At the Western Doorstep: On the human rights violations resulting from the externalisation of asylum

Refugee Rights Europe’s latest report, ‘At the Western Doorstep’, highlights the complex experiences facing refugees and displaced people arriving in Europe through Morocco and via the Western Mediterranean route. The report raises renewed concerns about the deplorable impact of the European externalisation of asylum to non-EU countries, and serves as a stark reminder of the importance of a new Common European Asylum System rooted in respect for human rights.

In response to the arrival of asylum seekers via sea routes, the European Union and its Member States have on many fronts attempted to outsource responsibility to non-EU countries. The consequences of this externalisation of responsibilities for asylum seekers arriving via the Central Mediterranean route are widely known: refugees and displaced people intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are being returned to Libya, despite widespread reports of detention, torture and slavery.[i]

Meanwhile, the human rights-related consequences of the externalisation of responsibilities along the Western Mediterranean route currently receives less national and international attention, despite a number of alarming incidences and continued loss of life[ii]. Attempts to ‘stem’ the number of arrivals from Morocco through the outsourcing of border control is, unfortunately, nothing new, and have previously been called out by groups such as Human Rights Watch as “a recipe for abuse”.[iii] Indeed, research and media reports unambiguously suggest that Europe has been turning a blind eye to human rights violations and abuses being committed against displaced people in Morocco for a long period of time.[iv]

Livio Amingoni ©

Deplorable conditions, detention and violence

Whilst Europe is thus externalising its border controls to Morocco, the conditions that are faced by displaced individuals in Morocco are unbearable. A Senegalese man interviewed by the RRE research team explained that his journey through Morocco had been very tough. He had been stalled in Morocco for around nine months and explained that he had been ‘treated like a slave’, working nine hours a day for a total of eight euros. He would be made to carry cement and building materials up and down a four-storey building all day long: ‘’I was basically a slave’’.  He tried to leave Morocco eight times before succeeding. On each attempt he paid smugglers an amount of 250-1,000 euros, however he was repeatedly caught by Moroccan police and border guards and sent back. This meant that he was forced to continue working in the exploitative job in Morocco, in order to raise the further funds he needed for the border crossing.

A 42-year-old Senegalese man reported that he had been detained and experienced violence in Morocco. His detention had lasted for two months and he described the situation as “chaotic”. When asked if he would consider going back to Morocco, his firm answer was ‘no’: “Because I cannot forget what they did to me there, in Morocco.”

Push-backs and returns

The so-called ‘hot returns’ from Spanish to Moroccan soil – immediate removals without an opportunity to lodge an asylum application – have been highlighted as deeply concerning trends.[v] This is often combined with the forced transfer of displaced individuals from the north to the south of Morocco, where even poorer conditions – reportedly often without any food or water – await them on the southern borders where they are then told to go back to their country of origin. The reported disproportionate use of force by the authorities is another area of concern, a recent example having occurred in September 2018 when a Moroccan woman was killed after the Spanish navy opened fire on a boat carrying two-dozen displaced people, without provoking any noteworthy reaction from the EU.[vi]

Despite the rights violations taking place against refugees and displaced people in Morocco, the Council of the European Union has nonetheless expressed its continued commitment to supporting ‘countries of origin and transit’ such as Morocco, as a means to ‘stem’ arrivals via the Western Mediterranean route.

Human rights and reform of the Common European Asylum System

The report findings suggest that the trend towards the externalisation of European borders to non-EU countries, as in the case of Morocco, have wide-ranging repercussions on the abilities of refugees and displaced people to access their human rights as enshrined within international law. Individuals are faced with the prospect of being returned to harmful situations, or left trapped, unable to seek asylum in Europe. This calls for an increased onus on the European Union and its Member States to take decisive action to counter these alarming developments and uphold their moral and legal obligations under human rights law, including the right of all people to claim asylum.

RRE’s research findings, coupled with many other reports highlighting the human rights violations resulting from the externalisation of borders outside the EU, emphasise the importance of positive reforms of the Common European Asylum System which are currently being negotiated. Importantly, the next European framework for handling asylum and migration must include provisions which ensure that Member States do not externalise asylum and migration control to countries without a functioning asylum system adopted through national legislation, as well as to those that are not party to the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 New York Protocol; and to states that do not comply in practice with international human rights law.

Livio Amingoni ©

In particular, increased European financial support to Morocco must be conditional upon the humane treatment of individuals, and should not preclude their right to seek asylum and have their claims assessed in an acceptable manner with due process. Financial support must also come with conditions on service provision for victims of trafficking, sexual violence and other traumatic experiences, and the authorities responsible for the provision of these services must be held accountable.

In order to ensure that human rights are upheld for displaced individuals seeking asylum, RRE firmly believes that Member States must carry out human rights impact assessments before entering into cooperation agreements with third party states. Any cooperation agreements must include guarantees of non-refoulement, access to a fair asylum procedure and the right to effective remedy, access to information and legal assistance, safe and adequate reception conditions, access to family reunification procedures and no risk of arbitrary detention.

In sum, Europe is faced with a unique opportunity to reform its joint approach to asylum and migration in a manner which upholds the human rights and which precludes the risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of those seeking sanctuary in Europe.



[i] See e.g. Amnesty (2018).


[iii] Sunderland, J. (2017).

[iv] Wallen, J. (2017).

[v] Valdivia, A. G. (2018).

[vi] See e.g. The Guardian (2018).

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