Ceuta influx highlights fragility of EU’s approach to migration

By Ashifa Kassam

On the outskirts of the Spanish city of Ceuta, a warehouse has been hastily transformed into a makeshift shelter for young people, their actions watched over by hired security. Days after joining an unprecedented influx of 8,000 migrants into Spain, the fate of these minors who arrived alone has become a thorny issue, stretching far beyond the north African enclave.

“It’s important to understand that we’re seeing children that are much younger than the usual – children of seven, eight, nine years old,” Spain’s minister for social rights, Ione Belarra told broadcaster RTVE on Wednesday. “Many of them didn’t understand the consequences of crossing the border and we’re finding that many of them want to return home.”

The uncertainty hovering over the future of the children – along with thousands of others who crossed into Spain earlier this week – has cast a spotlight, once again, on the fragility of the European Union’s reliance on neighbouring countries to manage migration.

“These civilians were put in harm’s way,” Haizam Amirah-Fernández, an analyst with Spain’s Elcano Royal Institute, noted on Twitter. “There’s something very troubling when Morocco’s authorities decide to use thousands of civilians as a political tool to put pressure on neighbouring Spain.”

Spain’s interior ministry said on Wednesday that 5,600 of the 8,000 people who had crossed into Spain earlier in the week had been sent back, citing a decades-old bilateral agreement that allows the return of adults who cross the border irregularly. Campaigners have warned that the rapid pace at which Spain is sending back migrants means their rights are likely to have been violated.

After footage emerged appearing to show a Moroccan border guard opening a gate in the double fence that straddles the border, the EU rallied behind Spain.

“Nobody can intimidate or blackmail the European Union,” Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission’s vice-president, told Spanish broadcaster RTVE.

He likened the influx to Turkey’s 2020 decision to open its borders to people travelling to Europe. “These tactics are not acceptable in today’s Europe,” said Schinas. “Immigration will be part of our diplomatic relations with these third countries and we have to find solutions of cooperation, not of instrumentalisation.”

Officials in Rabat suggested the lax border controls were linked to Madrid’s recent decision to allow a Western Sahara independence leader to be treated for Covid-19 in Spain for what Madrid described as “strictly humanitarian reasons”.

The decision to take in the Polisario Front leader, Brahim Ghali, was “reckless, irresponsible and totally unacceptable”, Mustapha Ramid, Morocco’s minister in charge of human rights, said in a recent Facebook post. “What was Spain expecting from Morocco when it hosted an official from a group that is carrying arms against the kingdom?” Ramid asked.

But Spain’s acceptance of Ghali is most likely not the real driver behind Morocco’s actions, said Irene Fernández-Molina, an international relations professor at the University of Exeter.

“In my view the real cause dates back to [Donald] Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in December of last year,” she said. “That was a decision that totally changed the game.”

Under Trump, the US administration was the first western country to recognise Morocco’s claim to the sprawling desert territory. It was a diplomatic victory, one that has emboldened Rabat to take a harder line on the issue with European states as it seeks support for its claim over that of the Algeria-backed Polisario independence movement.

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Western Sahara is a mostly desert territory which covers around 250,000 sq km, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Mauritania to the east, and to the north Morocco, which annexed much of its land in 1975. It had until then been a Spanish colony.

That same year the Polisario Front independence movement also declared the formation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which is recognised by dozens of countries around the world and is a full member of the African Union. It controls only around 20% of Western Sahara.

After a 16-year insurgency, a UN-brokered truce in 1991 brought an uneasy peace, and the promise of a referendum on independence for the indigenous Sahrawi people. That vote never took place, and this year fighting broke out again after nearly three decades.

Before Donald Trump's statement recognising Morocco's claim over the disputed region, there was little international backing for its claim of sovereignty.

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Earlier this month Morocco accused Germany of harbouring a “destructive attitude on the issue of Moroccan Sahara” and recalled its ambassador to the country. Both Germany and Spain have insisted they want a UN-brokered solution to the dispute.

“The difference is that Spain is, in a way, vulnerable to Moroccan pressure and Moroccan leverage because of the reliance on Morocco for everything related to security, cooperation and migration control,” said Fernández-Molina.

This week’s actions were probably aimed at flexing this leverage. While migrant crossings all but halted on Wednesday after Morocco tightened control of the border, thousands of migrants remain in Ceuta, straining the social services available in the city of 80,000. Some managed to find a place to stay in hastily converted warehouses while others were left sleeping rough in city parks.

The situation is another example of Morocco’s readiness to exploit migration for political gain, said Emily Venturi, a fellow at Chatham House. “The treatment of migrants as pawns for political gain is a moral failure,” she said. “But it is also a direct symptom of the transactionality that underlies Europe’s migration management agreements with neighbouring countries like Morocco, which often involve funding arrangements to bolster border security and stem arrivals.”

She added: “Fortress Europe not only undermines human rights and the rule of law, but it also perpetuates a self-defeating foreign policy dictated by short-term migration control objectives.”