Diplomatic pressure curbs Spain’s migrant crisis in Ceuta
By María Martín |Carlos E. Cué – El País
Morocco has resumed
control of the border with the North African city after receiving public and
private calls from the EU and foreign ministries across Europe, but hundreds of
minors remain in limbo
Madrid – Morocco appeared on Thursday to
have succumbed to pressure from Spain and the European Union over the migrant crisis
in the Spanish North African city of Ceuta. After allowing thousands of people to cross into the exclave city on foot
or by sea, Moroccan authorities decided once again to impose control at the
border, a move that dramatically reduced the number of arrivals. Given
Morocco’s unpredictability, the Spanish government was unwilling today to say
the crisis was over but the latest developments indicated that it had clearly
subsided. The main problem remaining was how to deal with the minors who
entered and continued to enter Ceuta. A total of 740 migrant teens and children
have been recorded, but the final count could be as high as 1,000.
The worst diplomatic crisis to have hit the administration
of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez appeared close to being solved, unless
Morocco decides to break the truce. The images of thousands of youngsters and
children launching themselves into the sea to cross one of the world’s most
fragile and unequal borders made the front pages of many international
newspapers and sparked heated clashes in Congress yesterday between Sánchez and
opposition leader Pablo Casado, of the conservative Popular Party (PP).
But while Spain’s political parties locked horns in public,
in private, diplomatic pressure on Morocco was growing, and the result of this
began to be seen on Wednesday. Although there were more arrivals by sea, the
situation was more controlled. The migrants arrived sporadically and took a
longer sea route to avoid the Moroccan gendarmerie, which finally received the
order to control the border as it had been doing without any difficulty until
the crisis began on Monday.
A total of 5,600 migrants, many of them residents of areas
neighboring Ceuta, had already returned to Morocco by Thursday. Some were deported by
Spanish authorities, and others decided to voluntarily leave, after discovering
there was no work, accommodation or opportunities for them there.
The Spanish government – a coalition of the Socialist Party
(PSOE) and junior partner Unidas Podemos – went through various phases in how
it approached the crisis. On Monday, when waves of migrants began to breach the
border, the executive was not thinking about Ceuta, but rather Catalonia and
the preliminary governing deal that had been struck between two
separatist parties, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and Junts per
Catalunya (Together for Catalonia). All the government’s statements were about
this agreement, which was made three months after the Catalan regional election
– a poll that was won by PSOE candidate Salvador Illa, but not by a large
enough margin to secure an absolute majority.
It was not until Monday afternoon that news reached the
prime minister that more than 1,000 migrants had crossed into Ceuta from
Morocco. That sounded alarm bells, but the situation was to get a lot worse.
Sánchez decided to take a tough line at a press conference, promising to
protect Spain’s border “with all necessary measures,” and deployed the army to Ceuta to manage the crisis. But the
key day was Tuesday when Sánchez and Foreign Affairs Minister Arancha González
Laya made multiple calls and overtures to EU states in a bid to increase
pressure on Morocco. The efforts worked. According to government sources,
several European foreign offices made public and private calls to the Moroccan
government to send the message that it was not only up against Spain but all of
government is breathing more easily now after a tense day on Tuesday, which
included Sánchez’s trip to Ceuta and the other North African exclave city of
Melilla, where he was met with protests from dozens of local residents. But
the executive does not trust Morocco, which has shown that it has no qualms
when it comes to using its own people and allowing teenagers and children to
risk their lives for the sake of a diplomatic offensive – in this case, to
pressure Spain into recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Western Sahara was previously occupied by Spain until 1975
when Morocco annexed the colony. The move triggered a war that
year between the Moroccan government and the Popular Front for the Liberation
of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario Front), which seeks
self-determination for the Sahrawi people in the territory. In 1991, the
Polisario Front and the Moroccan government agreed to a truce.
But in December last year, then-US president Donald Trump
recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This prompted Rabat to put
unprecedented pressure on Spain and the EU to follow in Trump’s footsteps.
Despite this pressure, González Laya has said that Spain is not going to change
its position on the disputed territory.
Misstep by Morocco
Sources from the Spanish government believe that Morocco
wanted to pressure Spain, but miscalculated and found itself up against the
European Union, which is very concerned that the migrant crisis will help fuel
the rise of the far right – parties such as the far-right Vox in Spain are
already using images from Ceuta to spread xenophobia and win support.
It is key for the European Commission to mobilize, say
government sources, because Morocco cannot fight against all of the EU,
although it has shown it is willing to take on EU states, such as Germany – in
May, the Moroccan government recalled its ambassador from Germany due to
differences on the Western Sahara issue. Although the crisis is easing, Sánchez
and González Laya continue to reach out to their contacts to guarantee it comes
to an end. At a question-and-answer session in Congress on Wednesday, Sánchez
described the issue as an “unprecedented crisis with Morocco” to criticize the
PP’s lack of support. González Laya, meanwhile, tried to calm the tensions and
maintained that Spain was “not going to enter an exercise to fuel the
escalation” with Morocco.
The Spanish government also has no intention of rectifying
its decision to admit Polisario Front leader Brahim Gali into the country for
medical treatment for Covid-19. Morocco claims this is the cause of the
diplomatic row with Spain, given that the Sahrawi liberation movement is
outlawed in the parts of Western Sahara under Moroccan control. González Laya,
who made the decision to accept the gravely ill 73-year-old, says it was a
gesture of humanitarianism that was not meant “as an aggression against
Spanish ministries insist that Morocco is a partner that
Spain is “condemned to understand” and trust that normal diplomatic relations
will be restored soon.
Many of the migrants who arrived in Ceuta this week have been
deported or decided to return home voluntarily. The Spanish government
was on Thursday confident that the crisis will be over soon, but it will still
be left with a serious problem: what to do with the minors who crossed into the
exclave city. The government has officially registered 740 minors, who are not
subject to the same deportation agreements as adults, and will therefore be
taken into state care. But there are many more youngsters on the street who
have yet to be registered.
The government, in coordination with the Ceuta authorities,
is urgently looking for a way to accommodate these youngsters. One possibility
being considered is to set up military tents as shelter. It is estimated that
9,000 people managed to cross the jetties that separate Ceuta from Morocco,
either by swimming or by foot, and of this number, between 2,000 and 3,000 were
children and teens. The numbers are estimates given that it “was impossible to
count” everyone given the scale of the arrivals, say security sources.
Indeed, no one knows how many minors are still in Ceuta.
Dozens of them returned voluntarily, while others were expelled as “refusals at the border,” a euphemism for irregular
expulsions or express deportations.
Spain’s Foreign Affairs Ministry is trying to establish a
protocol with Morocco to allow unaccompanied migrants in Ceuta to contact their
families if they want to return home, say government sources.
When the exact number of minors is clear, the government
will begin to send them to different regions that have said they are willing to
take them in. Regions governed by the PP with the support of Vox, such as
Madrid, Andalusia and Murcia, are reluctant to help. Vox is demanding that not
a single migrant minor be allowed in. Other regions governed by the PSOE and
other parties have offered to collaborate. This is also the case in Galicia,
which is run by the PP, but does not depend on Vox. Once the issue of the
migrant minors is addressed, the crisis will be over, perhaps to the surprise
Red Cross volunteer insulted and threatened by the Spanish
The full video that captured the powerful image
of a Red Cross volunteer hugging a migrant in Ceuta . After the images went
viral, Luna Reyes Segura was inundated with racist and sexist messages. This
sparked a wave of support for the 20-year-old, which was backed by political
and cultural leaders: