The diplomatic rift driving Ceuta's migrant crisis

Migrants try to reach the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on 18 May, 2021. [Getty]
5 min read
04 June, 2021
In-depth: A geopolitical battle between Rabat and Madrid simmers under the surface of the so-called 'migrant crisis' in Ceuta and Melilla.

An estimated 10,000 people, described by Spanish authorities and the European Union (EU) as 'migrants,' entered Ceuta in the week of 17 May.

This influx into the tiny Spanish enclave in Morocco has sparked tense exchanges between Rabat, Madrid, and Brussels.

However, while the crisis is described as one of 'migration,' it is not. It is a diplomatic one.

Ceuta and Melilla are colonial leftovers, Moroccan territories still administered by Spain, and therefore, pieces of the Schengen Zone in Africa.

"They know very well that they will never be allowed to cross the Mediterranean to reach Spain"

Nearly 8,000 of the would-be migrants have already been sent back to Morocco, according to Spanish authorities. Some 1,000 minors remained in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta as of 24 May, most being held in temporary refuges. Others are hiding in the city to avoid arrest and deportation.

This political game has been played for 40 years. 

"We know very well that a young person or a woman will never be brought to Spanish territory. Once they are in Ceuta, some hope to hide behind a car while waiting for it to pass, but it is impossible to stay there," Younes, 23, a Moroccan from Tetouan sent back by the Spanish authorities after crossing the border, told The New Arab.

"The majority of Moroccans who have passed have done so out of frustration. They know very well that they will never be allowed to cross the Mediterranean to reach Spain."

Migrants, including minors, who arrived swimming at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, are guarded by Spanish soldiers on 18 May, 2021. [Getty]
Migrants, including minors, who arrived swimming at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, are guarded by Spanish soldiers on 18 May, 2021. [Getty]

These would-be migrants are frustrated with the economic slowdown in the region. Not only has Covid-19 caused domestic economic paralysis, but the border closures due to the pandemic have disrupted the lives of thousands of Moroccan employees who work in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

Moroccan-Spanish tensions

Migration plays a key role in the tensions between Morocco and Spain.

The Moroccan Ambassador in Madrid, Karima Benyaich declared, "There are acts that have consequences, and we must assume them,'' referring to relaxing borders in order to allow migrants and refugees into Spanish territories.

In normal times, Rabat participates in the co-management of the border with Ceuta, working with Spain and Europe to prevent crossings. However, Morocco has felt cheated in its partnership with Spain.

One of Morocco's main grievances in its partnership with Spain has been Madrid's recent hospitalisation of the Secretary-General of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, due to Covid-19.

"Morocco has felt cheated in its partnership with Spain"

The government of Morocco was outraged by the fact that Spain did not inform it in advance of the decision to shelter Ghali, made worse by rumours that he was allowed to use a false passport to enter the country. 

However, according to Spanish authorities, the Polisario leader did not use a false passport, as quoted in some media, but arranged with the hospital to change his identity for reasons of confidentiality.

Spain's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arancha González Laya, has stated that the reception of Brahim Ghali was a "humanitarian" gesture and not an "aggression" against Morocco.

Following public denunciation of the presence of a criminal on Spanish soil, Brahim Ghali appeared (remotely) in front of the National Court on 1 June for a preliminary hearing. The Spanish court refused to take him into custody, and he departed Spain for Algeria on 2 June.

Manuel Olle, Brahim Ghali's lawyer, speaks to journalists outside the Spain's National Court in Madrid on 1 June, 2021. [Getty]
Manuel Olle, Brahim Ghali's lawyer, speaks to journalists outside Spain's National Court in Madrid on 1 June, 2021. [Getty]

The status of Ceuta and Melilla

If the Brahim Ghali case is the match that set the bilateral relationship aflame, the status of Ceuta and Melilla were the tinder that built the stage for the fire.

In December 2020, Spain summoned the Moroccan Ambassador to Madrid, Karima Benyaich, after Prime Minister Saâdeddine el-Othmani suggested that "the question of Ceuta and Melilla, pending for five or six centuries, could one day open."

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation, and Moroccans Residing Abroad, Nasser Bourita, revealed that the Spanish authorities had given the Moroccan diplomat 30 minutes to come to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He called this an "unprecedented act, unusual in relations between neighbouring countries and rare in diplomatic practice."

Clearly, Spain feels threatened by a Moroccan claim to the cities of Ceuta and Melilla.

"A neighbour so well-located and cooperative deserves a full partnership, one of honesty and good faith"

Diplomatic evolution

On 10 December, America recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara, and the tone of Moroccan diplomacy changed. Over several months, Morocco has stopped accepting pretences, ambiguities, half-measures, and hesitation, most notably from Spain.

Following former US president Donald Trump's December statement, Rabat demanded a clear position from Madrid on the Sahara issue. The Moroccan government stated that Spanish authorities cannot continue to maintain a double discourse: supporting Moroccan autonomy in private and cajoling separatists in public.

Therefore, the current crisis between Spain and Morocco should be viewed through the prism of the Kingdom's strategic reorientation.

Following Brexit, Rabat and London have made a rapprochement in several areas, and, under president Biden, Washington is strengthening its cooperation (particularly militarily) with Morocco. 

Voices

Meanwhile, Morocco is both strengthening its economic cooperation with Brazil and consolidating its diplomatic and economic presence in the Middle East and Africa. One example of this is the December 2020 Abraham Accords with Israel, a move that Spain perceived as threatening the balance of power in the region.

By opening its doors, Morocco has reminded all of Europe that a neighbour so well-located and cooperative deserves a full partnership, one of honesty and good faith.

Mehdi Msaddeq is a freelance journalist based in Casablanca, Morocco. He has produced several television reports and documentaries.

Follow him on Twitter: @MSADDEQ