Morocco and Algeria have found themselves embroiled in yet another diplomatic flare-up this week. The latest chapter in the longstanding political feud between the North African rivals concerns the fate of Syrian refugees on their shared border, in a case that is drawing conflicting accounts from both governments. According to Rabat, which raised the issue on Tuesday, Algeria expelled 77 Syrian refugees into Morocco between Sunday and Tuesday. Algeria’s foreign ministry categorically denied the allegations and, in turn, accused Morocco of expelling the Syrians onto Algerian territory.
The war of words over the refugees, which include 18 women and 43 children, has only escalated since the issue came to light. Morocco’s interior ministry has accused the Algerians of behaving in a way “contrary to the rules of good neighborliness,” with Algiers shooting back that “it certainly doesn’t need lessons when it comes to showing concern and care for Syrian nationals” and lambasting Morocco’s “pseudo-media that specializes in nauseating bubbling of the anti-Algerian media swamp.” The bitterness of this latest round of bickering, which has now escalated to the point where envoys are being summoned, shows how far relations between the two countries have deteriorated since Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika publicly blasted Morocco over its human rights record in Western Sahara back in October.
It also reveals the extreme sensitivity around the migration issue — especially where Morocco is concerned. The North African country has long been a gateway for African migrants seeking entry into Europe. The harsh treatment of many of these migrants by Moroccan police has attracted increased international scrutiny over the past months, especially following the deaths of three sub-Saharan immigrants in police raids. The criticism had prompted King Mohammed VI to launch a reform of the country’s immigration policies late last year, allowing undocumented immigrants the opportunity to file for residency permits. As limited as this initiative may have been given the scope of the issue, it nonetheless signaled a promising commitment to reform by the monarchy.
With human rights activists on the ground seemingly backing Algeria’s version of events, Rabat’s efforts on this front are now being dealt a very public blow — made only more embarrassing due to its rival’s involvement in the proceedings. The bad PR resulting from turning away Syrian refugees is not easily brushed away (for either country) but given Morocco’s dismal record on the issue, their preemptive diplomatic offense and fingerpointing towards Algeria does make some sense. Relations with Algiers are already sour enough where another drop in the bucket of antagonism does not risk a great deal — the kingdom’s regional standing on the hot-button issue, on the other hand, is not something Rabat wants to risk jeopardizing.