ECOWAS, Morocco and Irregular Migration into Europe

In June 2017, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS or the Community) at the Summit meeting of the 51st Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government voted to “in principle” grant Morocco’s application to become a member of the Community, despite the fact that Morocco is not regionally connected to the Community[1]. The announcement caused an uproar and many protests from citizens of some member states, particularly Nigeria, where international relations experts have argued that Morocco’s admission will weaken Nigeria’s influence on the Community[2]. While there are several economic impacts of the admission of Morocco into ECOWAS, this article attempts to examine the impact of Morocco’s admission on irregular migration[3] into Europe and re-admission of irregular migrants within the ECOWAS region.

ECOWAS was established in Lagos in 1975 after the signing of a treaty by 15 regional members – Benin Republic, Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Togo. Cape Verde joined the Community in 1976 while Mauritania withdrew its membership in 2000[4]. The Organisation was created with the aim of integrating the West African sub-region and making it an economic hub within the African continent[5].

The Background

The Kingdom of Morocco is a Maghreb nation in North Africa operating as a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. Morocco is a founding member of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) which was intended to be the regional organization for Arab North African states. However, due to continued bickering and rivalry with its neighbor Algeria, the Organisation has not been as effective as envisaged. From a review of the AMU’s website, no high-level meetings have been held since the Maghrebian Ministers Council in charge of Energy and Mines Session of July 3, 2008[6]. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is eager to expand his country’s economic growth and is said to believe that ‘Africa is the future’ based on an understanding that the country’s economic relations with the European Union are weakening. Morocco recently re-joined the African Union after its withdrawal from the organization in 1984 in protest over the continental body’s recognition of the autonomy of Western Sahara within Morocco[7]. It is noteworthy that ECOWAS also recognizes the autonomy of Western Sahara. How it intends to resolve this dispute with Morocco remains to be seen. Due to its non-membership of the AU and the inability of the AMU to make any meaningful progress as a regional economic organization, Morocco has been unable to forge some important economic relationships within the African continent. King Mohammed VI appears to have recognized this problem, thus his African integration quest through re-joining the AU and request to join ECOWAS.

Possible Impact of Morocco’s Admission

Morocco, Libya, and Egypt are some of the countries through which Africans irregularly attempt to cross into Europe. Considering that one of the key purposes of ECOWAS is to create an economic community without borders, Morocco’s admission has lasting implications and ramifications.

In line with Article 3 of the ECOWAS Treaty, one of the objectives of the organization is the promotion of cooperation and integration leading to the establishment of an economic union within the region in order to raise the living standards of the people and to maintain and enhance economic stability.  A means of achieving this objective is the establishment of a common market through the removal of obstacles to the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital, and to the right of residence and establishment. The movement protocol is one of ECOWAS’s successful policies with members enjoying open border access for economic purposes. Under international law, Morocco will be required to accede to the ECOWAS Treaty in order to become a member of the Community. In this regard, unless changes are made to the Treaty or special grounds are created to exclude Morocco from the scope of the open access policy[8], the country’s admission opens up a portal that may not end well. Moroccan migration routes are many and easy for diversification. Haas (2008) found that “[s]ince 1999 migrants in Morocco have increasingly moved southwards to the Western Sahara in order to get to the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory in the Atlantic Ocean”[9]. The Movement Protocol implies that more West Africans may be encouraged to move to Morocco as a transition route for further movement into the EU region. In recent months, the news were replete with tales of several thousands of irregular migrants who were attempting to cross into Europe, and who were then forced into slavery[10]. ECOWAS may only have promoted this trend further with the admission of Morocco.


A review of recent migration trends conducted by the International Organisation for Migration[11] concludes that a “…majority of West Africans enter Europe legally”[12]. Nevertheless, many West Africans continue attempting to enter Europe. ECOWAS should be concerned about this and should take this into account in discussing and agreeing to modalities for Morocco’s membership of ECOWAS. While migration is not the only issue that can go wrong with the ECOWAS-Morocco relationship, it is one of the most pressing at this time in view of the number of young people forced into slavery in the Maghreb region.

[1] The 1975 Treaty limited membership of the Community to “such other West African States as may accede to it” but this clause was expunged in the Revised Treaty of 1992. However, the Revised Treaty defined the “region” as the geographical zone known as West Africa in line with Resolution CM/Res/,464/(XXVI) of the OAU Council of Minister. It is therefore arguable whether ECOWAS can legally admit Morocco under the Revised Treaty.


[3] I prefer to use the term ‘Irregular migration’ used within European literature instead of the term ‘Illegal Migration’ preferred in American texts. The United Nations Global Commission on International Migration proposed that people can neither be described as ‘illegal’ nor ‘irregular’ and thus settled for the term ‘migrants with illegal status’


[5] Article 2 and 3 of the 1975 Treaty



[8] It is arguable that Morocco’s application for admission is hinged on its hopes of accessing the free trade and free movement protocol and it would not support any proposal that excludes it from freely accessing the West African market

[9] Hein de Haas (2008) The Myth of Invasion: the inconvenient realities of African migration to Europe, Third World Quarterly, 29:7, 1305-1322, DOI: 10.1080/01436590802386435

[10]Libya is in an unenviable position being ruled by multiple groups with no acceptable central leadership

[11] International Organisation for Migration, Irregular Migration from West Africa to the Maghreb and the European Union: An Overview of Recent Trends accessed at

[12] This is against the image portrayed by Western Media painting pictures of desperate West African migrants attempting to cross into Europe through tiny fish boats.

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Oluwatosin Fatoyinbo is a second-year student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He is in the Conflict Studies and Management track of the MPP programme. He holds a bachelor's degree in Law from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and qualified as a lawyer in Nigeria in 2014. He worked as an Associate at Banwo & Ighodalo, a full-service commercial law firm in Nigeria. His areas of interest include Illicit Financial Flow, Democratic Peace theories, Artificial Intelligence governance and Water Cooperation.