RABAT: Morocco on Thursday launched an operation to give residency permits to tens of thousands of immigrants living in the country illegally, after the king expressed concern about their harsh treatment by the police.
Hundreds of people, almost all of them sub-Saharan Africans, queued outside the governor's office in Rabat hoping to get their papers, which would officially allow them to reside and work in Morocco.
"Today is the start of the process to normalise the status of immigrants living in Morocco," Migration Minister Anis Birou told AFP.
"There are tens of thousands of people who do not have papers. And this process aims to give them the same rights and duties as Moroccan nationals, to help them integrate into society," he added.
He declined to comment on the conditions for obtaining a Moroccan residency permit, but has previously stated that these include being a resident for at least five years or having a two-year work contract.
The government in November unveiled what it called an "exceptional operation" to give official papers to some of the 25,000-40,000 sub-Saharans estimated to be residing illegally in Morocco.
The North African country has struggled to cope with the rising tide of migrants crossing its borders in the hope of building better lives in Europe, many of whom end up staying.
The Moroccan authorities have come under fire in recent months for their harsh treatment of sub-Saharan fortune seekers.
Rights activists say at least three immigrants -- a Senegalese, a Cameroonian and Congolese -- died as a result of police raids in northern Morocco since last summer and have called for a radical overhaul of the country's immigration policy.
King Mohammed VI responded by admitting "legitimate concerns" and backing their calls for reform.
George, a 27-year-old from Senegal, was one of those queuing outside the governor's office in Rabat on Thursday to apply for a residency permit.
He said he arrived in Morocco illegally 11 years ago, and has been deported to the border "several times."
"I am praying now that I will get my papers, so that the police can't catch me, and I can find work and sleep in peace."