Moroccans affected by the 6.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the North African country on Sept. 8 are calling for humanitarian aid as they search for and hope to rescue loved ones still trapped under the rubble. Yet the country’s leadership is being selective in deciding who can help.
Since the disaster in Atlas Mountain villages that has now claimed approximately 3,000 lives, the country has welcomed assistance only from four countries: Britain, Qatar, Spain and the United Arab Emirates. A rescue mission in such a crisis — the worst quake to hit the region in at least a century — is most useful within a few hours of the incident, experts say, noting that finding anyone alive after four days is unlikely.
Numerous countries and the United Nations have offered to help right away, but the Moroccan government has not accepted most of these overtures. Türkiye, a country with fresh experience in search-and-rescue efforts after its own encounter with a horrific earthquake last winter, still has its offer on the table. The UN said it could provide humanitarian support and coordinate resources on the ground for the victims, but it is awaiting approval from the Moroccan government.
Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for Secretary-General António Guterres, told journalists on Sept. 11 that the UN was ready to pitch in but must be invited.
“Our standard procedure is that we wait and stand ready,” Haq said on Monday, three days after the quake. “We are making clear to the Moroccan authorities the sort of assistance we are ready to provide. We have the ability to bring in all kinds of humanitarian assistance needed. We are discussing this with the authorities and we will see what we can provide.”
Fouad Abdelmoumni, a Moroccan human rights activist, told PassBlue from Marrakech, located not far from the quake’s epicenter, that one reason his country has refused to accept offers from the UN and others is to show that it is a regional power and does not need aid from outsiders. The country is a constitutional monarchy, with a parliamentary system ruled by King Mohammed VI.
“The authorities do not want to accept help from Algeria and France, but because it does not want to be explicit in excluding them, the authority is making it a general policy,” Abdelmoumni told PassBlue. “Also, the marketers of the king’s image are worried about having people coming here and going back with the official image of how much people were suffering in very hard conditions before the earthquake and how these areas were totally abandoned, how the government is weak, corrupt and inefficient.”
Rabat, the capital, has a difficult relationship with both Paris and Algiers over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, located on the northwest coast of Africa and bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria. Morocco wants France and Algeria to recognize the territory formally as Moroccan. The UN established a referendum mission in Western Sahara, known as Minurso, in 1991 to help arrange a vote by the Sahrawi people in the territory to decide on Western Sahara independence or integration in Morocco. The referendum has never been held.
The UN personal envoy for Western Sahara, Staffan de Mistura, recently traveled to the region, meeting with, among others, Nasser Bourita, Morocco’s foreign minister, on Sept. 8. De Mistura has not spoken to the media about his envoy work on Western Sahara since he was appointed in 2021. (He is scheduled to brief the Security Council privately on Oct. 16, when his latest report is out.)
King Mohammed VI was in France when the earthquake struck his country on Friday evening. He made his first visit to the Marrakech area, about 44 miles from the epicenter, four days after the quake hit. Moroccan officials did not make comments, appear at the scene or give directions on rescue missions until the king’s arrival. News reports say the king has a mansion in Paris, despite the diplomatic rivalry between the two countries.
A source familiar with the actions of the ruling elite in Morocco told PassBlue this week that state officials are scared to do anything that is not sanctioned by the king. Although Morocco has a prime minister as head of government, the monarch has tremendous power.
“Morocco tries to portray itself as a modern society that has elections and political parties, but that’s all facade. It is a very authoritarian, despotic regime,” the source, who asked to remain anonymous, told PassBlue. “What you see is similar to the same thing in North Korea, and this earthquake has shown it, because nobody was able to do anything until the king came. The system is too centralized. In disasters, you need prompt decisions, but this was not possible because all decisions rest with the king, who was far away.”
Videos and pictures still emerging from the quake scene — with most fatalities recorded in the Al Haouz district — show citizens using basic equipment like shovels and hammers to dismantle rubble in search of people trapped underneath. Survivors have called for help as rescue has been slow and humanitarian help limited.
A teacher posted on Facebook, the most prominent social media platform in Morocco, that all her students were dead. Another survivor told Reuters that there was no access to food and shelter. In another picture, posted on social media, an injured man lay in the open while someone watched over him helplessly.
People are sleeping in makeshift tents close to the ruins of the earthquake. With the rain forecasted soon for the area, Abdelmoumni said, “It is promising to be a very bad situation” for the survivors, who are already dealing with the loss of family and properties.
Mosa’ab Elshamy, an Associated Press photojournalist based in Morocco, said on his Facebook page that the stench of dead bodies was beginning to engulf the atmosphere. Abdelmoumni corroborated this description during his phone interview with PassBlue.
“We also have trouble with burying bodies of people because the representative of the authorities threaten people with jail time if they bury dead bodies without public authorization,” he said. “The deceased are beginning to smell very bad, and there is a risk of an epidemic that could arise from this situation.”
Humanitarian groups operating in the area said that food, medicine and shelter were the most urgent needs of the survivors. The World Central Kitchen, a nongovernmental organization, said it was providing hot meals to people in Marrakech.
“WCK’s Relief Team was on the ground within hours of the temblor, using any means necessary to reach the hardest hit areas to provide immediate support,” the group said in a statement released on its website. “We are providing sandwiches, fruit, and water to offer immediate support and our team in Spain is on its way with multiple food trucks and kitchen equipment to begin cooking fresh meals as soon as possible.”
Moroccan authorities continue to rebuff criticism that it is playing geopolitics with the desperate needs of its own citizens. Abdelmalek Alaoui, president of the Moroccan Institute of Strategic Intelligence, told Al Jazeera that the government wanted to manage how aid is delivered so as not to create further problems.
“Morocco did not refuse international aid, it is trying to channel it in the best way in order to serve the best interests of the population,” he said.
The quake has indeed revealed a side of Morocco that the authorities always try to shield from the media. Beyond the high-rise buildings and exotic tourism the country is known for, most people live in remote villages.
Alaoui acknowledged that one problem with accepting all the help being offered is that only one road connects to the region where the earthquake happened. “You only have one road, you have a very long column of logistics now trying to get there. You have to make sure the aid is not adding a problem to a problem,” he said.
Abdelmoumni added that responses could have been faster if all decisions didn’t come from the king. Meanwhile, the number of people who have died keeps rising, according to the Moroccan government news site.
The United States Agency for International Development, which has given “up to” $1 million for the quake recovery, said in a Sept. 13 statement: “First responders have spent hours searching for those still trapped. Citizens have stood in long lines to donate blood.” No mention was made of the several days’ delays in government response to the catastrophe.
This article was updated.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on Morocco's response to the quake?
Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.