Thousands of Moroccan migrants arrived illegally on Ceuta's beaches on May 17, 2021 | Photo: Reuters
Thousands of Moroccan migrants arrived illegally on Ceuta's beaches on May 17, 2021 | Photo: Reuters

Nearly 6,000, mostly Moroccan, migrants irregularly entered the Spanish territory of Ceuta on Monday – the largest number of migrant arrivals ever recorded there over the course of a single day. But what prompted the sudden influx, and how was it even possible? InfoMigrants takes a closer look at the mechanisms behind the sudden mass border-crossing.

Monday, May 17, marked an historic day in Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, as a record number of mostly Moroccan migrants swam and waded around the enclave’s borders and onto its beaches.

On Tuesday, despite the deployment of several armored vehicles and Spanish and Moroccan troops, hundreds of migrants were still waiting at the border in the hope of crossing over into the enclave.

Ali Zoubeidi, a researcher and immigration specialist at Morocco’s Hassan I University, told InfoMigrants that about a hundred migrants had managed to pass the security forces and into Spain after walking and wading onto the beach, or via the sea, by swimming – in some cases with the help of inflatable buoys - or by traveling in inflatable rafts.

Hundreds of migrants wait by the border fences separating them from Spain, on May 18, 2021 | Photo: Reuters
Hundreds of migrants wait by the border fences separating them from Spain, on May 18, 2021 | Photo: Reuters

Although the number of migrants irregularly entering Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco have steadily increased since the start of the year, Monday’s arrival numbers shattered all previous records.

'Morocco no longer wants to serve as Spain’s police officer'

Heightened diplomatic tensions between Madrid and Rabat are one of the explanations behind the explosion in border-crossings. Relations between the two countries became strained at the end of April, when Spain allowed Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement Polisario Front, to seek medical treatment there.  

Morocco responded by summoning the Spanish ambassador to express its "exasperation" over the move. "The preservation of the bilateral partnership is a shared responsibility, which is nourished by a permanent commitment to safeguarding mutual trust (….) and safeguard the strategic interests of two countries," a press release from the Moroccan ministry of foreign affairs warned.

The conflict in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony classified as a "non-autonomous territory" by the United Nations in the absence of a definitive settlement, has been the stage for a conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, supported by Morocco's neighbor Algeria, for more than 45 years.

To underscore its disapproval over Ghali’s hospitalization in Spain, Morocco then drastically reduced its border controls near Spanish enclaves, effectively allowing thousands of migrants to cross over. "Morocco doesn’t want to serve as Spain’s police officer on migrant matters. Rabat wants reciprocity in its relations with Madrid," Zoubeidi explained.

Migrants, pawns in a larger diplomatic row

Omar Naji, vice president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) in Nador, deplored the fact that migrants have been drawn into the diplomatic row between the two countries. "Spain and Morocco are constantly exploiting migration, disregarding the fundamental rights of migrants and asylum seekers," he said.

But Zoubeidi said the worsening social and economic situation in Morocco may just as much be to blame for the sudden mass migration into Spain. "It might have existed even without the diplomatic tensions," he said.

The coronavirus crisis, and the ensuing border closures between Morocco and Spanish enclaves, have hit Moroccan youth hard, leaving thousands of people unemployed in the northern regions, especially in Fnideq (near Ceuta) and Nador (near Melilla).

"The urban economies of Nador and Fnideq are based on trade with Ceuta and Melilla. For more than a year now, informal trade between the two regions has been at a standstill, whereas many families used to live off this income," Naji said. "The area’s whole economy is affected and there is no alternative.”

Migrants swim around the border separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on May 17, 2021 | Photo: Reuters
Migrants swim around the border separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on May 17, 2021 | Photo: Reuters

Families reuniting

The coronavirus-closed borders also led to the separation of many Moroccan families, leaving many parents, children and spouses stranded in the enclaves in which they were working, with no possibility of reuniting with their loved ones on the other side of the border for months on end. Monday’s mass influx therefore served to reunite many of these families too.

The cross-over, by the means of swimming, was also an opportunity for many young people without other financial means to make their way into Spain, since they did not have to pay smugglers to bring them over.

But few of the migrants who made it to Ceuta on Monday are likely to stay due to an already existing extradition deal between Madrid and Rabat. On Tuesday, Spain’s Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska announced that some 2,700 migrants out of the 6,000 who arrived on Monday had already been sent back to Morocco.

 

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