Migrants stream into Spanish enclave of Ceuta as Morocco loosens borders

Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez declared that his country and the EU as a whole were in “crisis” after a record-breaking number of migrants entered Spanish territory from Morocco.

Spain deployed the army to help patrol the border of its north African enclave of Ceuta, after about 6,000 people, including an estimated 1,500 children, entered from Morocco on Monday — the biggest number of migrants recorded arriving in a single day in modern Spanish history.

Many swam or used makeshift boats to get into the 18.5 sq km coastal territory, which borders Morocco and is guarded by a six-metre fence. At least one person drowned.

The influx occurred after Morocco scaled down policing of the frontier following a diplomatic rift over Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Rabat but not recognised as Moroccan territory by Spain, the former colonial power.

“We are going to re-establish order in the city and our borders with maximum speed,” Sánchez said in a national address on Tuesday, as he announced plans to travel to Ceuta and Spain’s other North African enclave, Melilla. “This sudden arrival of irregular migrants represents a crisis for Spain and Europe.”

Morocco’s apparent use of migrants to exert pressure on Spain follows years of deploying a similar policy on a smaller scale, when it alternately loosened and tightened migration controls in a bid to influence policy in Madrid and the EU.

Ilke Toygur, an analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, compared it to similar tactics used in the past by Turkey.

“[Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has long weaponised refugees on the borders as a source of pressure and you can see other countries could want to use similar tactics for special treatment of their own,” she said.

People from Morocco swim in an attempt to enter Ceuta on Monday © AP

Morocco is also deeply unhappy with Spain’s decision to provide medical treatment to Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front, which has long fought for the independence of the Western Sahara region. Ghali is being treated for Covid-19.

Rabat claims sovereignty over the desert region, which is roughly the size of the UK. A 30-year ceasefire with Polisario broke down at the end of 2020.

After the Trump administration recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in December — in return for the north African country’s normalisation of ties with Israel — Rabat has looked for EU countries to follow suit. Spain does not recognise the republic set up by Polisario or Morocco’s claims over Western Sahara. A UN plan to hold a self-determination referendum in the territory has been stalled for decades.

Nasser Bourita, Morocco’s foreign minister, said this month that Spain risked undermining relations, adding that Morocco refused to be “the policeman” of the EU on migration.

“Migration needs a comprehensive approach, not only a financial one: we must be partners in the vision, in the formulation of strategies, and not only in their implementation in exchange for a sum of money,” he told Efe, the Spanish news agency.

Spanish troops take positions at Ceuta’s border with Morocco
Spanish troops take positions at Ceuta’s border with Morocco © AP

But in a radio interview on Monday night, Arancha González, Spain’s foreign minister, said Ghali’s hospitalisation in Spain was “simply a humanitarian response to a request for humanitarian aid for someone with very fragile health”.

“I can’t imagine that anyone would voluntarily put the lives of young people and minors at risk in the sea, as we have seen in last few hours in Ceuta . . . in response to a humanitarian action,” she added.

The number of people that arrived on Monday is unprecedented for Spain and Ceuta, an enclave of 85,000 people. At the high point of a previous wave of migration, about 2,200 people arrived in the Canary Islands on a weekend last November.

The Red Cross in Ceuta told Spain’s national broadcaster that it was “absolutely overwhelmed”, as videos indicated Moroccan authorities were doing little to prevent people from swimming out of the country and into the Spanish territory.

Fernando Grande-Marlaska, Spanish interior minister, said on Tuesday that Spain had already returned 2,700 people to Morocco, which he said was a sign of co-operation with Rabat. But television footage showed people continuing to make the crossing.

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