Last month, on Monday 17th May, an unprecedented event occurred in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, resulting in an ongoing humanitarian and diplomatic crisis. Late Sunday night, word began to spread that the Moroccan border control authorities were relaxing their stance and allowing migrants to pass through the heavily guarded fences and into Ceuta, which is legally regarded as Spanish soil. Early Monday morning, hundreds of people crossed from Morocco into Ceuta, desperate to start a better life in a new country. Some went by foot during low tide and others swam all the way across. An estimated 8,000 people had arrived in Ceuta by Tuesday afternoon, hoping to immigrate into Europe. Many of these people were Moroccan, but some had come from countries below the Sahara. The majority were young men, but entire families were also present, and around 1,500 minors. The Moroccan authorities have been accused of displaying “unusual passivity”, and a video released by the BBC appears shows a guard waving migrants through the border gate.
How did this happen?
The Moroccan local authorities are suspected of having allowed the migrants to breach the borders as a result of recent political tensions between the two countries, linked to the long-lasting Western Sahara dispute. Spain allowed Brahim Ghali, the leader of a party fighting for independence in the Western Sahara, to be hospitalised in Madrid after he contracted Coronavirus. Ghali’s party, the Polisario Front, is a movement that has been outlawed by Morocco which fights for the liberation of the Sahrawi people in the Western Sahara (under Moroccan occupation). Though Spanish officials have declared that Ghali’s reception of medical treatment was ‘strictly for humanitarian reasons’, Morocco fears that this may lead to concerns surrounding the legitimacy of its sovereignty in the Western Sahara.
What is the Western Sahara conflict?
The Western Sahara conflict dates back to 1884, at the height of European colonialism, when the region became occupied by Spain. When Spain withdrew in 1976, both Morocco and Mauritania claimed the territory, with Morocco ultimately gaining control of the southern part of Western Sahara in 1979. During this time, the Polisario Front was founded, with the intention of establishing an independent state in the Western Sahara. The group renamed the region the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (DARS), and became a member of the African Union in 1984 as a "non-self-governing territory". However, as an increasing number of Moroccans came to settle in the area during the 1970s, conflict with the Moroccan army began. Although a ceasefire has been upheld since 1991, negotiations remain ongoing for a more permanent solution. It should be noted that as the Western Sahara is rich in mineral resources, holding around 72% of all known phosphate reserves, Moroccan interest in the region is unlikely to diminish.
What will happen to the migrants?
Ceuta is a Spanish enclave, meaning it operates under Spanish law. The president of Spain has labelled the influx of migrants a ‘serious crisis for Spain and Europe’, and is looking to the European Union for assistance. At the orders of the Spanish Ministry of Interior, around 4,000 migrants were expelled from Ceuta and accepted back into Morocco by Tuesday. In order to remove as many people as possible as quickly as possible, the Spanish army was deployed and they stationed armoured vehicles along the beach. Many of these expulsions occurred without the proper legal formalities and on a massive scale, according to news agency Efe. These expulsions began on Monday, though the lawyers’ association in Ceuta has confirmed that its attorneys were only summoned at 2pm on Tuesday. Very little detail has been given by the Spanish Ministry of Interior about measures used to expel the migrants, though many videos circulation appear to show extreme force. Many of the migrants have had to receive medical treatment for hypothermia and exhaustion after swimming across the breakwater that marks the border, and one young man died.
What will happen to the minors?
Unaccompanied minors who migrate are legally allowed to stay in Spain or Spanish territories under the supervision of the government. No minors have been sent back across the borders, according to the Spanish Ministry of Interior. Spaces have been set up to process the estimated 1,500 unaccompanied minors, including a warehouse is Tarajal and a local football stadium. According to reports, security has been heavily increased, and all the shelters in the city are completely overwhelmed. The Territorial Council of Social Services has been mobilized to assist with the relocation of the minors. The autonomous Spanish communities of Galicia, Navarra, the Basque Country and the Canary Islands have said that they are willing to welcome these minors, while Andalusia has refused. A spokesman for the extreme right part Vox received backlash for an “inhumane” statement: “In Andalusia, we do not want them.” Another Vox deputy was reproached for making a racist comment surrounding the situation.
The Moroccan government has yet to make an official statement on the situation, though a Moroccan ambassador in Spain, Karima Benyaich has stated that “acts have consequences and that have to be accepted”. It is difficult to predict how the situation will unfold in the weeks to come, but perhaps the biggest message that should be taken away from the situation is this: desperate people should not be used as pawns for politicians to play with. Hopefully, the political tensions between Morocco and Spain can be addressed swiftly, without drawing in innocent people to use as marionettes for power plays.
Tasha Johnson is a final year student at the University of Leeds, where she studies BA Arabic & Spanish. She is the social media manager for the Croydon Refugee Day Centre and frequently writes for The Gryphon student newspaper. She write pieces on social justice, travel, fashion and the arts, and is currently working on the manuscripts of several novels. Her Instagram tag is @tashwritesx
and her username on LinkedIn is Tasha Johnson.