Moroccan authorities are flouting their international obligations to give protection to refugees by entrapping a group of 25 Syrian refugees in a desert area on the border between Morocco and Algeria and denying them access to asylum and urgent humanitarian assistance said Amnesty International.
The group of Syrians, including 10 children, have been stuck for the past two months in a buffer zone within Moroccan territory, 1km from the oasis of Figuig in Morocco and 5km away from Beni Ounif in Algeria. They had been surviving on informal assistance and supplies from locals in Figuig facilitated by the Moroccan border police, but according to the refugees this stopped on Friday morning. The Moroccan border police has thus far not given Moroccan human rights groups and humanitarian organisations, including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), access to the area.
“By denying the Syrian refugees access to UNHCR, the Moroccan authorities are flouting their international obligations. These are refugees who have fled bloodshed and bombing in Syria to seek safety abroad, and the Moroccan authorities must grant them their right to apply for asylum,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.
In a 30 May statement, UNHCR expressed its concern about the “rapidly deteriorating conditions for this group of vulnerable Syrian refugees” calling on both the Moroccan and Algerian government to grant safe passage to the refugees.
The Moroccan government has thus far denied that the refugees are on their territory. Amnesty International has reviewed publicly available maps data and satellite imagery and has confirmed through GPS coordinates that the refugees are located in Moroccan territory.
UNHCR is not operational in that border area and only has authorisation to directly register asylum seekers at one office in the Moroccan capital Rabat. Refugees in Morocco can also register with a limited number of local partners in other regions but none of these partners operate in this border zone.
Two of the stranded Syrians suffer from hypertension and one has kidney disease but the Moroccan authorities have not provided them with any medical care or granted access to doctors accompanying the Moroccan human rights organisations who attempted to reach the area. The refugees are sleeping in makeshift shelters leaving them exposed to sunstroke in temperatures of up to 45 degrees and the threat of snake attacks.
The group had initially travelled from Lebanon to Sudan then through Libya and Algeria to reach the border area. They made a first attempt to reach the closest Moroccan town Figuig on 17 April but were pushed back to the buffer zone by Moroccan security forces.
On 22 April, Moroccan authorities publicly accused Algeria of forcing a group of Syrian refugees to cross the border into Morocco. The day after, the Algerian authorities denounced Morocco for the expulsion of the same group to Algerian territory.
Ten members of the group who were able to reach the centre of Figuig in an attempt to seek asylum were caught by the Moroccan local authorities and border police and forcibly returned to the border area on 5 June.
“Instead of forcing the Syrian refugees back into a barren desert buffer zone to face deteriorating conditions the Moroccan authorities must urgently provide humanitarian assistance and allow aid agencies access to the area to assess their needs. There can be no justification for denying the refugees access to food and water,” said Colm O’Gorman.
On 2 June the Algerian authorities announced that they would welcome the Syrian refugees on humanitarian grounds, allow UNHCR to provide them with assistance and facilitate family reunion for those who have relatives legally residing in European countries. However, the refugees are nervous to go to Algeria and are seeking registration with UNHCR in Morocco because four of them have relatives there and want to settle in the country. The other 21 are hoping to ultimately seek family reunion in Sweden, Belgium and Germany, where they have close family members.
On 5 June, an Algerian delegation including representatives from the Algerian Red Crescent, UNHCR Algeria and Algerian local authorities (Wilaya de Bechar) reached the border zone near Beni Ounif to attempt to provide humanitarian assistance. They remained on the Algerian side of the border and called to the refugees to walk over to the Algerian side telling them they could be registered in Algeria. However the group chose to remain on the Moroccan side of the border.
The Moroccan authorities must not endanger the refugees’ lives by leaving them trapped at the border in harsh conditions and without humanitarian assistance. They must immediately grant them access to the territory and allow them to exercise their right to seek asylum at the competent UNHCR office in Morocco.