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When many Americans hear “Morocco,” they likely conjure up the image of Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart standing on an airplane tarmac in Casablanca. Almost four decades after the release of the movie, the impact of refugees escaping Moroccan forces has become an ingrained issue among northwest African countries. The following 10 facts explain the fascinating history of refugees in Morocco, both those running away from the North African nation and those running to it.

  1. Morocco, long controlled by Spain, earned independence from France in 1956. In 1976, Morocco laid claim to the Western Sahara, an area south of Morocco, after Spain withdrew from the territory.
  2. This action incited a decades-long war between Morocco and the Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s liberation movement, that lasted until 1991 when the United Nations brokered a cease-fire.
  3. The suspension of hostilities left Morocco with de facto control over two-thirds of Western Sahara. As a result, thousands of refugees from Western Sahara fled to Tindouf, Algeria.
  4. 2016 data from the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates that 90,000 Western Saharan refugees remain in camps in Tindouf, Algeria. They have not returned to their native region because a referendum to vote on the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco — promised in the 1991 U.N. cease-fire — has yet to occur.
  5. While the situation seems desperate, many of the refugees remain hopeful that they will one day return to their homeland. They consider themselves to be a democratic movement and strive for gender equality. A U.N. program flies the refugees back to Western Sahara for short-term visits.
  6. Algeria, where the Western Saharan refugees now live, has a historically strained relationship with its neighbor, Morocco. Most recently, 41 Syrian refugees were stuck between the borders of the two countries for weeks until Algeria accepted them.
  7. The North African nation has received an influx of refugees since the start of the Syrian civil war, signaling a new chapter for refugees in Morocco. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than half of the 6,000 refugees and asylum-seekers currently in Morocco are from Syria.
  8. The UNHCR works with public and private partners to provide assistance to these refugees. The Moroccan Ministry of Education, for instance, guarantees the right of all children to enroll in primary classes, regardless of legal status.
  9. Morocco currently extends protection from deportation to most refugees and migrants, even if they entered the country illegally.
  10. Most of these refugees attempt to use Morocco as a means to enter Europe, believing that it is the safest passage, though most end up waiting for months in cramped immigration centers. About 200 refugees make the crossing to Europe each week.


As the number of refugees continues to swell and the fear of terrorism increases, the status of refugees in Morocco will be questioned. Nonetheless, the Moroccan government and the global community remain committed to finding a long-term solution so that the rights of each refugee are recognized and that they have a place to call home. Refugees continue to impact northwestern Africa in numerous ways.

Sean Newhouse

Photo: Flickr