At the end of last week, Spain and Morocco initiated a new phase of bilateral relations between the two countries. More economic cooperation, new flight routes and a warmer political climate are planned. In return, Spain reportedly wants to fly back to Morocco migrants who do not qualify for asylum.
Spanish government sources have said they plan to transport migrants arriving on the Canary Islands, who do not qualify for asylum, back to Morocco if they left from there. That’s according to a report in Spanish on the online newspaper Europa Press. The report was also picked up by Morocco World News in English on April 10.
The plans come just days after Moroccan and Spanish leaders initiated a new era of bilateral relations between the two countries, after a suspension of much of their cooperation last year. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told journalists the new relations marked an "historic moment," reported the French press agency Agence France Presse (AFP).
New flight routes
Two new flight routes have been announced between the Moroccan cities of Casablanca and Agadir and the Canary Islands. Although this will be for increased trade and cooperation between the two countries, the routes could also be to transport migrants who left Morocco back to their country of origin if they are found to have entered Spain irregularly and do not qualify for asylum.
Exact numbers of returns haven’t yet been announced, but according to Europa Press, one of the new routes, between El Aaiun in Western Sahara and the Canarias, might allow for up to 80 migrants a week to be returned.
In 2021, up to 40% of migrants entering Spain without papers left from the Moroccan coasts, 30% left Algeria and the rest came from sub-Saharan African countries, according to Spanish government data cited by Europa Press.
However, the number of migrants without papers entering Spain in March was down on the previous two months of 2022, interior ministry figures show. For the Canary islands, that meant that 3,100 migrants arrived on the Atlantic archipelago in January, 2,302 in February and 431 in March.
Morocco already receives hundreds of millions of euros each year from the European Commission to help it manage its borders and deter migration towards Europe.
Western Sahara tension
The phase of renewed relations between the two countries follows Spain's endorsement of Morocco’s plan for autonomy for Western Sahara, which was first put forward by Morocco in 2007.
The diplomatic tensions began a year ago when Spain allowed the leader of the Polisario Front, which is seeking Western Saharan independence, to be treated for COVID-19 in a Spanish hospital.
Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front, has been accused by Morocco of war crimes and Morocco sees Western Sahara as a part of the kingdom of Morocco. Once Ghali was admitted to hospital in Spain, Moroccan border guards appeared to look the other way as more than 10,000 migrants attempted to cross into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta from Morocco, via the land border and the beaches.
As Sanchez broke the traditional Ramadan fast Iftar with the Moroccan King Mohammed VI in Rabat, they both reiterated their willingness to work together with "mutual respect, mutual trust, permanent consultation and frank and faithful cooperation," reported DW.
Spain’s announcement of support for Morocco’s autonomy plan for Western Sahara has drastically altered Madrid’s position of neutrality over the issue held since the seventies when it withdrew from its colonial occupation and war broke out between the territory and Moroccan troops loyal to the royal family.
Sanchez’ new position on Western Sahara has been bitterly criticized by his left-wing allies, the right-wing opposition and Morocco’s neighbor Algeria, which supplies some of Spain’s gas, reported AFP. An Algerian daily newspaper, L’Expression described the new position as “a dangerous game designed to aggravate tensions in the region.” Sanchez has also been criticized by some, reported AFP, of not obtaining any hard and fast guarantees from Morocco.
However, further meetings between the two countries are expected to take place before the end of the year to map out the new direction relations between the two countries are scheduled to take. Working groups will be established, including on controlling illegal immigration from Morocco. In return, Spain will increase economic and trade exchanges, cooperate with Morocco in the field of energy and intensify industrial and cultural exchanges.