African migrants in Morocco wait for aid as coronavirus bites

By Ahmed Eljechtimi
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African migrants in Morocco wait for aid as coronavirus bites

Saddou Habi, 30, from Guinea stands in front of his apartment at Hay Nahda on the outskirts of Rabat

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) - Thousands of African migrants without revenue during Morocco's coronavirus lockdown could run out of money for food and essentials, and rights groups have urged the government to offer them the same cash help it has promised to citizens.

The North African country has imposed a month-long lockdown restricting movement to purchases of food or medicine and to staffing some key jobs, with 761 cases of the coronavirus confirmed, including 47 deaths.

Saddou Habi, 30, who came to Morocco two years ago from Guinea, and decided to stay rather than trying to reach Europe after getting a job in a restaurant, said his money will run out in 10 days.

"I have been helping my four other flat mates whose financial situation is worse than mine," he said.

"We are respecting all measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus but we need urgent help to go through these difficult times," he said.

The government has promised monthly support of about $120 a month to households where the main provider has lost work in the informal economy because of the lockdown.

At present, that aid will go to people with a "free health service" card available only to Moroccans. The government plans to roll it out to people who do not have the card, but has not said if this would be extended to migrants.

The state will also pay about $200 a month to workers in private companies who are registered with the state social insurance scheme.

It leaves most of the 50,000 migrants who have obtained official residency permits since 2013 without help. The far larger number of undocumented migrants, many of them homeless or seeking to pass through Morocco to reach Europe, face even less chance of assistance.

The National Human Rights Council and the Moroccan Association for Human Rights have urged the government to help. The finance ministry did not respond when asked if migrants would become eligible for state aid.


'WE HAVE TO SHOW SOLIDARITY'

Habi has applied for a residency permit, but is still waiting for it to be issued. He lives in the poor Hay Nahda district of Rabat, where houses made of bare concrete blocks press up against each other.

Local rights groups and charities have distributed food in poor districts to both Moroccans and migrants, but the lockdown has made it harder to distribute such supplies.

Living conditions are worst for homeless sub-Saharans in northern Morocco, near the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which migrants often try to reach across a thicket of high wire fences.

The majority of migrants work in the informal sector earning barely enough money to meet their basic needs for a day, said Ousmane Ba, a Senegalese migrant who heads a community group.

The government needs to do more to shelter homeless migrants living in the forests in northern Morocco and help them avoid contagion, he added, speaking by phone from the city of Nador, near Melilla.

So far, the government has put more than 3,000 homeless people, including migrants, into shelters located in schools, stadiums and other buildings for the duration of the lockdown.

"We are all in the same boat in the face of the coronavirus storm. We have to show solidarity with one another for all to be rescued," Ba said.


(Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi; Editing by Angus McDowall and David Gregorio)