Humanitarian Crisis
Society 19/05/2021

Morocco relaxes and resumes controls at the border with Ceuta

Sánchez travels to the autonomous city and warns Rabat that he will react to any "challenge"

5 min
Dozens of people, having just swum to Ceuta's coast, waiting on the beach

Barcelona / BrusselsAfter almost two days in which they have allowed almost 8,000 people to pass into Ceuta, the Moroccan authorities have once again taken action and prevented the passage of more people who were waiting in the border towns for their turn to cross the border. For the moment, police controls have been re-established in Castillejos and Beliones, while the reinforcement of soldiers, police and civil guards sent to the autonomous city will be maintained sine die, while waiting for the tension between the two countries to calm down. It has been an intense two days at the border, during which almost 8,000 people - single men but also entire families - have entered Ceuta irregularly in the face of the passivity of the Moroccan guards. The proof of the seriousness of the unprecedented crisis is that Pedro Sánchez has cancelled his agenda and travelled to Ceuta to give a message of "firmness" and stress that his government will react to "any challenge, any eventuality and under any circumstances", in an institutional appearance from the Moncloa, shortly after speaking with King Felipe and the president of the PP, Pablo Casado.

The first Spanish response has been to mobilise the army, which patrols the streets of the autonomous city and has deployed tank units on the beaches, where the bulk of the Moroccan and sub-Saharan immigrants are arriving, tired but in good health, explain the NGOs. In turn, Madrid has reinforced the area with 200 police and civil guards and expects to double the number in the coming hours to speed up the returns, which began quickly to send a clear message that it is not intimidated by the massive influx. In a few hours, 4,000 immigrants had already been returned to Morocco, half of the arrivals, according to the latest balance sheet of the Spanish Home Affairs Ministry, which assures that none of the 1,500 minors who have arrived were among them. Human rights organisations, however, warn that the speed prevents individualised treatment of each person, despite the Spanish government's claim that it always acts in accordance with the protocols in force, dating back to 1992.

Both Sánchez and his ministers have avoided blaming Rabat for the current crisis and are careful not to link the massive influx to any laxity on the part of Moroccan guards. In a very calculated exercise of words so as not to hurt the sensitivities of the partner that controls the southern border, the foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, has limited herself to showing "displeasure and rejection" for the record arrival of immigrants to the Moroccan ambassador in Madrid, who has been called in for consultations by Rabat.

Attention to the Polisario leader

The outbreak of tension in recent hours - and which has calmed down in the late afternoon - originated a little over a month ago when Spain agreed "for humanitarian reasons" to treat the Polisario Front leader, Brahim Ghali, for coronavirus in a hospital in Logroño, at the request of Algeria, the country that provides cover for the Saharawis. In Rabat he was not convinced by the Spanish justification and warned that he was taking note and that there would be consequences. And although since then there has been a constant trickle of Moroccans and sub-Saharans entering Ceuta without any impediment from the Moroccan police, it was only yesterday, Monday, that the alerts went off in the face of an unprecedented mass arrival. In fact, opening and closing the tap of the migratory flow is the way Morocco traditionally expresses its displeasure with Madrid and is a real thermometer to assess the state of bilateral relations. Without going any further, in August 2014 Rabat let 1,400 people pass through in two days in retaliation for the Guardia Civil intercepting King Mohammed VI's boat in Spanish waters. Considering that 8,000 arrivals is a record number that surpasses the high points of the Canary Islands' cayuco crisis, Rabat's level of irritation is very high and the Sahara continues to be its red line.

But for the Home Affairs Minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, the current crisis is the sum of an accumulation of "multiple circumstances and causes", such as socio-economic problems and the pandemic, which are being "analysed". Although it was already planned and budgeted for, it was chance that the Council of Ministers today approved 30 million euros in aid to the Moroccan Home Affairs Ministry to reinforce the borders and, officially, to fight against mafias and irregular immigration.

Apart from the diplomatic crisis, the irregular entry of hundreds of people into Ceuta by sea and along the coastal roads has been continuous throughout the day. In a video released by the Unified Police Union, whose authorship is unknown, it can be seen how the Moroccan police literally open the gate of the fence to dozens of young people.

"A lot of people are still arriving this morning", explained Irina Samy from Ceuta, from the NGO No Name Kitchen, which has been accompanying and advising migrants trapped in the autonomous city for several months. "The streets are full of people, including many children, who are chased by the police", she adds. The entry of very young children is one of the things that the aid organisations highlight the most, as well as the presence of more women than in previous mass entries. Most of those arriving are transferred to warehouses on the Tarajal beach, which were already very full and are now completely overflowing. They arrive tired from the effort of the swim, but according to Red Cross sources they are in good health.

European reaction

It has not taken long for the first reactions from the European Commission to arrive as a result of the entry of thousands of people fleeing poverty in Ceuta. One of the objectives of the executive presided over by Ursula von der Leyen is to find consensus to agree on a common migration and asylum policy, but so far it has not been successful. The first to speak out has been the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, who has described the arrival of 6,000 immigrants, "many of whom are children", as "worrying". "The most important thing is that Morocco remains committed to preventing the departure of irregular migrants and that those who do not have the right to stay return in an orderly manner to their country," said the Swedish commissioner.

Vice-President for the Promotion of the European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, also tweeted: "The Spanish border in Ceuta is a European border. All solidarity with Spain. We need the European migration policy pact right now: agreements with third countries, robust protection of our borders, solidarity between member states and a legal migration policy." The proposal for a migration pact presented by the European Commission includes intensifying returns and establishing "sponsorships" for countries that, instead of taking in migrants, want to provide resources to help return people "without the right to stay in the Union".

For the migration specialist Gemma Pinyol-Jiménez, the current crisis is one more episode in the historical "tug of war" between Morocco and Spain and, although she admits that there may be "multiple causes", she points to the lack of "migration policy" of the Spanish government which, "obsessed with border control", has not left any way for regular and legal entry. For this reason, Morocco takes advantage and uses "migrants and their rights according to its interests," says the expert from the consultancy Instrategies Think&Do.

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