As sometimes happens in this line of work, we released a report this week on abuses against migrants in Morocco just as the government had begun taking steps to address this problem. 

Authorities thought we should have focused more on the positive, notably the initiative that King Mohammed VI announced in September to overhaul migration policies, with explicit reference to the rights of migrants under the 2011 constitution.

Our report details the violence and abuse that Moroccan security forces perpetrated against the sub-Saharan migrants they arrested near the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. We began documenting this pattern well before the government announced migration reform, but interviews we conducted with migrants just this month showed many of the abuses to be continuing.

Morocco may be poor, but an estimated 25,000 West Africans currently prefer it to the homelands they fled. Many arrived hell-bent on reaching Spain but, faced with ever-more fortified borders, settled in cities like Casablanca and Rabat, peddling cheap goods, hunting for day work, or begging. Many entered illegally or overstayed their visas, and live in fear of the police.

Our research focused on the migrants squatting along the northern coast near Ceuta and Melilla, the only land crossings from Africa to Europe. They described how security forces frequently stole migrants’ possessions, burned their improvised shelters, and – through the summer of 2013 – expelled them at the Algerian border without the due process provided by Moroccan law.

Some quick improvements followed the King’s embrace of migration reform, including a halt to expulsions at the border, according to migrants and nongovernmental associations. Additionally, Morocco opened a new path to legalization for some foreigners and began granting one-year visas, including the right to work, to those whom the UN had qualified as refugees.

Announcing reforms was a bold move in a country where public opinion is sometimes hostile toward poor migrants. Of course, everything depends on implementation: on the nature of forthcoming legislation and the mechanism for evaluating future asylum applications. It depends on fair deportation procedures for migrants who will not qualify for regularization, on public awareness campaigns to combat xenophobia, and on how easily migrants can enroll their children in school.

If the reforms end up safeguarding the rights of asylum-seekers and other migrants, Morocco can become a model in northern Africa, where most states treat migrants from the rest of Africa disgracefully.  Morocco should start, however, by reining in its own forces when they treat migrants disgracefully.