Spain’s prime minister arrived in the north African enclave of Ceuta vowing to “restore order” after an unprecedented 8,000 migrants crossed into the territory over 36 hours, deepening the tense diplomatic standoff between Madrid and Rabat.
After a day of veiled recriminations, Morocco on Tuesday recalled its ambassador from Spain for consultation. Relations with Spain need a moment of “contemplation”, a diplomatic source told Reuters.
Thousands of people – ranging from teenagers from neighbouring Morocco to sub-Saharan Africans and mothers cradling babies – swam and made use of inflatable rafts to navigate their way around the breakwater that marks the border between the two countries. About 2,000 of them are believed to be minors.
After being initially caught off-guard by the arrival of more than 5,000 migrants on Monday, Spain swiftly deployed its army and an extra 200 police officers to patrol the border.
The sudden influx of migrants – which left Spain scrambling to cope with a humanitarian and diplomatic crisis – came amid heightened tensions between Madrid and Rabat over Spain’s decision to allow a Western Sahara independence leader to be treated for Covid-19 in Spain.
On Tuesday, Morocco’s ambassador to Spain appeared to draw a direct link between the hospitalisation of the Polisario Front leader, Brahim Ghali, and the migrants. Speaking to Europa Press ahead of a meeting with Spain’s foreign minister, Karima Benyaich said there were actions that have consequences and responsibility “must be accepted”.
She added: “There are attitudes that cannot be accepted.”
Morocco annexed the Western Sahara region on the west coast of Africa in 1975, and scored a diplomatic victory last year when Donald Trump’s US administration recognised Rabat’s sovereignty over the region in a deal aimed at normalising relations between Israel and Morocco.
Spanish officials said the independence leader had been allowed to access medical treatment in Spain for “strictly humanitarian reasons”.
The Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said anyone who had entered Ceuta and the nearby Melilla enclave irregularly would be “immediately returned”, in keeping with a bilateral agreement that allows for the return of Moroccans who swim into the territory.
“This sudden arrival of irregular migrants is a serious crisis for Spain and for Europe,” he added.
“As the president of Spain, I believe firmly that Morocco is a partner country, it’s a country that is a friend of Spain and it should continue this way. To be effective, this cooperation needs to always be based on respect. Respect for mutual borders.”
In Ceuta, armoured vehicles lined the beach and Red Cross personnel helped the new arrivals as they battled hypothermia and exhaustion after emerging from the water. One young man died during the treacherous crossing on Monday, according to Spanish officials.
The EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, described the situation as worrying and said: “Spanish borders are European borders.”
She added: “The most important thing now is that Morocco continues to commit to prevent irregular departures, and that those that do not have the right to stay are orderly and effectively returned.”
She called on Morocco to do more to protect relations with the EU. “The European Union wants to build a relationship with Morocco based on trust and shared commitments. Migration is a key element in this,” she said.
Spain’s interior ministry said about 3,800 people had already been sent back to Morocco. An exception exists for unaccompanied minors, who are allowed to remain legally in Spain under government supervision.
“This is an extraordinary and exceptional situation,” said Fernando Grande-Marlaska, Spain’s interior minister. A local football stadium had been converted into an impromptu processing centre for the migrants, while 200 police officers had been called in to increase security.
The Spanish government delegation in Ceuta said people began crossing into the territory in the early hours of Monday, streaming in steadily from neighbouring Morocco all day.
It marked the second influx into Ceuta in recent weeks; at the end of April more than 100 young Moroccans swam into the Spanish territory. Most were returned to Morocco within 48 hours under the conditions of a recent agreement between the two countries.
The arrival of Ghali in Spain last month sparked a vociferous protest from Rabat, with Morocco’s foreign ministry describing Spain’s move as “inconsistent with the spirit of partnership and good neighbourliness” and warning it would have consequences.
On Tuesday, the conservative leader of Ceuta pointed to a “change in Morocco’s attitude” to explain the arrival of 6,000 migrants in the territory of 84,000 people.
“We are not even in a position to calculate the number of people who have entered,” Juan Jesús Vivas told the broadcaster Cadena Ser. “The mood among Ceuta’s population is now one of anguish, uncertainty, unease and fear.”
On Monday, Mohammed Ben Aisa, the head of the Northern Observatory for Human Rights, a nonprofit group that works with migrants in northern Morocco, linked the crossings to the diplomatic row.
“The information that we have is that the Moroccan authorities reduced the usually heavy militarisation of the coasts, which comes after Morocco’s foreign ministry statement about Spain’s hosting of Brahim Ghali,” Ben Aisa told Associated Press.
An increase in migrants was also reported at Melilla, with 80 people making their way across the double fence that sits along the border with Morocco.