A bit less than two weeks in Morocco, and already I’m here in the Netherlands. Even compared to other dialogues, this program is a whirlwind: three different nations, three different languages, three different cultures, politics, and ways of life. Sitting here in a cafe in Amsterdam, the shift from North Africa to Europe is proving to be almost as intense as the move from America to Morocco. Here, the streets seem a bit too calm, the people a little too orderly, the level of English almost too easily accessible. Marrakech is crowds and color, street vendors and the call to prayer, the smell of spices and the chatter of rapid Arabic; Amsterdam is quaint cafes and picturesque canals, soft conversations in restaurants and lush green parks. It’s a stark change.
Still, it’s nice to be here in the heart of Western Europe, and to be back in a part of the world where life moves at a little bit slower, a little bit more at the pace I’m familiar with. And Amsterdam is gorgeous — it deserves its place as one of the gems of Europe.
This program isn’t just about Morocco and North Africa, but also about Europe: about how the growing mix of peoples from Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere is changing the region — its politics, its society, and above all the sense of what Europe and the European Union really is. Take the recent battle between Angela Merkel of Germany and her Interior Minister that almost brought down the German coalition government, or the rise of far-right parties in Hungary, Poland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and more. The political battles playing out across Europe today aren’t solely about migration, but the mass movement of people into Europe is very much the catalyst for several of the headlines we see today.
The back-and-forth struggle between the populist (far) right and the moderate center may be the current story of our time, but it is the movement of people across borders — something that began long before the current age of Trump and Brexit and will continue long after — that will be the defining characteristic of the 21st century. It’s an important thing to understand, especially as economic disparities, war, and climate change make migration more and more of a permanent feature of our changing world, instead of simply a temporary crisis to respond to as politicians are apt to treat it on both sides of the political spectrum.
Europe’s migration issue is by no means restricted only to Moroccan immigrants. Turkish, sub-Saharan African, Caribbean, Maghreb and South Asian migrants, as well as refugees and asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all also make up large immigrant communities within Europe. Nor is it a purely external phenomenon — inside the European Union, migrants from Eastern European including a Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania often themselves move to Western Europe in numbers comparable to those from Africa or the Middle East. But while there are ongoing debates about Polish or Surinamese immigrants, the chief concern in Europe seems to surround Muslim migrants, whether they be economic migrants from North Africa or refugees from Syria.
Terrorist attacks by extremists in Paris, Nice and Brussels is a part of this; so too are the unique dynamics of immigrant communities, which often suffer both from poverty and from decades of difficulties integrating with original populations. But one way or another, the question of how Muslim immigrants can live in Europe — or even if they should — is central to the migration debate in today’s European Union. And in the Netherlands, it is often Moroccans who find themselves in the crosshairs of this debate.
I’ll talk more about the Netherland’s own unique situation with migration, one that has resulted in recent rise of at least one far-right opposition party, the Freedom Party, in a later post. But it’s also important to know why people are migrating, and why many still are even with an increasingly hostile environment facing them in Europe.
There are two main ethnic groups in Morocco: Arabs, who live predominantly in the cities and along the coast, and the indigenous Berbers (or Amazigh), who live largely in the Atlas Mountains. For centuries, Berbers have been second-class in Moroccan society, suffering from intense economic hardship, political repression, and even civil conflict ever since Morocco’s independence in 1956. While conditions have improved for these groups in the past decade or so, Berbers still disproportionally suffer from poverty, especially in the Rift region of the north. This makes Berbers particularly incentivized to migrate.
To escape poverty, many Moroccans — mostly Berbers, but Arabs as well — immigrated to Europe, seeking jobs in factories and other industries in the Netherlands, Germany, and France to provide for their families back in Morocco. This process of migration began somewhere in the 1970s and 80s, accelerating through the 90s and into the 21st century, as what were initially temporary workers (and who were encouraged to immigrate by European governments seeking low-wage laborers) became long-term residents. Instead of returning to Morocco, these immigrants instead began to bring their families to Europe in what is known as “family reunification” or, slightly more controversially, “chain migration.”
Person-by-person, this is an entirely understandable choice: to move from a place of no opportunity to one where hard work and following a country’s laws can promise a generous welfare safety net, good wages, and above all the promise of a better future and education for your children. But over thousands of people, and multiple generations, what starts as a series of single decisions becomes a larger movement, as predominantly Arab and Berber communities begin to spring up in Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels, often separate from the “European” city centers by geography and by non-immigrant citizens by disparities in income and education. It is this very separation where many of the issues we see today — from poverty to terrorism — usually begin.
To be sure, for as hard as life can be in Moroccan villages, Moroccan immigrants haven’t fled war or societal breakdown like refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, Syria, or Somalia. But the reasons for their leaving are still understandable and relatable, and similar to why people leave Central America for the States, or East Asia for Australia. There are real issues that come from migration, but it is also important to realize that the reasons people migrate is not out of the desire to take advantage of a host country, but rather to create a life that is somehow better than the life they came from.
Some of these migrants from Morocco are low-wage earners, but many also are also highly educated doctors, students, academics and teachers. The pull isn’t just economic, it’s so often also the pull of an idea: of a liberal, open part of the world, where people can be who they want to be, pursue the careers that might be closed to them otherwise, and live without fear of persecution. There is immense value in that idea, one that I’m afraid Europe is giving up on as it closes its doors more and more. If Europe, like America, decides that it is no longer a destination for opportunity and freedom, but instead simply a collection of countries that only take care of their own and not those from outside of their borders, I believe that we will have lost something important of ourselves, and who we believe ourselves to be as the “West”.
People migrate not only for jobs or to escape war, but because they — despite Trump and Brexit and closing borders — still believe in the West as something more than just a collection of powerful countries, but as symbols of a more free, progressive, and tolerant world. Of course immigration needs to come with checks and regulations, and of course not everyone who wants to move to the EU or US can. But to give up on the potential for others from outside of our borders to take part in this idea is, to me, to give up on the idea itself. When I hear “America First” or “Britain First” or watch populists force refugees to be stranded at sea for days as they risk crossing the Mediterranean, I don’t just see nationalism or nativism, but in the West giving up on this greater, universal idea that’s special, and fragile — an idea that can very easily fall apart by our fear of those who aren’t exactly like us.
Then again, I might just be a naive, globalist, bleeding heart liberal. But I think I can live with that.
In the Netherlands and France, I’ll be looking more into the struggles that migrant communities face in Europe, as well the tensions that we see today between native and non-native groups, tensions which have resulted in both terrorism and religious extremism on one side and discrimination and radical populism on the other. But I think it’s important to get my (admittedly liberal) stance out of the way first before diving into the issues of these two countries. As an aspiring writer and journalist, I’ll try to be as fair as possible; as a person, I know I can also never be fully objective or unbiased in my writing.
I’ll be traveling through Amsterdam and Rotterdam over these next few days, so expect a new blog post in the next week or so. Until then, keep an eye out for pictures from the Netherlands on my Instagram — and thank you, as always, for reading.