People stand near a border post on the Algerian side of the Morocco-Algeria border in the north east of Morocco July 31, 2011. 

© 2011 Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

(Tunis) – Algerian and Moroccan border authorities appear to be blocking two groups of Syrian asylum seekers from leaving the border area near the Moroccan city of Figuig, Human Rights Watch said today. The Syrians, including women and children, have been trapped there since April 18, 2017, in abysmal conditions, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Morocco, the two groups total 55 people, including 20 women, 2 of them in advanced states of pregnancy, and 22 children. One woman gave birth in the border area on the evening of April 23. It is unclear whether she had medical assistance. Authorities in both countries should step up to share responsibility, consider claims for protection based on the preference of the Syrian asylum seekers, and ensure that all the asylum seekers have access to necessary services, especially pregnant and breast-feeding women.

“While Algerian and Moroccan authorities squabble over which country should take the Syrians, men, women, and children are trapped in a desert-like area near the border between them, sleeping in the open and unable to apply for asylum,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa executive director at Human Rights Watch.

Moroccan authorities have indicated that they will grant entry visas to nine of the Syrians who have relatives living legally in Morocco, a spokesperson for UNHCR told Human Rights Watch on May 3.

The two groups arrived at the border area after leaving Syria and traveling through Libya and Algeria. Moroccan authorities publicly accused Algeria of deporting the asylum seekers to Morocco. The Algerian Foreign Ministry denied the allegations, saying they were aimed at “harming Algeria,” yet did not offer another version of events.
 
One of the Syrian asylum seekers, who spoke with Human Rights Watch on April 24, said that her group had left Algeria with guidance from local people around April 17. However, on April 18, Moroccan security forces intercepted them and pushed them back toward Algeria, she said:

 

We were a group of 14 people, mostly women and children and only one man. We traveled to Algeria from Syria, transiting through Libya and Sudan. We crossed the Moroccan border with the help of local people, but Moroccan border guards stopped us and made us spend the night. The next day, they pushed us back toward Algeria. But Algerian border guards intercepted us and didn’t allow us to enter Algerian territory. Now we are stuck between the Algerian and Moroccan borders and no one is providing us with any food or any kind of assistance. I have family living in Morocco, which is why I wanted to go there.

It is a violation of Morocco’s international obligations to remove asylum seekers from its territory or from under the control of Moroccan authorities, without a fair hearing to determine refugee status. It is also a violation to send them to a country where they face the risk of persecution or inhuman and degrading treatment or that might deport them to a third country where they would face that risk. Such removals also may violate article 29 of Morocco’s Law 02-03 on the Entry and Presence of Foreigners in the Kingdom. That article also prohibits the removal of pregnant women.

While international law does not prohibit the deportation of pregnant or breast-feeding women, both countries should ensure that all the trapped asylum seekers, in particular pregnant or breast-feeding women, have access to appropriate services while their claims for protection are being considered. If countries issue lawful deportation orders, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has said, they should “to treat each case individually, with due consideration to the gender-related circumstances.”