Spanish-Moroccan Frontier Dispute Highlights EU’s Vulnerable Soft Underbelly

 Spanish-Moroccan Frontier Dispute Highlights EU’s Vulnerable Soft Underbelly

by Miceál O’Hurley
Diplomatic Editor

CEUTA & MELILLA – In the Western Sahara can be found two living remnants from the Age of Empire – the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.  Geographically part of Morocco, but claimed by Spain, the small European footprint represents one of the last functioning vestiges of European sovereignty in North Africa.  And here lies the crux of the issue – border controls there call attention to the European Union’s vulnerable and enduring soft underbelly – irregular immigration.

Enclaves Claimed in a Bygone Colonial Era
Situated along the border of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the autonomous enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla represent a non-contiguous border between Spain and Morocco in North Africa.   Previously part of the province of Cadiz, in 1995, both enclaves became autonomous regions albeit retaining Spanish sovereignty.  Their residents, Spanish citizens, are composed of an ethnically mixed population of Christians, Muslims and small minorities of Sephardic Jews and ethnic Sindhis from modern-day Pakistan, tending to identify more by their confessions of faith than as being Spanish.  While Spanish is the official language, more than 52% of the population speak other languages from Berber to French.  Despite the diversity there is an extraordinarily strong affinity for the European Union and its many benefits.

Morocco has historically and repeatedly called for the peaceful ceding of authority over Ceuta and Melilla to its sovereignty, as well as the uninhabited islets of Alhucema, Valez and Perejil.  Spain has steadfastly resisted all such demands, citing the expressed desire of the local populations to maintain their Spanish citizenship and European Union rights.

With resort to antiquity, Madrid has also argued that Ceuta and Melilla have been Spanish since the late 16th century while simultaneously noting that Morroco is a latecomer, having only gained its independence from France in 1956.  With a nod-and-a-wink to their dispute with the London over Gibraltar, Spain draws the clever distinction (admittedly self-serving manner) that Ceuta and Melilla are uniquely different from Gibraltar as it designated a ‘British Overseas Territory’ and has never been a part of the United Kingdom.

Morocco maintains the obvious – Ceuta and Melilla are simply the remnants of Spanish colonialism.

Sovereignty Remains in Dispute
In an argument not un-analogous to Ukraine’s internationally recognised claim to their sovereignty of Crimea, where Ukraine is connected by land to Ukraine, and not Russia,  Morocco presents a persuasive argument that with regards to Ceuta, the enclave being surrounded by Morocco and the Mediterranean Sea, it has absolutely no continuity with any other Spanish territory and must therefore be reached artificially.  With regard to Ukraine, Russia violated internationally law by attempting to illegally annex Crimea by force in 2014 then erecting an artificial land bridge to arguably bolster their claim to Crimea.  The argument has been flatly rejected by the United Nations and European Union, including Ireland which has repeatedly imposed sanctions upon Russia for its malfeasance.

The dispute over the two enclaves has waxed and waned over the years, most ardently since the mid-1930s.  Alal-El Faasi, one of the founders of the Moroccan Istiqlal Party, who agitated for Moroccan independence and unification, advocated openly for the return of Ceuta, Melilla and other territories claimed by Morocco.  Alal-El Faasi claimed Morocco had the right to assert sovereignty over the territories in Morocco claimed by Spain and Morocco should use of force, if necessary, to effectuate their return.

Existing Accord on Limited Visa-Free Travel at Risk
Traditionally, Madrid and Rabat enjoyed a reciprocal accommodation on territorial access to Ceuta and Melilla.  In exchange for Morocco regulating outside immigration, the two nations cooperated on local access allowing Moroccans from the local towns to enter without the disputed Spanish areas on a Visa-Free regime.  However, reciprocity was not extended outside of the enclaves and a Visa was still required for travel to continental Spain and the rest of Europe’s special Schengen Area.  While the accommodation was formally still extant, Morocco took the exceptional step of closing the border during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Recent Flare-Up in Tensions
Morocco’s Prime Minister, Saadeddine Othmani, is said to have kicked-off the latest fire-storm between Madrid and Rabat in December 2020 by announcing that Ceuta and Melilla “…are Moroccan as the Sahara.”  A startled Spanish Government summoned the Moroccan Ambassador to convey their view that Spain expects all its international partners to observe the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its territory in North Africa.  Madrid also demanded clarification of Prime Minister Othmani’s statement on Ceuta and Melilla.

Escalating Retaliation
In response to Prime Minister Othmani’s claim that Ceuta and Melilla are “Moroccan,” Spain threatened to end the local Visa-Free travel regime with Morocco which effectively bars local Moroccans from travelling into Ceuta and Melilla for daily activities.  During a recent visit to Ceuta, Spain’s Junior Minister for Relations with the European Union, Juan Gonzalez Barba, floated Madrid’s retaliatory steps, “The government is considering… scrapping the special regime.”  Gonzalez Barba added, “The border controls would then move to the border with Morocco.”

In what appears to be steps on the path of escalating retaliation for recent rhetoric, Morocco responded in-kind by apparently ceasing to enforce local border controls.  The result was foreseeable, some 8,000 migrants entered Ceuta and Melilla by swimming or climbing border fences to gain access to the two enclaves without Moroccan border-guards interceding, whatsoever.  The newly lax border controls coincide with Spain’s threat of ending Visa-Free border cooperation.

In yet another sign of escalating tensions and desperation to stem the tide of thousands of migrants, Madrid deployed military forces and police to stop those who have recently flooded into these tiny enclaves.  With Rabat declining to repel migrants from crossing the border barriers or otherwise attempting to deter them from simply swimming from a Moroccan beach to one in Spanish Ceuta – a distance of only about 100 meters.  This new North African route into Europe, admittedly with its physical distance – is by far considered the safest as it avoids migrants harrowing the deadly sea crossings that have claimed thousands of lives since the migration crisis began 2015.  Once in Spanish Ceuta, migrants, including everyone from unaccompanied minors to adults, and even infants, invariably attempt to claim asylum.

According to a Reuters report, however, Spanish police and soldiers may have violated the rights of those who crossed into Spanish territory, albeit illegally, without any measure of due process or allowing them to be processed as asylum seekers.   Reuters reported, “Earlier, Spanish police and soldiers escorted long lines of Moroccans and other mainly sub-Saharan Africans through a gate back into Morocco.”

Complaints of Physical Abuse & Rights Violations by Spain
Reuters reporting included an interview with a young man aged in his 20s, Souhail Abbadi, from Tangier in Northwest Morocco.  He spoke to the sense of hope that led him to try to enter Spanish Ceuta en route to his desired destination, continental Spain, “I am not losing hope.  I have friends in Ceuta where I can stay till I get a chance to cross to Spain.” 

 Another young man who attempted to cross into Spanish Ceuta, Mohamed, from Ait Melloul in Southwest Morocc, complained after Spanish soldiers expelled him immediately upon his arrival, “We were given juice and a cake.  That is all.”   

Many returnees whom had attempted to enter Spanish territory gathered in Fnideq in nearby northern Morocco where they claimed they were receiving no aid or assistance.

Speaking to Spanish broadcaster TVE, Madrid’s Social Rights Minister, Ione Belarre, provided particularly political spin to the dilemma faced by the migrants, “Many of the migrants still in Ceuta were children, some as young as seven and some without families.  Many of them did not know the consequences of crossing the border, and many of them want to go back.”  Migrant advocates and human rights campaigners have voiced significant concern about the way migrants are processed or otherwise denied processing once presenting Ceuta and Melilla.

Reuters TV footage showed hundreds of teenagers being processed at a warehouse where Red Cross officials gave out food and drink.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International claimed Spanish police and military forces had used violence against migrants.  Reportedly, migrants were trudgeoned with batons or physically pushed back into the sea before they could reach Spanish shores.  Claims of abuse were widespread.  While issuing a damning report of Spain’s treatment of migrants, Amnesty International also sharply criticised Morocco for weaponising migrants as pawns in their ongoing dispute with Spain.

A Reuters journalist watching the arrivals in Ceuta on Wednesday did not see any beatings or people being thrown back into the sea. could not independently verify any such claims.

Tit-for-Tat Diplomacy
Beyond the escalating rhetoric which contributed to rising tensions between Spain and Morocco, in 2021, Polisario Front rebel leader Brahim Ghali entered Spain, further straining relations.  Brahim Ghali, who was recovering from Covid-19 in a Spanish hospital, was summonsed to appear before the Spanish Audiencia Nacional, a centralised court, on 19 May 2021.  Brahim Ghali was summonsed to answer rape and sexual abuse charges that had lingered in the Spanish judicial system since 2013.  The Audiencia Nacional dismissed the charges for lack of evidence on 1 June 2021.  The next day, Brahim Ghali departed Spanish jurisdiction for Algeria where he continued his convalescence in hospital where he received Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune at his bedside.

Rabat’s Minister of State for Human Rights, El Mustapha Ramid, asserted that Morocco’s relaxation of border security (which seeming encouraged irregular immigration) was not only justifiable, but a direct consequence of Spain’s conduct, including in no small part, related to allowing Brahim Ghali enter Spain.  Writing on Facebook, the Minister said, “What did Spain expect from Morocco, which sees its neighbour hosting the head of a group that took up arms against the kingdom?”

Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez, took a more low-key approach to the escalating tensions with Morroco, declining to link the immigration crisis in Ceuta and Melilla to the Brahim Ghali issue.  Speaking to the media, Pedro Sanchez called Morocco “… a friend of Spain.”  Notwithstanding, Spain has recalled its Ambassador to Madrid for consultations.

Europe’s Soft Underbelly – Irregular & Illegal Migration
As increasing numbers of migrants consider the passage into Europe to be safer through the Ceuta and Melilla crossings, the number of migrants passing through Morocco has increasingly included those who traditionally sought passage through Turkey and Greece.  With raging conflicts in parts of Africa and the Middle East, deteriorating conditions caused by natural disasters, famine and worsening climate change conditions human migration to Europe has led to significant human tragedies.  Untold scores of people have died attempting to cross by sea, often in dangerous craft too often operated by exploitative human smugglers.  And, along with the increased number of migrants, has come alarming reports of human exploitation and trafficking which usually accompany the misery of vulnerable migrants.

The staggering rate at which migrants have been arriving in Europe has presented difficult challenges for Europe during the past decade.  Seeking to balance its commitment to human rights and freedom with border security and control borders, between economics and stemming terrorism, migration demands the European Union’s attention.  Previous efforts to engage Europe’s regional partners has had uneven success.

Weaponising Migrants as a Policy Tool
The recent weaponisation of migrants in the dispute between Spain and Morocco is reminiscent of the threats made by Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  In 2019, them European Council President Donald Tusk relayed that Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe as a consequence of Europe’s criticism of Turkish military operations in northern Syria which were further destabilising the region and contributing greatly to the conflict’s growing humanitarian crisis.

Prior to the meeting with Donald Tusk, Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech in which he demanded the European Union to “pull itself together” and threatened that if Europe continued to criticism Turkey’s military operations he would “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees” to Europe.

Despite notionally continuing to aspire to European Union membership, Turkey also threatened to weaponise migrants to gain concessions in their relations with the European Union.  The European Union provided Turkey with a liberal grant of billions of Euros in aid under a 2016 deal with Ankara that would see Turkey stem the tide of migrants crossing into continental Europe.  Turkey has been accused of paying only “lip service” to the agreement while still taking the billions of Euros in aid.

Europe’s Evolving Approach to Migration and Immigration
According to their website, the European Union, “The ‘Global Approach to Migration and Mobility’ (GAMM) adopted by the Commission in 2011 establishes a general framework for the EU’s relations with third countries in the field of migration. It is based on four pillars: 

  • regular immigration and mobility,
  • irregular immigration and trafficking in human beings,
  • international protection and asylum policy, and,
  • maximising the impact of migration and mobility on development.

 The human rights of migrants are a cross-cutting issue in the context of this approach.”

The European Union’s ‘New Pact on Immigration and Asylum’ was unveiled in September 2020 to address the evolving difficulties Europe faces with immigration.  While in 2019, irregular immigration into the European Union registered its lowest point since 2013, it continued to spike in places like Italy and Greece, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.  Traffickers have responded to Europe’s tougher border controls by plying migrants through alternative, and invariably more risky routes to enter Europe.  According to the Global Initiative’s policy brief on ‘Smuggling in the Time of Covid-19’, organised crime syndicates and criminals continue to be attracted to exploiting vulnerable migrants because of the “low-risk, high-rewards” nature of the crimes.

Between the European Union’s difficulties with partners like Turkey fully engaging in migration management, traditional partners like Spain and Morocco allowing migration to become a bartering tool in territorial disputes, and Great Britain’s Brexit in which immigration was pointedly at issue, the European Union will face further problems that threaten their commitment to human rights and presents perils for their economies.  When border communications and cooperation breaks down, Europe’s ‘New Pact on Immigration and Asylum’ is rendered inoperable, opening a vulnerable gateway into Europe.


Attempts to reach the Spanish or Moroccan Embassies prior to publication did not garner any response.


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