In Depth

Why migrants are surging on Spain’s southern border with Morocco

Rabat scales back border protections in retaliation over long-running Saharan dispute

Spain has deployed troops in its north African territory of Ceuta after Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez warned that a migrant “invasion” from Morocco threatens his country and Europe.

Around 8,000 people, 1,500 of whom are thought to be under 18, arrived in the city on crowded boats between Monday and Tuesday, while many others swam across the border.

In a televised address, Sanchez said that the “sudden arrival of irregular migrants”, triggered by Rabat’s decision to scale back its border policing between Morocco and the Spanish autonomous city, “poses a serious crisis for Spain and for Europe”.

Migrant surge

A “record influx of mostly Moroccan migrants” began early on Monday as “entire families tried to circumvent breakwaters in the sea to enter the Spanish territory illegally, resulting in the death of at least one man”, The Telegraph reports.

“Large groups swam, paddled or waded to the town”, The Times says, “crossing several hundred metres of water without meeting any resistance from the authorities after the Moroccan government lifted border controls”.

Footage aired on Spain’s public TV broadcaster TVE “showed soldiers carrying children and Red Cross personnel helping migrants as they emerged from the water cold and exhausted”, the paper adds, with one woman lying “unconscious on the sand before she was carried away on a stretcher”.

Authorities said the crossings began “in the border area of Ceuta known as Benzú” before being “followed by a few dozen people near the eastern beach of Tarajal”, Euronews says. Migrants were checked by Red Cross medics on arrival before being detained and taken to a reception centre, a police spokesperson said.

Madrid has dispatched the army to Ceuta, a town of just under 85,000 divided from Morocco by a barbed-wire border fence, with Prime Minister Sanchez saying during a televised address that “we are going to restore order to the city and its borders”.

Migrants also began arriving in Spain’s other north African enclave, the city of Melilla, where about 80 people scaled a barbed-wire fence to enter the Spanish territory. Police have released footage of a “Moroccan gendarme opening a gate in a border fence to allow a group of youths into Ceuta”, The Times adds.

“Moroccan authorities made no effort to stop the wave of arrivals and the Moroccan government remained silent on the issue on Monday”, El Pais reports, prompting Sanchez to warn on Twitter that the government “will defend the integrity” of Ceuta “against any challenge”.

“My priority right now is restoring normality in Ceuta. Its citizens must know that they have the absolute support of the Spanish government and our utmost resolve to protect their security,” he added.

Desert sand stand-off

Analysts have suggested that Rabat’s decision to stand down much of its border guard is “an attempt to put pressure on Spain over a dispute linked to Western Sahara”, The Telegraph says. “Morocco has claimed the territory on its southern border ever since the Spanish abandoned the one-time colony in 1975.”

However, Morocco’s claim to the Saharan territory has “long been rejected by the Polisario Front, an organisation fighting for Western Sahara’s independence”, the paper adds. Spain has so far agreed with the UN’s position that “there should be a negotiated solution and a referendum on the issue”.

The Times’ Spain correspondent, Isambard Wilkinson, describes the Western Sahara as a “phosphate-rich expanse” that for “46 years has been the scene of one of the world’s forgotten conflicts”. The Polisario “controls a third of Western Sahara” and is “recognised by the United Nations as the legitimate representative of the indigenous Sahrawi people”, he adds.

“The Polisario and its government live in exile in Tindouf”, a territory in the Algerian Sahara, “where several camps house more than 165,000 Sahrawi refugees living in poverty”, Wilkinson continues. However, the UN has “spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to organise a referendum that has never happened”.

“Spain’s support for a vote is one of several bones of contention between it and Morocco”, he adds, alongside “disputes over fishing rights and subsidies for controlling the flow of migrants”.

This latest dispute, that triggered Rabat’s decision to allow an influx of migrants into Ceuta, is thought to have been caused by Madrid’s decision to treat Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario, for Covid-19 in mid-April. Ghali, 73, was “admitted under a false name to a hospital in the Spanish city of Logroño”, El Pais says.

The group is “outlawed in the parts of Western Sahara under Moroccan control”, the paper adds, prompting the Moroccan Foreign Affairs Ministry to describe the decision to treat Ghali as an attack on the two countries’ “association and good neighbourliness”.

Meanwhile, Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska defended the move, requested by Algeria, arguing that Spain had to treat Ghali for coronavirus “for strictly humanitarian reasons”.

Where next?

“Spanish diplomats are frantically working to end the crisis”, writes The Times’ Wilkinson, which has seen divisions emerge within Sanchez’s Socialist-led coalition. But after a “drubbing in recent regional elections”, the opportunity to take a strong stance against Rabat has also “given Sanchez an opportunity to boost his popularity” – and “given the Polisario some coveted publicity”.

Questions are also being asked about whether Morocco has failed in its duty to protect the integrity of its neighbour’s border, with Blanca Garces, a senior researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, telling Euronews “there are many witnesses who explained that the police were not there any more, trying to stop them”.

“This, of course, has to do with the tension between the Moroccan government and the Spanish government,” Garces said, adding: “It’s using the migration card as blackmail, as a way to put pressure upon [the Spanish government].”

As Sanchez flew into Ceuta yesterday, he warned Morocco that continuing “cooperation must be based on respect for shared borders”. 

The prime minister’s warning came as Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya, summoned Morocco’s ambassador to Spain “to express our discontent and rejection of the mass influx of Moroccan migrants to Ceuta and reminded them that border control must be their joint responsibility”.

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