Sahrawi women carrying the flags commemorating the proclamation of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Morocco’s Weaponization of Migration in Western Sahara Conflict


Elghalia Djimi was on her way to apply for a visa at the Spanish Consulate in Rabat when she was followed by Moroccan security forces.

Now in her sixties, the Saharawi human rights activist lives in El Aaiun, the capital of Western Sahara, and she is used to being on the authorities’ radar. When she was in her twenties, she was the victim of ‘enforced disappearance’ at the hands of the Moroccan authorities for protesting against the military occupation of Western Sahara since 1976. She was sent to a secret prison where she was repeatedly tortured before she was finally released in 1991.

Today, Djimi continues to advocate internationally for the self-determination rights of the Saharawi people but faces numerous dangers and obstacles in her work and daily life. In describing her most recent trip to the Moroccan capital, she said:

“Every time I took any kind of transport, someone was following us. This happens every time I travel. Normally when I fly I stay at the airport under their [the Moroccan authorities’] surveillance. They follow me when I go to the toilet or when I go to the Mosque overnight… That’s the way it always is.”

For decades, Morocco has sought to legitimize its control over Western Sahara by crushing dissent, violently dispersing peaceful protests, and restricting the activities of rights organizations. In 2016, King Mohammed VI declared Western Sahara his “top priority” when it comes to foreign policy. But with the world’s attention elsewhere, Morocco continues to use coercive force and is weaponizing migration against the European Union to double down on its claims to what is known as ‘Africa’s Last Colony’.

The Sahrawi struggle

Western Sahara is a vast, sparsely populated, swath of desert that lies south of Morocco on the Atlantic coast of Africa. A former Spanish colony, it has been the site of foreign exploitation since the late 19th century due to its massive phosphate reserves and other natural resources including fish, agriculture, petroleum, and natural gas.

On the heels of Spain’s hasty withdrawal from the territory in 1975, Morocco seized the opportunity to annex two-thirds of Western Sahara, claiming pre-colonial ties to the region despite the International Court of Justice’s dismissal of this claim in 1974 and numerous UN resolutions on the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. Angered by this decision, Morocco resettled some 350,000 of its citizens in Western Sahara, triggering the start of a decades-long war between Morocco and the El Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO or Polisario Front), a political-military movement that claims representation of the indigenous Saharawi people.

“In this country, the rights of man stop at the question of the [Western] Sahara. Anyone who said the Sahara was not Moroccan could not benefit from the rights of man,” wrote King Hassan II in his 1978 memoir. 

During the Moroccan invasion, an estimated 40,000 Sahrawi civilians fell victim to systematic bombings with chemical weapons, which prompted a large portion of the civilian population to flee to the Algerian border town of Tindouf to seek refuge and establish provisional camps. It was in these camps that the Polisario Front declared the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic as their official state in exile.

Today, the camps are home to more than 170,000 Sahrawi refugees, many of whom were born and raised there, and face chronic food insecurity and high rates of unemployment. The Algerian government provides electricity and internet connectivity to all the Sahrawi camps, and, as one of the Polisario Front’s few international backers, also supplies the group with military equipment. While the border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed for several years, the military buildup from both sides has continued to ratchet up tensions since the return to war in 2020, culminating with Algiers cutting diplomatic ties with Rabat in August 2021.

The United Nations intervened in the conflict in 1991 to establish a ceasefire agreement with the promise of a referendum for self-determination for the Saharawi people. But after nearly 30 years of failed diplomacy efforts, tensions boiled over in November 2020 when the Polisario Front declared a ‘return to the armed struggle’ following a clash with Morocco in a demilitarised buffer zone. The conflict is ongoing but receives very little international attention, due in large part to Morocco’s enforcement of a media blockade in Western Sahara that forbids journalists, lawyers, observers, and activists from entering the territory.

In 2023, an Italian researcher was expelled from Western Sahara for his work on energy development in the region. Sahrawi journalists and human rights activists are routinely subjected to physical and psychological abuse, disappearance, persecution, and imprisonment, all of which have been documented extensively by international rights groups like Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders. Last year, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHCR) said it ‘would undertake again meaningful missions to the region’.

A tumultuous allyship

The EU and Morocco are key allies in several areas, particularly concerning migration with a long-standing cooperation that dates back to 2004. As the only African country that shares a land border with the EU, Morocco is a country of origin and transit for asylum seekers and migrants entering the EU via Spain. Many migrants set off from the coast of Western Sahara on small boats headed towards the Spanish mainland or its Canary Islands.

In recent years, the EU has given millions of euros to Rabat to limit irregular migration, which peaked in Spain in 2018 with around 64,000 arrivals. In 2022, Morocco received €500 million from the EU and a further 152 million last year to ‘strengthen [its] border management actions in the fight against smuggling networks […] as well as the voluntary return and the reintegration of migrants to their countries of origin.’

But this cooperation has been tumultuous, with Morocco leveraging migration during various political disputes over the years. Notably, in April 2021, when Spain allowed the Saharawi leader Brahim Ghali to be treated for Covid-19 in a Spanish hospital, the Moroccan government warned Spain that harboring the Polisario Front leader would bring “consequences”.

Just a few weeks later, in apparent retaliation, Moroccan border guards sat back as a surge of 8,000 migrants – mostly Moroccan and including about 1,500 minors – swam across the ocean into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, overwhelming the local authorities and triggering a humanitarian crisis. Most of the arrivals were returned to Morocco within a few days of the breach, drawing criticism from rights groups who say bulk returns are illegal under international law.

“Europe has clearly prioritized its borders over human rights,” said Miguel Urbán Crespo, a Spanish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and a vocal advocate for Saharawi self-determination. “This is not new and it is part of a process in which barriers to circulation within Europe are eliminated, while external borders are reinforced and poverty is criminalized. It is intolerable that the European Union closes its eyes to the continuous human rights violations committed on the southern border and in Morocco itself, to continue prioritizing its economic and migratory interests.” Though far from an isolated incident, this event in Ceuta remains the largest irregular entry of people across the border in Spain to date.

Then, in 2022, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez made a historic and abrupt U-turn in Spain’s foreign policy stance when he announced his support for Morocco’s autonomy plan over Western Sahara – a plan that would grant the Sahrawis self-governance under Moroccan sovereignty. When news broke that Sánchez’s phone had been hacked with Pegasus software, there were speculations that Sánchez was personally blackmailed into supporting the plan and that the Moroccan intelligence service was behind the hacking.

France, another key ally in the EU, has also vocalized its support of the autonomy plan, and Morocco enjoys support from a growing number of African and Arab nations, particularly since the United States became the first country in the world to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara as part of a deal to normalize ties with Israel under then-President Donald Trump. Israel recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara in July of last year.

Crespo says Morocco repeatedly uses blackmail to achieve its foreign policy objectives. “Morocco uses not only migration but all the tools at its disposal to blackmail Spain and the EU to ensure support for its occupation of the Sahrawi territories,” he said, citing a notorious corruption scandal in 2022, in which several MEPs were arrested over their suspected involvement in corruption, money laundering, and organized crime supposedly involving both Qatar and Morocco in exchange for influence at the European Parliament. Among the many allegations of corruption was that Morocco used an agreement on fishing rights to deflect criticism of its human rights record and the status of Western Sahara.

“Despite the information about [this scandal] … relations have barely changed and cooperation continues to be maintained in migratory, political, and economic terms,” said Crespo.

Morocco’s weaponization of migration is, of course, but one piece of a larger and more complex puzzle in terms of its relationship and allyship with the EU. But it would appear that its gamble in Ceuta was successful in coaxing the Spanish government to change its position on Western Sahara. And as Morocco continues to play these border games – both in the EU and with its North African neighbors – one key way in which it is strengthening its hold over Western Sahara is through the systematic oppression of the Sahrawi people.

Systematised poverty

Meanwhile, as millions of Euros flow into Morocco to control migration, Sahrawis and other sub-Saharan African migrants are systematically denied opportunities like education and employment that would deter them from entering Europe.

“All the funding that Morocco gets from the EU benefits the Moroccans,” said Djimi, the human rights activist. “The Sahrawis are living in poverty – this is one way for Morocco to crush the Sahrawi population so that they cannot denounce the occupation they are subject to.”

Djimi has two adult children, both of whom have university degrees but are unable to get jobs.“When they try to find jobs they get turned down and told that they are the children of separatists and do not belong. My husband and I are doing our best to provide for them so they don’t leave their country. But Morocco, with oppression and retaliations, tries to force them to flee their country,” she said.

Sidi Breika, the Polisario Front’s UK representative, says that Morocco uses funding from the EU to tighten its military control over Western Sahara. “The data it provides in relation to this territory is absolutely false and it obviously uses illegal migration, collaboration on tackling terrorism and drug trafficking as blackmailing elements for Europe, which sees illegal migration as a paramount task that prevails over any other goal,” he said.

Nongovernmental organizations have reported a recent crackdown on migrants in Morocco, building on years of abuse against sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco and at the EU’s external borders. Morocco does not recognize any Sahrawi NGOs that advocate for self-determination, except the Saharawi Association of Victims of Grace Human Rights Violations, of which Djimi is Vice President. But Djimi says the organization is unable to open a bank account, severely limiting its ability to collect data on human rights abuses.

Despite these barriers, Djimi says she plans on traveling to Geneva later this month to attend a session of the UN Human Rights Council.  She expects the same difficulties in traveling outside of Western Sahara but remains determined. “Liberty requires huge sacrifices so the next generation can live in peace,” she says. “We will continue our peaceful fight and defend our principles and our rights, with all the legitimate possibilities.”

Maxine Betteridge-Moes

Maxine is the digital editor at New Internationalist magazine. Currently based in London, she also works as a freelance journalist writing about global human rights and social justice issues. She holds an MA Media in Development from SOAS, University of London and a Bachelor’s of Journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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