In recent days there has been a huge surge in the number of migrants attempting to enter the tiny Spanish enclave Ceuta, located at the Northern most tip of Morocco. A remnant of Spain’s colonial past, the semi-autonomous city has become the latest flashpoint in the EU’s struggle to stem the tide of migrants attempting to enter the bloc.
So, what’s happened so far?
It is estimated around 8,000 migrants have successfully entered the region since Monday with many climbing the border fences that separate the city from Morocco or by swimming around the borders that lead into the sea. Of the 8,000 confirmed migrants around 1,500 are believed to be minors, many unaccompanied and sleeping rough in the areas around Ceuta. As of Wednesday morning, the Spanish authorities have returned 4,800 people, although more have attempted to make the crossing during the night and into the early hours. Most alarming are the images of a number of babies and young children being saved from the sea by the Guardia Civil.
The response from Spain has been one of force with the country’s Interior Minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, reporting that 200 troops and 200 more police were being sent to assist the city’s normal 1,100 border force and defend the heavily fortified barrier to the rest of Africa.
What is Ceuta and how has this city become the latest epicentre in Europe’s migrant crisis?
Ceuta is a tiny Spanish enclave in which 85,000 people currently live. It is one of two land borders the EU has with continental Africa which has made it a prime target for migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa seeking to gain access to EU countries, given their protected status upon arrival.
A remnant of a bygone age, Ceuta has been under Spanish control since 1640 during its years of expansionism and the height of the Spanish Empire. Following the success of the Reconquista in 1492, Spain endeavoured to grow its geopolitical influence and invaded Northern Morocco to control the highly influential Strait of Gibraltar. Since then, despite ceding its former colonies across the world, Spain has managed to maintain its control of the area which is less than 20 square kilometres, much to the irritation of its neighbour Morocco which seeks to reclaim the city.
Why the influx now?
Spain and Morocco have usually worked harmoniously to maintain order at the border. This is part of a wider programme encouraged by the EU in light of the migrant crisis of 2015 during which thousands of migrants crossed the Mediterranean. Now those EU countries that border the rest of the world are working with those governments such as Turkey to prevent scenes like those seen in the past few days and a return to the darker days of the past. However, in recent weeks relations between Spain and Morocco have soured over another territorial dispute.
The disputed region of Western Sahara has been a point of tension since Morocco annexed the region in 1975. Consequently, there has been an ever-present independence movement led by the indigenous people of the area, the Sahrawi. In light of the pandemic, Spain has offered medical assistance to the leader of the independence movement, Brahim Ghali who has been treated for COVID-19 in a Spanish hospital. Perceived as an aggression by the Moroccan government, there are many who believe the surge in the number of migrants is due to Morocco relaxing its usually strict border controls, allowing migrants to attempt to enter Ceuta without opposition, in retaliation to Spain’s actions.
What next and what does this mean for the EU?
The EU has so far expressed support for Spain and its actions, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeting that the “EU stands in solidarity with Ceuta and Spain”. Yet this is likely to be taken as another example of the porousness of the EU’s border and its struggling relationships with neighbouring countries to stem the flow of migrants. Should the numbers continue to rise in the coming days, an important relationship for Spain will be strained further and a delicate balance must be struck to prevent accusations of human rights abuse that have already begun by some charities.
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