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Tensions rise between Spain and Morocco over record number of migrants

The 8,000 migrants landed on the shores of the Spanish city of Ceuta on the North African Coast and many have since been returned to Morocco.

Migrants arrive at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, near the border of Morocco and Spain, early Wednesday, May 19, 2021.
Migrants arrive at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, near the border of Morocco and Spain, early Wednesday, May 19, 2021.
Image: AP/PA Images

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN Morocco and Spain has become strained after a record number of Moroccan migrants landed on the shores of the Spanish city of Ceuta.

Today, Spain’s defence minister accused Morocco of “aggression” and “blackmail”.

“It is an aggression of Spanish borders and of the borders of the European Union, and this, in international law is unacceptable,” Margarita Robles said during an interview with Spanish public radio, adding that Rabat, Morocco’s capital, was “using” minors.

She said children as young as seven or eight were allowed through, according to NGOs. “It is not acceptable to put the lives of minors or of people of one’s own country, at risk for reasons that I don’t understand.”

This comes as a record 8,000 migrants, about 2,000 believed to be minors, crossed into Ceuta this week by swimming or on small inflatable boats, according to Press Association (PA). The majority of these were Moroccan and included families with small children and teenagers travelling alone, say AFP.

Spain deployed troops and armoured vehicles to the border on Tuesday to round up migrants. Around 5,600 migrants were sent back, according to the Spanish government, through a gate on the border fence.

PA reported that some migrants were hit with batons to hurry them up.

Ceuta is a Spanish city on the coast of North Africa and is connected to mainland Spain by ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar. Like Melilla, another Spanish city on the Moroccan coast, Ceuta in recent decades has become a flashpoint for migrants from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa seeking to enter Europe.

The BBC reported that many of the people making the crossing said that employment was their main reason for doing so.

Spain also said there were no new entries to Ceuta on Wednesday as anyone who reached the beach was sent back immediately. This is under a 30-year-old agreement between the two countries that says Spain can send back any adults who cross the border irregularly.

An AP reporter saw several children among those being pushed back, even though the Spanish government claimed that no unaccompanied minors were being returned. Many of the unaccompanied minors were being held in quarantine in warehouse shelters run by the Red Cross.

The migrants have been able to try and cross since Morocco relaxed its border controls, although the country has said little as to why they did this.

Analysts said it was clear Morocco had turned a blind eye to the human tide entering Ceuta in order to put diplomatic pressure on Spain to recognise its sovereignty over Western Sahara, according to AFP.

The relaxed borders are widely seen as retaliation against Spain allowing the leader of a militant group, Brahim Ghali, to receive medical treatment for Covid-19 in a Spanish hospital. He was admitted to hospital in the Spanish City of Logrono last month which angered Morocco’s government, which warned there would be “consequences”.

Ghali is the leader of the Polisario Front, which is fighting for an independent Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that Morocco annexed in the 1970s.

In recent years, Spain has seen spikes in migrant arrivals on its southern coast as well as in the Canary Islands, sparking concerns over migration that have helped fuel the rise of Vox, a far-right party that entered parliament in 2019.

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Vox was quick to blame the situation in Ceuta on the government’s “inaction” and its leader visited the city on Tuesday.

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said: “EU stands in solidarity with Ceuta & Spain” in a Tweet on Tuesday.

The EU’s home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, said the Ceuta influx is “worrying” and said that Spain’s border with Morocco is also the EU’s external border. She urged Morocco to prevent more people from crossing it irregularly.

Since Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, the EU has tried to reduce the flow of regular migrants into Europe in part by seeking agreements with transit countries – including Morocco, Turkey and Libya – to hold back migrants.

Contains reporting from Press Association and AFP.

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