More than 5,000 migrants, about 1,000 of them presumed to be minors, crossed into Spain’s northern African enclave of Ceuta on Monday, in an unprecedented influx that left Spanish officials scrambling to bolster police presence in the tiny territory.
Ceuta, along with nearby Melilla, has long been a magnet for African migrants hoping to cross into Europe, despite being heavily protected and fortified with a double fence. The mass crossing into Ceuta comes 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.
The Spanish government delegation in Ceuta told El País that migrants began crossing into the territory in the early hours of Monday, steadily streaming in from neighbouring Morocco all day. Those making the crossing ranged from young men to mothers cradling babies and entire families. As migrants swam or used inflatable boats to skirt the breakwater that marks the border, at least one migrant was reported to have died in the attempt.
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 only exception was unaccompanied minors, who are allowed to legally remain in Spain under government supervision.
On Monday, the Spanish government said in a statement that security in Ceuta would be reinforced with the presence of 50 additional Guardia Civil agents and 150 national police.
The mass crossing comes as relations between Morocco and Spain have been strained over Madrid’s decision to allow Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front, to be hospitalised in northern Spain after he contracted Covid-19. The Polisario Front has long fought for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco.
Spanish officials said the independence leader was taken to Spain for “strictly humanitarian reasons”.
Ghali’s arrival in Spain sparked 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 Monday, Mohammed Ben Aisa, head of the Northern Observatory for Human Rights, a nonprofit group that works with migrants in northern Morocco, linked the migrants’ crossing 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 the Associated Press.
When asked, Spain’s foreign minister said she had no knowledge of whether Morocco had relaxed its controls over irregular immigration. “We are not aware,” Arancha González Laya told reporters, without offering further details.