Originally posted May 2010

Throughout history, North African countries (i.e., Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) have experienced various forms of migration - internal and external, voluntary and forced, individual and collective, and legal and illegal.

The 1950s were characterized by a great demand for North African workers in Western Europe. Because they were badly needed and small in number, these workers were appreciated and protected. By contrast, today the situation has completely changed, following new legal restrictions on migration and the considerable importance of illegal migration.

The migration of North Africans to Europe began during the colonial period. The initial wave of migrants consisted of those who joined the French army and were forced to serve in Europe. Later, migration varied according to the needs of the host country.

With the outbreak of the First World War, more than a million North Africans, most of them Algerians, were recruited by the French army. The first Moroccans who migrated to France were from the Souss region in the south; they were recruited by the factories in Nantes in 1909.[1] During the First World War, more than 35,000 Moroccans worked in the French agricultural and mining sectors, while about 40,000 (recruited from the Middle Atlas and High Atlas areas), served in the French army.[2]

Thousands of North African migrants fought in the Second World War on the side of France. Many of these migrants took part in France’s postwar reconstruction. During the postwar period, there were about 250,000 North African migrants in France - 220,000 Algerians, 20,000 Moroccans, and 5,000 Tunisians.[3]

The post-independence period was marked by the intensification of migration and the diversification of countries of destination. The main cause of this migration flow was the need for manpower for the post-WWII reconstruction of Europe and the subsequent rapid growth of West European economies.[4]

Although North African workers were recruited mainly as a temporary measure to offset the manpower deficit in Western Europe, many of them settled permanently there due to the poor job prospects in their country of origin. Successive North African governments, especially in Morocco and Tunisia, encouraged emigration, which alleviated unemployment and had a positive impact on the balance of payments through migrants’ remittances.

The three North African countries signed bilateral agreements with the major countries of destination concerning migrants’ rights and obligations. Subsequently, migration towards France and Belgium became more organized as offices of recruitment began to sign work contracts with potential migrants. In 1974, the number of North African migrants reached nearly 1.5 million.[5] In 1973, the Moroccan migrant population in Europe alone totaled half a million.[6] By the mid-1970s, the number of Moroccan migrants per year had climbed to 30,000 from 17,000 in the previous decade, according to the Ministry of Employment report for 1986.

France, Belgium, and the Netherlands created immigration offices of recruitment in big Moroccan cities like Casablanca, Rabat, Fès, and Marrakesh to recruit Moroccans chiefly from rural areas.[7] Over 300,000 Moroccan workers left for European countries, particularly France.

The mid-1970s marked a turning point, as European policies shifted from recruiting migrants to restricting migration because of the economic recession caused mainly by the oil crisis.

As a result of the more restrictive European policies, family reunion became the only vehicle for those North Africans who sought to migrate there. Migration within the framework of family reunion supplanted individual migration. The practice of family reunion gained approval because it was believed to facilitate the migrant’s integration into the socio-economic environment of the host country, reduce money transfers to the country of origin, and stabilize many families in the receiving countries (notably, France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands). Between 1963 and 2000, 336,325 Moroccans joined family members in France alone.[8]

These restrictions had other important effects - spawning illegal migration, temporary migration, and migration towards North America and the Gulf countries. They also gave rise to women and youth migration. Since 1980, individual women have migrated, especially divorced women and widows, but also married women with or without children in search of a job that could improve their standard of living. Over the past three decades, the number of female immigrant workers in France, for example, has doubled.

Meanwhile, the profile of North African migrants to Europe has changed. Their educational level is higher than was that of their predecessors while the percentage of those who are illiterate is much lower. Correspondingly, the number of skilled workers and professionals among these migrants has increased.

Another result is the spread of the phenomenon of migration in North Africa, as migration affected not only rural areas but also urban ones, and spread to middle class and professional circles. Likewise, many students who finish their studies in Europe generally refuse to return to their home countries.

Yet another consequence of restrictions on migration has been the emergence since the 1980s of temporary migration (migration saisonnière), particularly in the agricultural, construction, and services sectors. In 2000, Morocco ranked third in providing temporary workers to France, totaling 229,712.[9] Other European countries count on this form of migration because it is cheap and supplies low-skilled labor. For example, Spain signed an agreement on temporary workers with Morocco on September 30, 1999.[10]

Migration to Europe has been a mixed blessing for North Africa and for the migrants themselves.

Over the years, the flow of migrants to Europe has suited the national strategies of North African governments. Remittances and money transfers have reduced the economic deficit and resolved the problem of high unemployment (15% in 2004).[11] But restrictive European migration policies have taken a toll. These policies, which encourage those possessing specialized training and skills to move to the “knowledge economies” of Europe, have contributed to the “brain drain” and thus have impeded North African development. In addition, with the implementation of the 1990 Schengen restrictions on migration, migratory flows to Europe have sharply decreased, pushing many young people to illegal migration.[12]

Yet, there also are some bright spots. First, Moroccan emigrants in Europe have maintained strong links with their country of origin through frequent visits, transfer of funds, and investments. Their attachment to their families and home country is also evidenced by the fact that most migrants own houses in Morocco.

Second, migration has changed from being provisional to permanent, which in turn, has pushed many European countries to adopt integration policies.

Third and related, a large number of Moroccan migrants enjoy legal status in Europe. According to El Manar Laalami, at the beginning of 2000, about 1.2 million Moroccan migrants had legal residence in one of the then-15 countries of the European Union (EU). And between the years 1990-1999 almost 300,000 Moroccans obtained EU citizenship.[13]

Fourth, laws on migration - which were previously about the regulation and management of international migration - have become more focused on the protection of migrants’ rights. The rights of migrants are included in many national and international agreements, the most important of which is the 1990 international accord on the protection of all migrant workers and their families. Other national and international institutions deal with migration issues. The most recent of these institutions is the special report of the United Nations (UN) on the rights of migrants.

Today, large numbers of North African migrants are present in all European countries to various degrees of intensity. The Moroccan migrant population in Europe is illustrative. The exact number of Moroccans in Europe is difficult to pinpoint given the important number of naturalized Europeans and the growing numbers of illegal migrants. For 2002, the Ministry in charge of Moroccan Migrants put the figure at over two million. Indisputably, the EU, especially France, is the primary destination of Moroccan migrants. North African migration has become part of the economic structure and social fabric of Europe.

[1] The Souss region continued to send migrants to France, and in 1966, Moroccan migrants from the south constituted 50% of the overall migrant population in France.


[2] A. Fadloullah, A. Berrada, and M. Khachani, Facteurs d’Attraction et de Répulsion à l’Origine des Flux Migratoires Internationaux. Rapport National- Le Maroc, Eurostat 2000.


[3] N. Guennouni, Rapport Introductif: Migration et Droits dans les Pays du Maghreb, in Les Migrants et leurs Droits au Maghreb (Rabat: Edition la Croisée des Chemins, 2004), p. 25.


[4] M. Ennaji, ed., Migration and Cultural Diversity. Proceedings of the International Conference on Migration and Cultural Diversity. Fès: Publications of Fès-Saiss Association, 2007.


[5] Guennouni, Rapport Introductif, p. 25.


[6] M. Ennaji and F. Sadiqi, Migration and Gender in Morocco (Trenton: Red Sea Press, 2008), pp. 82-84.


[7] France created “l’Office National d’Immigration Français,” which operated in Casablanca until 1974. Belgium had representatives of “la Fédération des Charbonnages Belges,” and the Netherlands had offices of recruitment of immigrants until 1973.


[8] Office des Migrations Internationales, OMISTATS, 2000. Today, all European countries have restricted family reunions (e.g., the Bossi-Fini law enacted in Italy in 2002). Likewise, the German law of 2003 stipulates the maximum age of 12 years for family reunion of minors living in the country of origin.


[9] OMISTATS (Paris: International Migration Office, 2000).


[10]. M. Khachani, “Des Liens entre Migration et Développement, ” paper presented at the International Conference on “Migration and Cultural Diversity,” July 1-3, 2004, Fès, Morocco, p. 21.


[11] Official data of the Department of Statistics (2004).


[12] R.V. de Erf and L. Heering, Moroccan Migration Dynamics: Prospects for the Future, No. 10, Geneva: IOM (International Organization of Migration) Publications, 2002.


[13] M. El Manar Laalami, “Attitudes et Opinions,” in Les Marocains Résidant à l’Etranger (Rabat: INSEA, 2000), pp. 105-138.