The Netherlands can deport migrants to Morocco again – but can no longer criticize the country

As he does every year with his Independence Day speech in August, the Moroccan king barely looks up from his newspaper as he reads. But unlike other years, this year he suddenly mentions the Netherlands in a list of “friendly countries”. King Mohammed VI says the Netherlands has adopted a “constructive position” regarding Moroccan interests.

How different it has been in recent years. No country with which the Netherlands quarreled more openly than Morocco. The countries criticized each other in parliament, called ambassadors and canceled agreements. And most importantly for the Netherlands: Morocco no longer took back asylum seekers who had exhausted their legal remedies.

For years, Morocco refused to cooperate with their deportation. In this way, these ‘safe emigrants’ became an example of a failed deportation policy: asylum seekers without the possibility of a residence permit, who in some cases steal and cause trouble, but cannot be returned. Because there is no prospect of return, they could not be held in immigration detention. “Something has to be devised,” Utrecht mayor Sharon Dijksma told the newspaper last week A.D about the troubles for a group of safelanders at Hoog Catharijne.

But Morocco and the Netherlands came closer to each other; this is not only apparent from King Mohammed VI’s speech. This became clear last week at the UN summit, where the Moroccan and Dutch flags flew side by side on the table. Minister Hoekstra (Foreign Affairs, CDA) and his Moroccan counterpart discussed their ‘strong relationship’, Hoekstra tweeted.

Recently, it has also been possible to return Moroccan foreign nationals. It gave Morocco permission after “constructive talks,” according to an internal email received by Justice and Security Ministry staff two weeks ago. The country has confirmed the nationality of 100 Moroccans nominated to return, the first travel documents have already been issued.

According to the internal email, the Netherlands may start arresting Moroccan foreigners again for forced deportation. A direct result of the improved relations. But at what price? NRC spoke to those involved in the agreement with Morocco about what the Netherlands had to give up.

Protests are stifled

In 2015, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants to increase press freedom in Morocco. Of Free press unlimited the ministry sets up the Storymaker project, where citizens learn to make journalistic videos with an app. Several Moroccan journalists are cooperating. A year later, hundreds of thousands of Riffians take to the streets to protest the deprivation of the Rif area. Morocco stifles protests by arresting activists and journalists. For this, Morocco uses the Dutch project: the journalists are prosecuted for their involvement in the ‘undermining’ Storymaker. The face of the protests, Nasser Zefzafi, will be jailed for 20 years in 2018.

The Netherlands then reacts sharply to the way in which Morocco suppresses the protests. Former minister Stef Blok called the sentences handed out “excessive”. He is asking Morocco for a fair trial. In doing so, he goes much further than his European ministerial colleagues: They keep their mouths shut.

The consequences of Blok’s words are quickly apparent. When employees of the Repatriation and Departure Service (DT&V) subsequently arrive at the Moroccan embassy to discuss the deportation of foreign nationals, they hear that ‘everything will be shut down’. It has been decided from above to no longer issue travel documents. “You probably understand why,” an embassy official told DT&V at the time.

Eight thousand migrants

Morocco puts pressure on countries with migration. Spain will feel it in May 2021. Morocco will open the border crossing to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta for one night, out of dissatisfaction with Spain’s position in the Western Sahara conflict. Eight thousand migrants cross the border. After this, Spain is still behind the Moroccan plans.

At the end of 2019, the refusal to take back migrants also caused political problems for then State Secretary Broekers-Knol for Asylum Affairs. While the chamber demands that she arrange her return, the Moroccan ambassador does not even want to receive her to talk about it. The entire House of Representatives reacted furiously. Broekers-Knol would make it a ‘mess’. She had been “pooped by Morocco”.

Prime Minister Rutte intervenes. With the then foreign ministers Sigrid Kaag and Stef Blok, he decides in 2020 that relations with Morocco must be good at all costs, sources say. In 2021, the countries will sign an ‘action plan’. The contents are unknown, the house only gets to see the ‘main lines’. The plan is the start of a new relationship where Morocco is willing to take back migrants as long as there is enough in return.

Morocco can, for example, use aid in the fight against drought and soil salinization. It is a subject that Holland has a lot of knowledge about. Therefore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is flying to strengthen the bond over experts to help the Moroccans with this.

More important is the support of the Netherlands in the conflict over Western Sahara, the most important issue for the Moroccan king. He considers the area one of his southern provinces, while the separatists consider Morocco an aggressor who has occupied their country. Until now, the Netherlands has always strived for a solution that both parties can agree on. Until Wopke Hoekstra suddenly made himself known from Marrakesh last May: side by side with the Moroccan minister, he called the Moroccan solution to the conflict ‘credible’. The Netherlands will be thanked in the King’s annual speech.

Another commitment from the Netherlands: to “explore” an extradition treaty. Morocco has wanted such a treaty for some time, partly because one of the country’s biggest enemies of the state is in the Netherlands: Saïd C. from Roosendaal, suspected of drug trafficking, is considered by Morocco to be a major financier of protests in the Rif. territory. To Morocco’s anger, the Dutch judge blocked his extradition due to the risk that he would not receive a fair trial in Morocco.

An extradition agreement would mean that Dutch judges must from now on assume that human rights are respected in Morocco, says professor of international law politics Geert Jan Knoops from the University of Amsterdam. “With such a treaty, you give the Moroccan constitutional state a legal seal, so to speak. Only: does Morocco deserve such a mark of quality? I don’t think so given the reports of torture, corruption and political persecution.”

But Morocco does not want to hear more about human rights – according to insiders, this too is part of the renewed relationship between Morocco and the Netherlands. In order not to offend Morocco, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has assessed that criticism is only given behind the scenes. “How accusingly do you have to talk about human rights if you also have other things to discuss that are in our interest?” says a Dutchman involved in the Morocco agreement.

And if the criticism is really to be expressed openly, then only in a bloc with other countries. “Why should we all point out human rights on our own? You can also leave that to the EU.”

Diplomatic pressure

The new path that the Netherlands is taking has immediate consequences for the Moroccan journalists who have run into trouble. In 2021, journalists Omar Radi and Maati Monjib will stand trial, both for their relationship with the Netherlands. Monjib because he received money from Storymaker, Radi even for ‘espionage’ for Holland. Their family and friends are asking Holland to deny the allegations. And to put maximum diplomatic pressure on Morocco. But from the Netherlands it remains silent.

“It could have helped,” said Hicham Mansouri, one of the accused journalists who worked for the project. “Morocco is very sensitive to publicity. There are several examples of journalists who were only released after there was an international outcry about their case. But Holland didn’t want to do anything.”

Evelien Wijkstra from Free Press also feels this. She will refer Monjib’s case to the Media Freedom Coalition in 2021. This coalition of countries, led by the Netherlands, usually approaches other countries about prosecuting journalists. “Unfortunately Holland did not take up this case.”

Morocco has a hold on Europe, says Maarten den Heijer, who is an expert in international immigration law at the UvA. “Asylum seekers are used as a means of exchange. All countries are blackmailed that way.” The problem, he says, is that Europe does not speak with one voice. “As long as all European countries make their own agreements, Morocco can play everyone off against each other.”

The result is that Morocco is no longer held responsible for human rights violations, says Wijkstra from Free Press. “This is the effect if you go together with authoritarian countries like Morocco. You give them a hand so you can no longer be critical.”

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