Syrian Refugees Are Stuck at the Intersection of the Algeria-Morocco Rivalry

Western countries seem unable to overcome populist politics to work to save Syrian lives. It seems some Arab states are no different.
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Moroccan and Algerian flags fly at the border between the two countries. (Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

Moroccan and Algerian flags fly at the border between the two countries. (Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian refugees have faced closed doors in the increasingly anti-immigrant West, particularly amid elections with populist candidates championing Muslim bans as policy.

But they also face political roadblocks in the East. Confronted by a group of Syrian refugees searching for shelter between Morocco and Algeria, the two North African nations remain mired in a decades-long, post-colonial nationalistic rivalry; the Syrians have become just another a flashpoint.

The two nations’ standoff is one that in the past stymied efforts to build a potentially powerful North African political and economic union. After revolutions swept the region in 2011, then-Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki pledged to revive the Arab Maghreb Union, a political and economic union of North African states. That plan never materialized (much to the dismay of advocates for an empowered, developing Arab World), thanks in large part to the Moroccan-Algerian rivalry.

It’s a rivalry that at times has seemed to be equal parts petty and whimsical: The nations’ patriots — potentially state-sponsored — have exchanged countless cyber attacks replacing government websites with gaudily nationalistic GIFs. Now, Algeria is engaged in a telling bid to build a taller minaret than Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque.

But enmeshed in this standoff between the two states are Arabs escaping a torturous, seemingly endless conflict that both the West and East have ultimately failed to address.

“What you see instead are Syrian refugees forced to beg in cities like Algiers and Casablanca, and only few charities are there to help.”

Moroccan and Algerian authorities summoned each other’s emissaries on Sunday over a group of 54 Syrian nationals. The Moroccan officials allege Algerian authorities had forced the Syrians to cross illegally into Moroccan territory at the frontier town of Figuig. The Algerian authorities, for their part, “categorically rejected the Moroccans’ serious accusations on the Syrian nationals,” according to a press release from Algiers’ state-run press agency, Algérie Presse Service. It had been the Moroccan authorities, according to APS, who had endeavored to force not one but two separate convoys of Syrian refugees to illegally cross over into Algerian territory.

Faced with little outpouring of support from the non-Arab world, it appears Syrians enjoy no better treatment in North Africa.

“There is certainly a difference between what these countries’ government advertise and say—as being supporting of Arab causes—and the reality,” says Arezki Daoud, an Algerian-American analyst of North African affairs and editor of the United States-based North Africa Journal.

“In the past, the revenues generated from, say, the sale of oil, gas, and other commodities allowed the North African governments to earmark funds to help Arab refugees, including in the beginning of the Syrian crisis,” he adds. “But those days are gone. What you see instead are Syrian refugees forced to beg in cities like Algiers and Casablanca, and only few charities are there to help.”

Questions arise as to whether a shared Arab identity should mean that North African states treat Syrian refugees with more dignity or charity than Western counterparts — or whether they should put aside political standoffs to offer beleaguered fellow Arabs respite from seemingly insurmountable violence.

“Should the Syrian refugees benefit from pan-Arab solidarity? Historically, pan-Arab sentiment has played well at the popular level, but it has never carried much currency at the level of high politics, where national interests tend to prevail,” says Osama Abi-Mershed, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and a noted scholar on the region. “In the case of Algeria and Morocco, the notion of cross-border solidarity, even in popular terms, is extremely strained for historical reasons dating to the war of the sands in 1963, and compounded by the conflict in Western Sahara.”

Abi-Mershed is referring to the conflict centered around Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara, colonized by the Spanish until 1975. The Moroccan government is opposed at home by the Polisario Sahrawi independence movement, which is backed by the Algerian government. Many Moroccans — even among the social progressives who were supportive of the 2011 movement for good governance — see Algeria’s support for that independence movement as a thinly veiled attempt to infringe upon Moroccan sovereignty. International rights organizations like Amnesty International have condemned Rabat for what it calls sweeping human rights violations in Western Sahara, including the brutal suppression of dissidents.

Beyond the Western Sahara issue, “both want to be considered the regional leader specific to the Maghreb and have been competing for influence,” Daoud says. Algeria has in past years had a booming energy sector; Morocco is often characterized by the U.S. and European allies as an indispensable partner in counter-terrorism efforts.

Both Algeria and Morocco have — at least until the present standoff over what are called “illegal” arrivals by both states— accepted thousands of refugees from Syria, and refugees have been the topic of heated exchanges between the countries in the past.

“Both countries routinely expel refugees from their territories into neighboring states. In general, these expulsions target sub-Saharan Africans, and are the occasion for gross violations of human rights,” Abi-Mershed says, “In this sense, we are not dealing with two choir boys with impeccable credentials on human rights here, and while the Syrian case is particularly disastrous, we should not lose sight of the overall dismal treatment of refugees on Algerian and Moroccan territory.”

Whether there are larger political calculations involved in this latest exchange over the Syrian refugees is “hard to tell in light of the accusations and counter-accusations,” Abi-Mershed says.

But for Daoud, it all comes back to the Western Sahara issue.

“Migrants are used for political purposes,” Daoud says. “The number that Morocco is complaining about is a drop in the bucket and does not constitute a security risk for Morocco, but it is just a political tool to use against its neighbor.”

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