The humanitarian crisis unleashed by the unprecedented influx of 8,000 migrants into Spain’s north African enclave of Ceuta has laid bare Morocco’s disrespect for the European Union and willingness to risk the lives of children and babies in the diplomatic row, Spanish authorities have said.
After thousands of people, including an estimated 2,000 minors, crossed into Spain in 36 hours earlier this week, arrivals into Ceuta had all but halted on Wednesday as Morocco tightened control of the border. The diplomatic tensions between Madrid and Rabat, however, continued unabated.
“This is an act of defiance,” Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, told parliament on Wednesday. “The lack of border control by Morocco is not only a show of disrespect of Spain, but rather for the European Union.”
Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, acknowledged publicly for the first time on Wednesday that Spain believes Morocco relaxed its border controls in retaliation for Madrid’s decision to allow the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement to be treated for Covid-19 in Spain.
“It tears our hearts out to see our neighbours sending children, even babies [because] they reject a humanitarian gesture on our part,” González Laya told Spanish public radio.
As Spain scrambled to cope with the humanitarian crisis in Ceuta – swiftly deploying soldiers and hundreds of police officers to patrol the border – it said that 5,600 of 8,000 migrants who had arrived earlier in the week had been sent back to Morocco.
Campaigners warned that the rapid pace could mean that migrants’ rights are being violated. “It seems very unlikely for Spain to have returned 5,600 people in the space of a matter of hours in a way that allows for any kind of individual assessment or careful examination of individual circumstances,” said Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch. “It’s contrary to Spanish law, it’s contrary to European law and it violates international human rights and refugee law.”
Images captured in Ceuta offered a glimpse of the many who had become pawns in the diplomatic row; from a months-old old baby that was rescued at sea by a Guardia Civil officer to a Red Cross worker consoling a recent arrival.
Morocco annexed the Western Sahara region on the west coast of Africa in 1975. In December Donald Trump’s US administration became the first western country to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in a deal aimed at normalising relations between Israel and Morocco.
The Moroccan legislator Youssef Gharbi, who serves on the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, described Spain’s decision to allow the Polisario Front leader, Brahim Ghali, to be treated in Spain as the “drop that made the cup spill over” for Rabat.
“We cannot cooperate in various fields such as security and trade and at the same time accept a stab in the back,” Gharbi told the Associated Press.
The Spanish prime minister promised swift action. “We will proceed to immediately return – I repeat, immediately return – all those who have entered Ceuta and Melilla irregularly,” said Sánchez, citing a decades-old agreement with Morocco that allows Spain to send back adults who cross into the country irregularly.
The agreement, however, stipulates exceptions for vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers. It also specifies that the individual circumstances of the migrants must be assessed before they are returned.
Rafael Escudero, of the Spanish Network for Immigration and Refugee Aid, said the frenzied pace of returns suggested Spanish officials were ignoring these provisions. “The maths don’t work out,” he said. “Even if there were 4,000 police officers on the ground, it would take at least 4,000 minutes to collect data and take a declaration. That’s dozens of hours … They’re carrying out summary deportations.”
The concerns echo reports from journalists at the scene. The Associated Press said its reporters saw Spanish military personnel and police officers ushering adults and children through a gate in the border fence. Those who resisted were pushed and chased by soldiers who used batons to hasten them, it said.
Spain’s interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, has denied that unaccompanied minors are being deported in violation of Spanish laws. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the ministry said all returns had been carried out in accordance with legally established procedures.
When pressed over reports of children being sent back, the ministry said there had been minors who had been reclaimed by their parents in Morocco and, “in the application of the principle of the best interest of the child, have been allowed to return to Morocco”.
Spain’s hardline approach has seemingly been backed by EU officials. “EU stands in solidarity with Ceuta & Spain,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU Commission, said on Twitter on Tuesday.
The commission vice-president, Margaritis Schinas, took a tougher stance, telling the Spanish broadcaster RTVE: “Nobody can intimidate or blackmail the European Union. Ceuta is Europe, this border is a European border and what happens there is not a problem for Madrid, but a problem for all.”