‘We want to go home’: Moroccans stranded by virus seek help

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Moroccans stranded abroad since their country abruptly grounded flights due to the coronavirus two months ago were holding protests in multiple countries Monday to beg their government to let them back home.

While many countries closed their borders to foreigners as the virus pandemic erupted, Morocco went a step farther, and barred its own citizens from coming home, too. The government fears an influx of imported infections could overwhelm the North African country’s hospital system.

But the decision in early March was so abrupt that Moroccans abroad didn’t have time to get home – and now, over 27,800 Moroccans find themselves stuck across the world, according to government estimates.

Some Moroccan day workers told The Associated Press that they crossed into the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta one morning in March to go to work, expecting to be home for dinner – and instead have been stuck in Spain for two months. They said they slept for weeks in the streets before local Spanish authorities provided temporary lodging in a gym.

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Stranded Moroccans have set up online campaigns to lobby the government to relax its rules and let them come home.

On Monday, about 20 Moroccan men protested outside the Moroccan consulate in Algeciras in southern Spain, seeking help from Moroccan King Mohammed VI and Morocco’s parliament.

“Please, we want to go home,” said one of them, who was not identified. Another unidentified man said, “We can’t stand it anymore.”

They told local media they were desperate to return. Some were sleeping in the street because they no longer had money to pay for a hotel or apartment, they said.

A Spanish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Monday: “The return of Moroccan citizens to their country is a matter that concerns exclusively the government of the Kingdom of Morocco.” She was not authorized to be named in media reports.

In Paris, another group demonstrated outside the Moroccan Embassy to demand speedy repatriation. Appeals were also posted online for protests in other countries.

Those trapped abroad include undocumented migrants whose jobs have dried up amid economic shutdown, Moroccan tourists whose visas have now expired, and legal migrants who want to flee countries like Spain and France out of fear of the virus, which has hit European countries harder than Morocco.

Morocco has reported 188 deaths compared to more than 26,000 each in Britain, Italy, Spain, and France, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Moroccan Prime Minister Saadeddine El Otmani said in an interview with the national television channel that the stranded Moroccans will only be returned when “the decision to open the borders is taken.”

And that still could be months away.

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Aritz Parra in Madrid and Barry Hatton in Lisbon contributed.

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