“We are well aware of what it takes to stay.”
How a determined network of young Moroccans makes a change.
Over last decade, Morocco has invested significantly in economic and social development through a series of political and civil reforms, such as strengthening civil liberties, decentralizing power, investing in infrastructural development and promoting gender equality. However, despite these reforms,Youth in Morocco grow up with a desire to migrate, with an imagination of going to a land elsewhere, seeking greater opportunities, social security, and a sense of freedom. According to the Arab Barometer report, nearly 70% of Moroccans under 30 express a desire to leave the country. In fact, Morocco ranks an impressive 23 out of 177 countries in the index of human flight and brain drain, despite the absence of war or political instability. France, Belgium, and Spain are the countries where most young Moroccans dream of, and leaving the country is considered an achievement. If it wasn’t for the hard border crossing restrictions and unaffordable visa requirements, Morocco would lose its young and promising generation, is what young Moroccans say.
However, not all young Moroccans desire to migrate. A determined network of young Moroccans decides to invest their energy and time in social activism and entrepreneurship in Morocco and aim to inspire others to do the same. For this article, several young women and men, some of whom have chosen to remain anonymous, share their perspectives on what drives their peers’ desire to migrate, and what motivates them to stay or return to Morocco. In their eyes, the rich cultural heritage, abundant natural resources, and the diverse and vibrant society make Morocco a unique place that can offer a plethora of opportunities for those who are willing to embrace its potential.
What drives others to migrate
“I wanted to grow up and leave the country, and that’s what I did. For many years I didn’t care if I would come back to Morocco, I didn’t care about my identity, it was really sad.” Hind (26) is an enthusiastic student of English literature and business, social activist and entrepreneur in Morocco who predominantly advocates for women’s rights and gender equality.
“We are born with the idea of migration, so we don’t really have this sense of belonging for the country”. Instead, she explains, there is a widespread and cultural belief that Europe is a paradise of opportunity where everything will come easy. For this prospect many Moroccans risk everything in their lives to reach the other continent.
Hakim* , shares this perspective. He explains that the desire to leave the country comes from the cultural mindset and peer pressure among youth in Morocco, especially in the coastal cities close to the Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla. “From once they are born, they hear Spain is heaven, France is heaven, Europe is heaven. Even kids that are born in very nice families and can have a proper future in Morocco desire to do so, because their cousins went to Spain or because television says immigration is a solution. So, it is stuck in their minds.”
So, what is it then, that Europe has what Morocco lacks in the eyes and minds of these youth? How did the idea of migration become so normalized in Moroccan culture? One of the well-known and predominant driving forces that was mentioned by all the young Moroccans during our conversation, was economic chances. The unemployment rate among young people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the highest globally and having a university degree does not improve chances. “There are no opportunities, but no choices. Some really talented people, smart geniuses I would describe them, are working some jobs that do not pay well,” says Ihsane (20), student English literature and committed social activist. “And it’s very unfortunate, because I would see myself being one of them in the future after getting my degree.”
In Morocco, the minimum wage is approximately € 300, - per month, while graduate students typically earn an average of € 400,- to € 600,-. However, according to Hind, many employers do not even comply with the minimum wage, especially not in her home city Oujda, where she has worked for less than € 150, - per month. And to put their salary into perspective: “The minimum wage of a Moroccan is the same as a French man or woman in 1950, which is after the war. Imagine 2020 and you have the same.”
Given this context, it is understandable that young Moroccans desire to seek their opportunities elsewhere. Especially when they are continuously exposed to images of exuberant consumption, pop culture and unlimited freedoms of the globalizing world on social media. Besides, for those from poorer families there is also a strong desire and pressure to ‘save their parents’, as Ihsane explains: “some people would migrate illegally and do any kind of job to save some cash and send it to their family, especially the mothers.”
The prospect of stronger social safety nets is another factor that motivates young adults to migrate. “Morocco is becoming a very liberal country, but in a dangerous way. It’s becoming like the US without the institutions of the US. So, the rich people can live the best life in Morocco, but the middle class don’t have this,” says Hakim. When it comes to health care, insurances and elderly care, Moroccans are bound to rely on their family members in the absence of social institutions. “We needed to pay € 8,000 cash before they let my grandma, who suffered from COVID-19, into the hospital. And what was worse, after 20 days when she passed away, we had to pay another € 15,000 to get her out.”
Even with social institutions in place, pervasive corruption acts as a hindrance. “Corruption at every level. Corruption to get into university. Corruption to find a job afterwards. Corruption to launch your own business. Corruption if you want to build a house. Corruption if you want to have a baby. You pay everyone and everything.” Hakim contends that corruption has become so ingrained in the culture that many young Moroccans view engaging in corruption as a sign of intelligence and an understanding of how the system works. This is a troubling thought for him, because as he puts it, “now in Moroccan youth minds, if you don’t have money, it’s your problem. It’s not the system's problem.”
Mohammed (26), a very lively and active entrepreneur with a passion for arts from Casablanca, is probably one of the rare young Moroccans out there who perceives immobility as a blessing. He believes that if it would be easier to migrate, no one would be left in the country. “And by spending more time, maybe at some point they get to achieve something or do something with their lives that would make them want to stay.” However, they are caught between a rock and a hard place, he admits, because it’s a scary thought of having people staying with no motivation to stay.
A convoluted blend of the absence of social security and limited economic opportunities, coupled with a lack of sense of belonging, peer pressure, and an immigration mindset is what creates the desire of young Moroccans to move away from their homeland. A homeland that has an incredibly rich history of cultural diversity, tolerance and a thriving economy, something that is not given up on by all.
Why they choose to stay
By making significant investments and implementing government-backed entrepreneurial programs, Morocco aims to establish its startup ecosystem as a regional exemplar and become a leading player in Africa. However, starting and surviving as an entrepreneur or socially active youth in Morocco can still be a daunting task. The lack of education on how to start a business and the long and tedious process of applying for funding leaves young people feeling unprepared and hesitant to take the leap into entrepreneurship. Moreover, the discouragement and poor representation of young Moroccans from the formal political process, coupled with the systemic corruption that permeates many sectors of society, has contributed to the disengagement and disillusionment of youth with little motivation to speak out about societal issues. “Politics is a dirty game. We know that people can get hurt," explains Hind.
And indeed, numerous studies have revealed alarming levels of distrust and lack of confidence in political parties among Moroccan youth, leading to their decision to abstain from voting during national elections. So, to overcome the barriers to traditional political engagement in Morocco, young people who want to advocate for societal issues have sought out alternative channels such as social media and local debate clubs. However, no matter how challenging, the youth interviewed for this article are committed to staying and inspiring their peers to do the same: “I don't mind if it's going to be hard. I'm willing to take the hard road and to fight so I can help others that are coming after me,” says student in marketing and international business and promising entrepreneur Ali (23).
Ali grew up in a family with a strong commitment to social and political involvement. His mother was a passionate advocate for women’s rights, and Ali began participating in her activities from a young age. In university, he founded the program ‘Train Up Lab’, which aims to fill the gaps in the Moroccan educational system by providing students with education on important topics like politics, public speaking, diplomacy, and entrepreneurship.
“If a flower doesn’t bloom, don’t blame the flower, but blame the environment,” is the motto Ali’s startup is guided by. With a mission to improve the learning environment, the startup has also developed training programs for teachers and parents, focused on creating inclusive classrooms, providing individualised attention to students, and understanding the unique psychology of teenagers. Recently, they added emotional and sexual education to the program.
Although Ali is currently in France for his studies and to incubate his startup, he is eagerly looking forward to returning to Morocco. “I love our culture, the social link that we have is amazing and we have a strong potential, but it is not easy. I see this as a challenge, because if I’m going to find it perfect in Morocco, with a very well-done system, no corruption and everything is good, what am I going to add to my country?”
Hind’s childhood was marked by continuous travel and relocation due to her father’s profession as an Islamic teacher in the MENA region. Therefore, she never had the chance to develop a strong bond to her native Morocco. But during the COVID-19 pandemic she started to see the opportunities and freedoms of Morocco and ever since she feels a deep sense of belonging to her home country and has no plans to leave. “I love my country and I will stay with my family. I feel like going abroad and spending 10 years gathering a lot of money and coming back to retire in Morocco, it's just a waste of time. I mean do it here. Make the money here, help your country, and you can go abroad once a while."
Besides studying, she is participating in many programs to advocate for human and women rights and is planning to launch an initiative called #sisterhood on social media, where women can talk freely and show solidarity amongst each other. In her opinion, the patriarchal society that is deeply rooted in Morocco, as in many other places in the world, does not align with Islamic values. "There is actually a term called ‘liberal Islam’. Liberal Muslims are people who practice the religion, but they are liberal in everything. For example, the relationship between me and God is that I pray, but I can do anything I want. I can drink, I can dance... There is no judgement, except from God, which is liberal Islam."
In Hind’s eyes the conservative approach that many Moroccans take has nothing to do with religion. Liberal values such as freedom, democracy, diversity, women equality, and tolerance are all at the core of the Islam. However, a wave of Islamists entering Morocco has brought a conservative mindset to Moroccan culture and tricked them into it as religion, she says. “If I were a horrible person, am I going to heaven when I wear the niqab? And there is a person who's wearing the skirt and is the best person. Is she going to hell? This is just humans trying to be judgemental in the name of religion.”
However, standing up for human rights and equality in Morocco can be a challenging and sometimes risky endeavour. Recently, various reports criticise the country’s lack of freedom of speech and the press through censorship, surveillance, and legal harassment, and for acting against those who express dissenting views. Ihsane, who advocates for gender equality, sexuality, and climate justice got to experience this firsthand during her internship at an American think tank. “When I started as an intern, I spoke about feminism and similar topics, which caused me some trouble with the Moroccan director. She would not really be cool about it, so I had to stop. But it was a baby step, I would say. And I'm not stopping.”
Recently, she had the opportunity to participate in a Greenpeace camp in Tunisia and attend a student festival in Norway, where she met like-minded individuals and engaged in conversations on topics that are still taboo and too risky to speak about openly in Morocco. Drawing inspiration from these experiences, she is now working to create a social media platform that fosters open and constructive dialogue amongst young people. Additionally, she is an active member of the ‘SoftSkillit’ club in Morocco and organises events such as workshops and debates on various topics.
To make a meaningful impact in the mindsets of youth in Morocco, Ihsane feels that she needs to acquire more experience and develop a strong foundation in various areas of knowledge. However, she recognises that she cannot achieve this alone. “I believe we need more people who are social activists, because if you want to achieve something great, you will get hurt and you will fail many times. But if there are many people like you who want to achieve the same goal, I would say there will be change in the future."
When Mohammed was a teenager, he was one of the young Moroccans who was dreaming of travelling to the United States. After high school he suddenly got the opportunity to attend a summer school there for young and creative writers, “but during my time there, I just wanted to be home. I wanted to speak Darija, I wanted to be around my friends and family, and I wanted to be in Morocco”. Although his time there was short, he was forever cured of the idea of leaving.
As soon as Mohammed returned to Morocco, he decided to start up his own summer camp for promising young Moroccan writers, which later on grew to be an association called Olive Writers working across all art forms. Since then, he has been an active member of various organisations and recently became the development and partnership manager at the American Art Center in Casablanca, while serving as Executive Director of the Olive Writers. In all his projects he aims at stimulating and supporting artists and writers and inspiring them to stay and become part of a change in Morocco. “They are the backbone of a country”.
Mohammed sees many talented and promising young artists leaving without even putting the necessary effort to try in Morocco. “A lot of people who believe they don't have success here, think their success will be handed to them abroad.” However, he notes that he sees many young Moroccans who successfully migrated, the grass has appeared greener on the other side. “The ones that left still feel that something is missing from their lives, like being around family, being in your home country and contributing.”
One of the youngsters who migrated and returned was Ibrahim (36), who left for Europe and Australia directly after his studies, where he lived and worked for several years. During the COVID-19 pandemic he had to return to Morocco and now he is planning on staying and contributing. "So honestly, when you travel out of the country and you work, it's something that is inside of you that you want to come back to Morocco to do something for your country, for yourself and to have the people around you. You never forget where you come from, it's your roots, it's your identity that you cannot just ignore."
With workshops, seminars, and events Ibrahim helps other youth with sales and brand development for their startups. In addition, he organises courses for women from remote areas to start with digital marketing and concept development. But it is challenging. “The mindset of people here is that they don’t understand and accept new things. When something is new, it’s rejected fast.” Besides, financially it is difficult for him to make a living and therefore, he has to rely on his savings to sustain himself. Although he wants to stay in Morocco, the challenging conditions make him rethink his strategy at times. “Should I keep the process going or should I go earn more money, be stronger, come back to Morocco and start again.”
Ibrahim’s consideration reminds me of what Mohammed emphasises: “no one wants to leave for the sake of leaving.” It is the conditions and the mindset in which they grow up as young adults that creates the desire to leave. The fact that these young women and men are willing to go against the grain, testifies of their commitment to their country and aspiration for change. And it does not come from naivety, is what Ali confirms. “The people who want to stay, like myself, are well aware of the situation here. We are well aware of what it takes to stay.”
How they can be supported
The Moroccan government has implemented various measures to curb migration, including various programs to support economic inclusion of youth, implementing a ‘youth pass’ that gives young Moroccans cheap access to cultural spaces, setting low interest rates for small entrepreneurs, launching initiatives to advance and protect women’s rights and signing agreements with partners to develop education. In addition, the government has partnered with foreign organisations and institutions, such as the World Bank and the EU, to support social reform and protection, strengthen democracy and human rights, and stimulate educational and entrepreneurial programs. However, despite these efforts, many young Moroccans remain unemployed and are left feeling excluded, saying there is hardly any visible support of the government.
Artists, writers, and other creatives in Morocco often struggle to make ends meet. The arts and culture sector for smaller associations is unfortunately still considered as non-priority area for the government, making it challenging for those in the industry to secure financial support. As a result, many arts and cultural associations rely on foreign funding, whether through international funds from abroad or support from international organisations and embassies in Morocco. “We rely on ourselves to learn, to build networks, to do what we do,” says Mohammed.
While all interviewees expressed their strong appreciation towards international organisations and foreign funders for bridging the gap left by their government and providing opportunities for grassroot initiatives and dedicated individuals with ideas, they also believe that more can be done. Because, as Mohammed points out, while funders may provide financial resources for projects, they often don’t cover the payment for the people who carry out the job. “You have six people working tirelessly to make this project happen. And at the end of the day, the income they get is so low and not enough to survive.” To supplement his income and savings for his projects, he has always done consultancy, translations and editing jobs on the side.
Ali, who has participated in various entrepreneurial and leadership programs of international organisations, experienced that most programs tend to focus solely on the basics of starting a business, such as creating a business plan, ideation, and problem-solving. Once these programs conclude, entrepreneurs are left to navigate the complex legal and financial systems of Morocco on their own. “Sometimes entrepreneurs successfully receive money for their projects, but because it does not go together with the right mentorship and training, the money ends up with no concrete result.” As a solution, he would rather see that international organisations provide long-term mentorship and support to entrepreneurs, incorporating best practices from their country and adapting them to fit the Moroccan context.
When it comes to support of the government, a common desire expressed by the young women and men is for the Moroccan government to focus on transforming the educational system to promote entrepreneurship, creativity, and an open mindset. Especially when it comes to stimulating the formation of artists and writers, notes Mohammed. “The educational system doesn't feel like it's a strong foundation for this entrepreneurial spirit that we want to see more of in the country. The whole system to me feels like it's designed to actually kill creativity to a great extent, to kill the sense of ambition, the sense of wonder.”
Training teachers and professors would be a step number one. “Students get their personality modelled and sharpened in school, because during our teenagehood and childhood we spent most of our time there. We're like sponges that absorb everything, every message that our professor gives us. So, invest in the professor”, says Ihsane.
But developing a new educational system is easier said than done. Ibrahim rightly remarks that simply replicating a system from another country, such as France, is not a feasible solution. “We have to think outside the box and start to adopt a new strategy regarding the Moroccan mindset and culture.” Despite his young age, Ali has already made commendable efforts to transform the educational system that is adapted to the local culture on a small scale. However, he admits that at times he experiences major pressure. “My startup tackles education, which is a very deep cultural thing in each and every society. So, the first challenge was adapting cultures and helping them to understand what they need. And we’re still struggling with this.” But small actions can be the catalyst for big change, as the saying goes.
To help young entrepreneurs a first step the government could take is to reinstate a program that was previously in place, called ‘auto-entrepreneurs’. This program offered a tax rate of just 1% to small entrepreneurs, providing a much-needed boost to their financial viability. Unfortunately, the new government has recently approved a Finance Law that changes this regulation, subjecting startups to a much higher tax rate of 30% once they exceed a turnover of € 8.000,-. “This is a very small limit, all they do is protect the big whales.”
However, not all efforts of the government are in vain. Although the change is slight, several of the youth point out that the number of entrepreneurial programs and opportunities have increased in recent years. Additionally, in 2021 the Moroccan government announced to allocate over € 300 million to support employment and entrepreneurship initiatives. While she has some criticism on the minimum wage and the persistent gender pay gap, Hind also remains optimistic about the progress being made. “Well, Morocco is part of the United Nations, and the government signed a lot of agreements for the improvement of rights and development. Rabat was not like this five years ago. They do a lot of partnerships and integrate a lot of laws. They are working.”
And the others see the change and potential too. “I always compare Morocco to where I lived in Australia. We have farming, we have mines, we have two oceans, we have agriculture. So, we have all the tools to be a really strong country in the north of Africa,” shares Ibrahim. Together with improved foreign and governmental support, it is in the mindset of Moroccan youth that a change should be made. To start with, Ihsane has one clear message to her peers: “You can become successful, don't believe the myths and the stereotypes in the country, because we are constantly changing and opportunities are there, you just need to find them and work on yourself.”
- To protect the anonymity of the youth who wished to remain unidentified, a pseudonym is used and denoted by an asterisk (*) placed after their names.