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Historical and Recent Trends in Immigration and Emigration | Morocco |

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Historical and Recent Trends in Immigration and Emigration

Hein de Haas

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Pre-colonial migration

Morocco's pre-colonial history exemplifies the idea that pre-modern societies can be highly dynamic and mobile. The population history of Morocco is characterized by continually shifting patterns of human settlement over large distances, which has produced the highly diverse society and culture of present-day Morocco.

Nomadic or semi-nomadic (transhumant) groups traveled large distances with their herds between summer and winter pastures. While some nomadic tribes settled, other sedentary groups became nomadic or settled elsewhere. Following the Arab-Islamic conquests beginning in the seventh century, Arab tribal groups migrated to and settled in present-day Morocco, where they deeply influenced traditional Berber society. At the same time, many Arabs who had settled assimilated into local Berber culture and society.

Monotheistic religion has been another factor in stimulating mobility. Besides the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), the numerous marabutic pilgrimages (mussems) prevailing within the entire Maghreb and West African cultural area, mobility related to the religious schooling of pupils and students at medersas and Islamic universities, as well as the peregrination of religious teachers has put people into contact over large distances.

Also, Moroccan Jews have been highly mobile both within Morocco and internationally. Their extended networks enabled them to travel and to settle elsewhere, and Jews played a vital role as intermediaries and merchants in the trans-Saharan trade as well as in establishing contacts and trade relationships between Moroccan sultanates and European countries from the sixteenth century onwards. Following the reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, large numbers of "Andalusian" Muslims and Megorashim Jews fled to Morocco and settled in northern cities.

Ever since the eighth century AD, the urban-based sultanic dynasties and the upper classes associated with the sultan's power – the makhzen – have attempted to gain control over the autonomous Berber and Arab ethnic groups living in mountainous areas and deserts of Morocco's hinterland. The establishment and growth of imperial cities in western and northern Morocco (mainly Rabat, Marrakech, Fes and Meknes) attracted merchants and migrants from rural Morocco. The makhzen's strategic economic interests in the Trans-Saharan caravan trade required them to establish military strongholds and trading posts in the interior. In regions south of the Atlas Mountains, oases were commercial and migratory junctions. The diverse ethnic composition in oases – with their blend of Sub-Saharan, Berber, Arab and Jewish influences – testifies to a long history of intensive population mobility.

Centuries-old seasonal and circular rural-to-rural migration patterns existed between certain rural areas – such as the Rif Mountains and the southern oases – and the relatively humid regions and the imperial towns in western and northern Morocco. The Trans-Saharan caravan trade engendered significant population mobility and migration between sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. Far into the twentieth century, the slave trade constituted an important form of forced migration within and towards Morocco.

Migration in the colonial era

The French colonisation of Algeria in 1830 marked the beginning of a period of economic and political restructuring, which was to create entirely new migration patterns within the Maghreb region. The increasing demand for wage labour on the farms of French colonists and in the northern cities attracted a rising number of seasonal and circular migrants from rural areas in Morocco.

In 1912, the French-Spanish protectorate over Morocco was formally established. While France gained control over the heartland of Morocco, the Spanish protectorate was mainly limited to the Western Sahara and the northern Rif mountain zone. Integration of the largely autonomous tribes of Morocco's hinterland into the modern state, the expansion of the capitalist economy, road construction, other infrastructure works and the rapid growth of cities along the Atlantic coast shaped new markets for rural-to-urban migration.

During the First World War, an urgent need for manpower in France led to the active recruitment of tens of thousands of Moroccan men for the army, industry and mines. Although most migrants returned after the end of war, international migration to France resumed after 1920, because of the flourishing French economy. In the Second World War, labour demand again led to the recruitment of Moroccan men in Morocco. About 126,000 Moroccan men served in the French army during the Second World War and in the subsequent wars in Korea and French Indochina (Vietnam).

The Moroccan migration boom

Morocco became independent from France in 1956. Circular migration to Algeria came to a definitive halt in 1962 following closure of the Moroccan-Algerian border as a result of tensions between the two countries after Algerian independence from France. From then on, international migration from Morocco would become more and more focused on Europe.

Rapid post-war economic growth in northwest Europe created increasing unskilled labour shortages in sectors such as industry, mining, housing construction and agriculture from the 1950s. Until the early 1960s, most were recruited in south European countries. When this migration stagnated, attention shifted towards south Mediterranean countries. Agreements on the recruitment of "guest workers" were signed between Morocco and the former West Germany (1963), France (1963), Belgium (1964) and the Netherlands (1969). This was the onset of a spatial diversification of Moroccan migration to Europe, which was previously mainly directed towards France.

Formal recruitment by specialised agencies in the host countries was important only in the initial years of labour migration. Spontaneous settlement, network migration and informal recruitment by companies was far more important numerically than formal recruitment, even in the 1960s and 1970s. Administrative obstacles, long waiting lists and the accompanying bribery necessary to acquire travel documents encouraged people to migrate as "tourists" and stay on as labour migrants. Migrants were often assisted by relatives or friends who had already migrated, and who then acted as intermediaries between employers and potential migrants. In the 1960s, most emigrants traveled to France, the Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere without a prearranged work permit in order to find work and were regularized at a later point in time. These spontaneous settlers did not initially experience too many problems in finding work and accommodation. Although the attitudes of the host societies towards migration became negative from the 1970s, many migrants succeeded in obtaining permanent residence papers through a series of legalization campaigns in the Netherlands (1975), Belgium (1975) and in France (1981-1982).

Moroccan Jews, who started to migrate in relatively small numbers to Gibraltar, London, Manchester and Marseilles in the second half of the nineteenth century, began emigrating from Morocco in large numbers following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. On the eve of this migration, Morocco's Jewish population numbered over 250,000. Between 1948 and 1956, 90,000 Jews emigrated. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, most remaining Jews decided to leave the country.

Between 1948 and 2003, a total of 270,188 Moroccan Jews migrated to Israel. In 2003, the Israeli population included 161,000 people born in Morocco, plus 335,000 born in Israel with a Moroccan-born father. Including Israeli-born with a Moroccan-born mother and the third generation, it is estimated that at least 700,000 people of Moroccan ancestry live in Israel. Presently, about 5,000 Jews remain in Morocco.

Diversification of migration in response to restrictive policies

The Moroccan state, European receiving countries as well as most migrants themselves expected that this migration would only be temporary. Standing in an ancient tradition of circular migration, most migrants themselves intended to return after a certain amount of money had been saved to buy some land, construct a house, or start their own enterprise. The 1973 Oil Crisis heralded a period of economic stagnation and restructuring, resulting in rising unemployment and lower demand for unskilled workers. Consequently, northwest European countries closed their borders to new labor migrants. However, most migrants did not return, but ended up staying in Europe permanently. The Oil Crisis radically changed the political and economic context in which migration took place, both in Europe and in Morocco. Morocco suffered even more than the European countries from the high oil prices and the global economic downturn. In addition, following two failed coups d'état against King Hassan II in 1971 and 1972, the country also entered into a period of increasing political instability and repression.

This combination of factors explains why many migrants decided to stay on the safe side, that is, in Europe. Paradoxically, the recruitment freeze stimulated permanent settlement instead of the reverse. Large-scale family reunification heralded this shift from circular to more permanent migration. It was mainly through family reunification that the total population of Moroccans in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany continued to increase. Return migration has been low among Moroccans compared to other immigrant groups in Europe.

While family reunification was largely complete at the end of the 1980s, family formation gained significance as a major source of new migration from Morocco over the 1990s. For many Moroccans, marrying a partner in Europe has become the only option to enter the classic destination countries (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany) legally. Significant proportions of the second-generation Moroccan descendants marry partners from the region of origin.

Besides the increasing reliance on family migration, a second consequence of the implementation of restrictive immigration policies was an increase in undocumented migration to Europe. Especially during high economic growth in the 1990s, undocumented migrants were attracted by the increasing demand for cheap labour in agriculture, construction and the service sector. This went along with a diversification of migration destinations and the rather sudden rise of Externer Link: Spain and Italy as prime destination countries for new Moroccan labour migrants. Themselves former labour exporters, Spain and Italy have emerged as the main destination countries for new Moroccan labour migrants since the mid-1980s. Over the last decade, there has also been a notable increase of migration to Externer Link: Canada and the Externer Link: United States. These migrants tend to be highly skilled, and their migration is influenced by the high unemployment among high educated in Morocco.



  1. See de Haas (2005).

  2. See de Haas (2003) as well as Lightfoot and Miller (1996).

  3. See Büchner (1986) as well as Fadloullah, Berrada and Khachani (2000).

  4. See Bidwell (1973).

  5. See Collyer (2004) and Shadid (1979).

  6. See Muus (1995).

  7. See Kenbib (1999).

  8. See de Haas (2007b).

  9. See Lievens (1999) and Reniers (2001).

  10. See Huntoon (1998).

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