharan immigrant children are left outside of the learning process, unable to understand Arabic, the language of instruction for lower education. (In most higher education, French is the preferred language of instruction.) Anglophone students from countries like Nigeria or Liberia are left even further in the shadows.

This could be solved, the group in Fes agreed, if schools required their teachers to be fully bilingual in French as well as Arabic, in order to “manage a diverse class.” Alternatively, bilingual teachers aids should be present to assist non-Arabic speaking students.

Like immigrants in any country, those in Morocco face immediate pressure to master the local language. Almost no sub-Saharan immigrants arrive being able to speak Moroccan Arabic; many had not intended on staying at all. Many do make the effort once they settle. Through daily interactions and friendships, newcomers can learn the language piecemeal, but affordable, structured classes—and the time to take them—are hard to come by.

Aimée Lokake is the President of the Congolese Community of Morocco. Originally from Kinshasa but resident in Morocco for ten years, she has two children in public schools there. Her daughter, who was born in Morocco, has picked up basic Moroccan Arabic in the classroom out of necessity. Moroccans frustrated with the language divide could have their concerns met by the the full educational integration of immigrant children, who learn language more quickly than adults.

Lokake, a thoughtful woman with a warm laugh, told the group that when she and a group of other immigrant mothers brought concerns about the classroom language barrier to the school director, he brushed them off, saying, “You must learn Arabic.”

She went on to say that the classroom divide cuts beyond language and into culture, pulling prejudice to the surface. In a class of 25 students, Lokake’s daughter is the only non-Moroccan. She has told her mother that, on several occasions her peers have said that they don’t want to touch her. A Moroccan teacher in the group retorted that she has the opposite problem: sub-Saharan students don’t want to sit next to Moroccans.

The teacher insisted that it is her and her colleagues’ responsibility to help students unlearn such prejudice. Lokake contended that the burden is on parents: “It starts in the home. What kids learn at home, they bring to school,” she said.

She emphasized that Moroccans need to recognize that they are from the same continent. In Africa, she said, “there are some countries that are black and there are other countries that are brown . . . . Parents must teach their children” to understand their peers as “brothers.” But, she added, teachers also need to learn to keep their own prejudices out of the classroom.

These classrooms reflect the experiences of many adult immigrants in Moroccan society. Lokake recounted the many times she has witnessed young Moroccans “provoke” and “insult” immigrants on public buses, while their parents or other adults sit in silence. “I saw a boy, who was with his father, who said [a racist slur] . . . . I said to the father, ‘Do you accept that your son talks to an adult like that? You must educate your children at home.’”

Her Moroccan interlocutor countered that she “must not generalize. Some people are like that . . . but people are diverse. You must speak nicely if you want people to understand.” With a smile and a head shake, Lokake responded that when she has spoken nicely, people have looked right past her.

It is true that Moroccan society does not unilaterally harbor antagonism for sub-Saharan immigrants. Moroccans are indeed diverse; many, like those at the meeting in Fes, actively advocate for the well-being of immigrants. But advocacy groups in Morocco report that sub-Saharans—both immigrants and migrants in transit—have been clear targets of violence and more buffered forms of racism. In 2012, the magazine Maroc Hebdo referred to sub-Saharan immigrants as “Le Péril Noir” (“The Black Danger”).

A breaking point came in November 2017, when a group of Moroccans violently clashed with a group of immigrants who had been taking shelter in a park near the Ouled Ziane bus station in Casablanca. An accidental fire in the park provoked simmering tensions between the migrants and locals, some of whom expressed intense enmity towards the migrants.

Social Integration

Rachid Moumen of CCSM explained that, while the government can establish means for immigrants to integrate legally, “integrating socially” is a more complicated task.

Patrick Serge, an artist from Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, came to Morocco nearly ten years ago. He lives in Rabat, where he works with CCSM and trains local youth in the arts. Serge is a painter, an actor and choreographer. Currently, he is working with young Moroccans and sub-Saharans on a performance piece about immigration. He sees this kind of informal artistic education as a prime medium for young immigrants to craft a home in Morocco. Given a platform to engage with Moroccans in the creation of a common story, they can take ownership of their lives.

A resolute optimist, Serge insists that, “You have to love the place you live [in], so it can open the doors of the future. If you hate the place . . . it will give no solution. If you love the place you are living [in], you will take possession. If you take possession of the place, you will have power to succeed.”

Many immigrants here, he says, are “victims of the place,” because they arrived without plans to stay. “Instead of waiting, dreaming for a change,” people have to “take the bull by the horns.” Serge admits that it isn’t easy, but “you have to try. You have to try to find solutions.”

Signs of Unwelcome

For many immigrants, however, the places in which they live are not treating them with love. Since July, Moroccan authorities have routinely detained, forcibly relocated, and raided the homes of an estimated 5,000 immigrants—those living legally in the country, those without papers, and those seeking to cross into Europe.

Inside Arabia spoke with one Cameroonian man who had been living legally in Tangier for several years when Moroccan police raided his home and bussed him and dozens of others 550 miles south to Tiznit. He managed to pay for a bus back to Casablanca. The immigrants targeted in the Ouled Ziane clash were likely sheltering there after having been relocated from encampments near the northern borders

Relocations, justified as a crackdown on trafficking networks, typically leave people vulnerable in remote, unfamiliar locales without money, shelter, or medical care. Mamadou Diallo, of CCSM, said that these raids and relocations “make people fear to live here . . . . Before, if you asked me if I want to move [out of Morocco], I said no . . . . Now, if you ask me, I say that, anytime I have a chance to move, I will move.”

Sending strong unwelcome signals will not prevent people from immigrating, but will encourage more to try to risk their lives crossing the Strait of Gibraltar or scaling the fences of Ceuta and Melilla. The crackdown could be seen as an answer to European demands to cut migration, but Diallo maintains that Morocco is ultimately responsible for its actions. He asks the authorities to be more “prudent.” He says that immigrants can integrate into Moroccan society and their children into Moroccan schools, but government support has to be comprehensive. One hand cannot offer help while the other harms or takes help away.

For Diallo, CCSM and the group meeting in Fes, this is another argument for a truly “humanist” immigration policy and one born of cooperation among government ministries, rooted in a binding, actionable legal framework.

“A Problem for All Society”

As they see it, ensuring equal education for young immigrants is not just a matter of basic human rights, but also one of national security, social stability, and economic growth. Tens of thousands of immigrants are in Morocco to stay, and a generation of today’s neglected youth will become tomorrow’s neglected adults. Neighbors must learn together to understand each other and live well together, says Diallo. He describes an inaccessible education system as a “problem for all society.”

If young immigrants, like young Moroccans, have little or no access to education, it will be hard for them to make a living, contribute to society, and live decent adult lives. Needing money while being barred from the legitimate job market, either due to discrimination or a lack of education, can push people to resort to illegal livelihoods to survive, like smuggling other migrants for profit. Today, there are get wrapped up in this kind of work because “they have to live,” says Diallo. According to him, smuggling networks persist in part because immigrants are largely left out of the opportunities available to Moroccans.

Overlooked youth could also be drawn into religious extremism. Association L’Orchidée, which took part in the meeting in Fes, works to engage local Moroccan youth in civic society, in part to counter the pull of radicalization, which claims to offer purpose, community, and opportunity to those who have none. Now, they are beginning to embrace young immigrants as crucial parts of that social landscape.

In the discussion in Fes, some pointed out that immigrants to Morocco face similar barriers to those faced by Moroccan immigrants in Europe. Journalist Driss Ghali wrote in HuffPost Maghreb that Moroccans should extend to sub-Saharan immigrants the “principles of tolerance that we ask Westerners to adopt with regard to Moroccan communities in Europe.”

Immigrants who are kept in the margins, especially youth without local family connections, will likely be targets of increasing violence. Continued harassment by local authorities will discourage victims from reporting violence, further stripping them of the basic rights and protections guaranteed in the Moroccan Constitution.

Morocco is set to host the World Migration Conference in December, intended to bring this year’s Global Compact for Migration into action. The goal is a “universal commitment of the international community to manage migration in a humane manner and for the benefit of all actors.” Immigrant advocates hope that this conference will put the pressure on the Moroccan government to unequivocally and resolutely protect young immigrants’ right to education.

“With education,” Diallo says, “everything is possible.”