Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Agencies fuel gender inequality by representing the women as vulnerable, subordinate, and sometimes threatened.

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A migrant woman in Morocco. Photo credit: Joe Wallen

Fez – A growing flux of female migrants from West and Central African countries find themselves stuck in Morocco due to stringent border controls and, to a lesser extent, global economic realities. By default, Morocco became their destination.

During their journeys and upon their arrival in Morocco, sub-Saharan African girls and women are vulnerable to all forms of violence and abuse by different actors and institutions.

Amid efforts to expose such vulnerability, a sizable portion of literature by humanitarian agencies and public authorities on migration and gender frames such vulnerability within androcentric, racist, and neo-colonial paradigms. Seen from a post-modernist feminist perspective, the concept of vulnerability is less reducible to a political position of powerlessness.

In the context of mixed migration, sub-Saharan African women migrants are more often than not set in a position of vulnerability by human rights discourses and receiving governments, precluding any possibility of resistance and agency to these women in Morocco.

Much of the research on gender and migration focuses on how gender has been interpreted within national and international laws and jurisprudence.

This research may be valuable in unfolding how countries, such as Morocco, contravene international conventions on human rights and mobility. But it fails to attend to the interplay of migration, gender, ethnicity, and nationality beyond the existing taxonomies of vulnerability.

The stereotypical classification of female migrants into discrete categories—trafficked/smuggled, voluntary/forced—derives its legitimacy from rigid bureaucratic labels. The labels fail to account for the complex implications of “vulnerability.”


Despite being framed within a discourse of vulnerability, female sub-Saharan migrants reproduce their gendered vulnerability to maximize their chance of border-crossing—for example, feigning sexual submission to gain protection from their male counterparts.

Sub-Saharan female migrants contest their vulnerabilities

According to a report by the IOM, the vast majority of Nigerian female arrivals in Morocco have been trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation. Trafficking is as high as 90% among Nigerian female arrivals and 70% among Cameroonian female arrivals.

A 2013 report by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on sexual violence and abuse in Morocco showed women were 94% of the patients they treated as survivors of sexual violence. Thirty-five percent were victims of human traffickers.

While such NGOS are registering all forms of physiological and psychological vulnerabilities of sub-Saharan female migrants, the agencies fuel gender inequality by representing the women as vulnerable, subordinate, and sometimes threatened.

Indeed, the migratory experiences of sub-Saharan women in Morocco are a testimony of gendered and racialized vulnerabilities.

Yet, the draconian measures of Morocco’s Law 02-03, compounded with the coercive dominance of their male counterparts, impel sub-Saharan women to reckon on their vulnerability to forge resistance to gendered and racialized constructs.

As hazardous and intriguing as it may seem, sub-Saharan women in Morocco rely on their “corporeal capital” to optimize their chance of mobility.

Sometimes they are forced to adopt deplorable habits and behaviors like prostitution to adapt to their socio-economic predicament in Morocco. Although men vehemently denounce prostitution, for women to give in does not automatically mean consent and subservience to male dominance.

The sexualization of their bodies is traded for social and economic mobility—as in the case of smugglers who prefer sex to money—or to escape further sexual blackmail or rape from a male migrant, soldiers, or Moroccan civilians.

Deliberate and unwanted pregnancies, a result of the externalization of border control at the Spanish enclaves, are commonly experienced by these women.

While pregnancy can be an impediment to a woman’s mobility and expose her lack of control over her body, it can all too often enable and facilitate border-crossing. At the same time, the mere fact of having a new-born baby may prolong a journey, forcing mothers to wait until their babies are grown enough to endure the journey.

However, the variety of sub-Saharan women’s experiences at the Moroccan-Spanish borders makes it difficult to produce a sweeping account of the intertwined effects of gender, race, ethnicity, and border securitization policies.

Just as the concept of vulnerability is slippery—implying both exposure to suffering and resistance to power through defiance—so are the migratory experiences of women.

The various experiences of sub-Saharan women at the Moroccan-Spanish borders help to deconstruct racist and gendered cliches to protection and ruthless migration policies.

Unpacking the trope of human trafficking

Ever since the nationwide crackdown of June 2018, sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco have experienced a series of arbitrary, en masse detentions; banishment to southern Morocco or the Algerian border; and deportations to their countries of origin.

While many human rights reports revealed that the Moroccan government orchestrated such raids in coordination with the EU to prevent the influx of migrants to the continent, Morocco asserted they were aimed at only undocumented migrants and human traffickers.

A large number of migrants of different ages, genders, nationalities, and health conditions, were forcibly displaced and consequently dispossessed and separated from their social and familial networks.

Journalistic reports displayed the unsightly deportations of sub-Saharan migrants by Moroccan police, referring to them as unwarranted deportations, discordant with international human rights law and the Refugee Convention. This is particularly due to the fact that, alongside “illegal” migrants and human traffickers, police officers bussed regular migrants with resident and work permits.

GADEM, a staunch supporter of migrants’ right to free mobility, is apprehensive of Morocco’s contradictory stances as simultaneously a hostile regime towards sub-Saharan migrants on its territory, a “leader” in the African Union, and an international player trying to maintain its relations with Spain and the EU.

As such, one may easily infer that anti-migration and racism is embedded in international humanitarian discourses like that of the European Union.

Faced with its ample contradictions, the Moroccan government justifies its arrests as targeting human traffickers. Meanwhile, Morocco did not meet the minimum standard of combating human trafficking in several key areas, rendering trafficking victims vulnerable to re-trafficking and further arrests.

The trope of human trafficking which places women migrants in a vulnerable position is, for the most part, a brittle facade Morocco and Spain maintain to manage the flow of “parasitical” migrants and legitimize violent border policies.

Within the context of migration, Morocco has long been deemed Spain’s watchdog, supporting the EU’s externalization of border control, since Morocco uses the issue to bargain bilateral relations with countries like Spain. Morocco disavows, at least rhetorically, such a role.

More sharply in focus, however, is that we bear witness to a semantic shift from the fight against “irregular migration” to the fight against “human traffickers who exploit children and women.”

While the issue of trafficking in women for sexual and labor exploitation is of cardinal significance, it has justified governmental and border regimes’ atrocities and deportations under the pretext of ending sexual violence and abuse of female migrants.

The “strategic duality” of female migrants as victims and male migrants as culprits is the premise of sexist and racist discourses, claiming the right to save “black women from black men.”

Female arrivals in Morocco are not as gullible and susceptible as the dominant discourse and local media frame them.

Their migratory experiences may be exploitative ones—frequently lured into prostitution with fake employment promises—but over the past years sub-Saharan migrant women have displayed a growing awareness about the inevitability of sex work as an economic activity to pursue in transit or destination countries.

Thus, power vectors like gender, race, ethnicity, and class are the backdrop against which female migrants’ oppression, dispossession, and vulnerability to all forms of violence can variably be gauged.

Of paramount importance is the analysis of the dual nature of “vulnerability.”

On the one hand, it implies female migrants’ resistance to gendered and racist forms of domination and subversion through capitalizing on their vulnerability, reproducing their gender roles. On the other hand, there is resistance to vulnerability through the deployment of strict border controls by states who see themselves “vulnerable” and threatened by sub-Saharan migrants.

States use the rhetoric of human trafficking against sub-Saharan migrants as structural resistance to vulnerability, echoing colonialism and the failure of the nation-state and development projects in most African countries.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.

Nabil Ferdaoussi is a graduate student of cultural studies at the University of Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah (Fez, Morocco).


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