FEZ, Morocco – Born and raised in Lagos, 16-year-old Juliet Bamawo left her home and her family a year ago to travel thousands of miles from Nigeria to Morocco, propelled by the dream of studying at a European university and one day becoming a nurse. But soon after she arrived, reality set in. Instead of living in an apartment in Europe and learning about nursing, Bamawo is living in a makeshift camp beside Fez’s newly refurbished train station, in a tent made from plastic and scraps of material. There is no running water, and the tents are surrounded by garbage.
“I came here to travel to Europe, but there is no money,” she says. “I am now trying to get money, I am looking for help. It is difficult to live here. If there was a job and I was paid, I would work.”
Bamawo is among 15 Nigerian women living in the camp of around 300 residents from 10 sub-Saharan countries. Many were drawn by Morocco’s recently relaxed immigration policy, which tolerates camps like the one in Fez. But that’s as far as the welcome goes: Once migrants arrive, usually planning to continue on to Europe, they are given no support and essentially left to fend for themselves.
The lack of provisions leaves migrants unable to find work, abandoned in squalid, crime-ridden camps, and unable to move on to their final destination. And for women migrants who come to Morocco without an accompanying man, that usually means arriving to a life of poverty, exploitation and abuse.
The North African country of 35 million people has historically been a magnet for migrants. Many arrive with an “obsession to cross Gibraltar at any cost,” says Mohamed Khachani, president of the Moroccan Association for Studies and Research on Migration. But in response to the ongoing refugee crisis, many European countries have strengthened their borders, leaving large numbers of migrants stuck in Morocco. “There used to be evictions of clandestine migrants from Morocco. Nowadays it is not common to deport anymore,” says Khachani.
The drop in evictions is a result of a new strategy on immigration and asylum that Morocco announced in 2013, based on recommendations issued by the Moroccan National Human Rights Council. According to the report, Morocco “undoubtedly suffers from the effects of a strict European policy of control of its external borders.” So the government decided to adopt a human rights-based approach to documenting migrants. In a one-off move, Moroccan authorities issued around 27,000 residence permits to migrants between September 2013 and February 2015. The carte de séjour includes a work permit and offers access to primary and secondary schooling, but not to public health insurance.
The majority of women migrants who come to Morocco in hopes of crossing through the country to gain entry into Europe are from Nigeria and Cameroon, but there are also women from Mali, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And for many of them, the already risky journey along the Trans-Sahara Highway is made even more treacherous by the constant threat of exploitation and sexual violence.
“Women suffer more than men. When they cross over 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles), imagine every single border they have to cross,” says Khachani. “They suffer countless violations of numerous types.” According to his research, one-third of the migrant women living in Morocco were abused on their way to North Africa.
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that of the over 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers considered persons of concern in Morocco, 44 percent are women. And a study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) found most women migrants in Morocco travel without family members, but often in groups with other migrants.
According to a report by the IOM, more than half of the women are single mothers, the majority of them having become pregnant on the route, most likely in a context of abuse.
Migrants’ rights advocates say that while Morocco’s new immigration policy seems to treat migrants more humanely than many other countries, it fails to protect those most vulnerable once they arrive. “Women should be treated differently, they should be protected from rape and human trafficking. We should give them shelters and healthcare support,” says Moha Ennaji, president of the South-North Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Migration Studies and director of Morocco’s first PhD program in gender studies. “And for those who have babies, we should help them with daycare and kindergartens.”
Noting that Morocco has no women-only migrant shelters, Ennaji, who also works as a consultant to the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, says more needs to be done to help migrants once they get to Morocco. The new policy “basically says that we don’t deport them, we don’t beat them up … we tolerate them, [but] they can beg and fight for a job.”
As head of the national body for the care and protection of migrants in Morocco, Fatima Attari deals directly with girls like Bamawo who are living in refugee camps. Attari says fighting against racism and discrimination are key to helping integrate undocumented women. “We need to welcome, listen, inform, guide, advise, assist them and provide legal, social and professional support,” she says.
While Bamawo still plans to one day make the dangerous sea crossing to Europe, these days she isn’t driven as much by her dream of becoming a nurse as by her desperation to move to somewhere safe and clean. “If I had good shelter, I would stay in Morocco,” she says. “Look at our environment here, it is very dirty. We need help; we are sick. We don’t know who can help us.”