How (and why) 8,000 migrants breached the Spanish-Moroccan border — and what it says about Europe’s migration crisis
When some 8,000 people breached the border of Ceuta in just 48 hours last month, Juan Vivas, the mayor-president of this autonomous Spanish city on the north coast of Africa, admitted on Spanish radio that he felt as if Ceuta were being overrun.
It is exactly this perception of the sudden crisis in the Spanish enclave that advocates fear will prove a setback to the protection of migrants in the much-traversed routes across Africa and the Mediterranean to Europe.
Surveying May’s events in Ceuta, “there was a sense that [Ceuta was] being invaded,” José Ignacio García, S.J., the regional director of Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, said. That is a public perception of migrants that he is convinced must be changed.
Morocco receives millions of dollars each year from Spain and the European Union to limit irregular migration, and the border of Ceuta is normally heavily guarded. The size of the May influx of would-be migrants at Ceuta was unprecedented, but it is not the first time Morocco has abruptly abandoned border controls.
“There was a sense that [Ceuta was] being invaded,” José Ignacio García, S.J., the regional director of Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, said. That is a public perception of migrants that he is convinced must be changed.
Word had spread in mid-May that security on the Moroccan side would be loosened. Thousands of people headed for the border, ready to make a break for Europe. Moroccan officials were apparently using the migrants to signal their displeasure with a decision by Spain to allow Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polaris Front, a West Saharan independence group, to enter Spain in April. He had traveled to Spain using a false name to receive treatment for Covid-19, but the secret operation was discovered by the press. Morocco claims sovereignty over West Sahara and demanded answers about Mr. Ghali’s special treatment.
Though the Moroccan government has not admitted to intentionally opening the border, according to Father García and other migrant advocates, the flow of migrants is a tool that Morocco frequently deploys to pressure Spain.
“From the Spanish side, they will always insist on the manipulation by the [Morocco] government.” But he hastens to add that the root causes of migration from Africa to Europe go deeper than diplomatic spats between Morocco and Spain. “There’s a strata of people that are very frustrated [by conditions in North Africa] and are going to try to cross,” Father García said.
Many who live near the border have been especially suffering during the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Border closures have hampered the informal economy that supports many Moroccans. Before the pandemic restrictions, Moroccans living in cities bordering Ceuta, like Fnidque, had previously been able to cross into the Spanish free port each day for work.
Before Covid, there had also been a significant economy in transporting goods by foot across the border. There are no taxes on goods carried into Morocco, and trucks are prohibited from crossing the border. That had provided an opportunity for thousands of day laborers, Father García explained, unloading trucks and carrying cargo on foot across the border. Even more work had been created on the Morroccan side in storing and selling those goods.
Many who live near the border have been especially suffering during the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Border closures have hampered the informal economy that supports many Moroccans.
Many others who hope to make it to Europe head to Morocco from Africa’s Sahel region, just east and south of the Maghreb, which includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger. More than two million people from the region have been displaced by Islamic militants and criminal gangs.
May’s border opening was the opportunity thousands had been waiting for. But most who took advantage of the border opening had been returned within days by deportation or returned voluntarily to Morocco after it quickly became clear that there was little hope of making it any further into Europe.
As the crisis unfolded, Spanish authorities estimated that as many as 30 people a minute were crossing the border around midnight on May 18. Ceuta, a Spanish city perched on a small peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean and forming the southern side of the Strait of Gibraltar, encompasses a little over 7 square miles and includes 85,000 residents. Eight thousand new arrivals, two thousand of them unaccompanied minors, created a noticeable and potentially destabilizing presence.
The new arrivals came with just the clothes on their backs, many reaching “Spain” by swimming around the jetty that extends into the ocean along the border cutting across the beach between Ceuta and Morocco. Most of the impromptu migrants had no other immediate plan than to leave behind the poverty of Africa for a chance at a new life in Europe.
Spanish security forces—the army, the local police and Civil Guard and even the Foreign Legion—were on hand to round up the irregular entrants, but government facilities and forces were soon overwhelmed, and many groups of migrants wandered through the city or hid in the community to avoid being taken into custody. Their hope was to find a way to Spain, often as stowaways in trucks that ferry across the strait.
May’s border opening was the opportunity thousands had been waiting for. But most who took advantage of the border opening had been returned within days by deportation or returned voluntarily to Morocco.
In the ensuing chaos, many Ceutans kept their children home from school and businesses closed. But the church’s ministries to migrants, including Caritas and the diocesan ministry, Everyone’s Land, were running at full throttle to provide basic needs to the migrants. The Red Cross was also assisting. There were reports of altercations between immigrants and residents, but there were also demonstrations of solidarity among residents of Ceuta.
Nevertheless, the frustration in Ceuta was obvious on May 18 when Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited the city. His motorcade was met with jeers, protests and calls for his resignation.
Relations between Morocco and Spain are complex, fraught with clashing political and economic interests. Morocco claims sovereignty over Ceuta and another Spanish enclave, Melilla, though the port cities have been under Spanish rule since the 15th century. Spain and Morocco are competitors in agricultural sales, even as Spain has become reliant on labor from Morocco to maintain its farming sector.
The United States has been drawing closer to Morocco, diminishing the political influence of Spain in the region. Morocco may have been emboldened, in fact, to ratchet up its ongoing dispute with Spain because of the recent U.S. support it has received.
“The geopolitical situation is changing. U.S. support for Moroccan sovereignty over West Sahara was a boost to Morocco,” said Alberto Ares, S.J., the auxiliary coordinator of the Jesuit Migrant Service in Spain.
In December 2020, as part of an Israeli peace agreement, the Abraham Accord, the outgoing Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over West Sahara while Morocco normalized its relations with Israel. President Joe Biden has also recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory.
While this latest crisis in Ceuta has subsided, its underlying causes remain. The same factors that propelled May’s migrant incursion could provoke border crossings again at any time.
The new U.S. president has also not yet scheduled a courtesy call with Mr. Sánchez. The United States considers Morocco a key military ally, and in October it renewed a defense cooperation agreement into 2030. Last year, the United States also sold Morocco an arsenal of drones, combat helicopters, fighter jets, tanks and ammunition.
Some analysts fear the United States’ new policy could in the end further destabilize the region. Since Spain ceded administration of its former protectorate in 1976, Moroccan authorities have been able to extend control over four-fifths of the country. The Polisario Front controls the disputed territory of the eastern fifth.
Other regional actors, including Algeria and Mauritania, do not support Morocco’s territorial claims. Along with the United Nations and Spain, they support self-determination for the territory. A cease-fire between the Polisario Front and Morocco has been in place since 1991, but it appears tenuous. An incident involving Moroccan forces removing West Saharan protestors from a highway connecting Morocco to sub-Saharan Africa recently threatened to erupt into wider violence.
“Fighters across the region may be drawn in, if the violence continues, as has happened for years in Libya’s cascading internal and proxy wars,” Andrew Lebovich, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote.
But it seems the Biden administration is supporting Morocco’s claim over West Sahara carefully. Operation African Lion, an annual joint military exercise that started on June 7 including more than 7,000 troops spread throughout Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia, will not reach into West Sahara as Morocco had originally hoped.
While this latest crisis in Ceuta has subsided, Father García knows that its underlying causes remain. The same factors that propelled May’s migrant incursion could provoke border crossings again at any time. He advocates the establishment and protection of safe migrant routes from North Africa into Europe and for temporary visas that would allow migrants safe passage to a chance at a new life within the European Union. But incidents like the May crisis make that proposal an even harder sell to the European public.
Josep Buades Fuster, S.J., the coordinator of SJM-Frontera Sur, was recently approached by Spain’s Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration for advice on how to streamline the process for work visas and help unaccompanied minors in Spain as they reach adulthood. For many that can mean a loss of formal residency and possible deportation unless they are employed. That has become increasingly challenging as Spain’s unemployment rate reaches 16 percent.
Father Ares hopes all these challenges can be addressed while keeping a sense of compassion for the migrants looking for a better life.
“Where the routes of entry [into Europe] are practically closed, people that are desperate find themselves obliged to use whatever route they can to get there,” he said. “Pope Francis has called us to put the person in the center and to look beyond [only] economic interests.”
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