What is behind the migrant crisis in Ceuta?

by Lorraine Williamson
Ceuta crisis

CEUTA – Thousands of Moroccans entered the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla illegally since Monday. The Spanish Interior Minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, confirmed that some 6,000 people managed to reach the enclaves. There are other reports of up to 8,000 migrants arriving and contributing to the crisis in Ceuta.

Migration pressure in the two autonomous cities is constant. However, such a massive arrival in such a short period of time has never happened before. It is the largest arrival by sea ever in Spain. Moreover, it could never have happened without the complicity of the Moroccan authorities. As they left parts of the fence on the border unguarded.  

‘respect’ borders 

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, travelled to Ceuta on Tuesday. He spoke of ‘close relations’ and ‘cooperation’ with the African neighbour, stressing the need to ‘respect’ borders.  

What else is going on behind the crisis in Ceuta?  

It is clear relations between the two countries are not at their best right now. ‘Behind every migration crisis with Morocco, when the country orders its police to turn a blind eye, there is always something else going on,’ stresses Luis Pérez, former RTVE correspondent in Morocco. According to several sources consulted, the Spanish position on the Western Sahara is only one of the causes.  

Morocco wants recognition of its sovereignty 

Tensions between the two countries certainly date back to last December. At this time, the Moroccan capital Rabat suspended the organisation of the last high-level meeting with Madrid. This happened a few days after Donald Trump recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the former Spanish colony.  


Between 1924 and 1975, the Western Sahara territory was in the hands of Spain. However, it was then largely annexed by Morocco. Until 1991 a guerilla war for independence raged there. Morocco prefers some kind of self-government of Western Sahara, led by Morocco. And therefore, does not want to withdraw completely from the territory. Supporters of full self-government have united in the liberation army Polisario Front.  


Only a month ago Spain welcomed Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisari Front. Ghali came from Algeria and was hospitalised with the coronavirus in Logroño. Morocco deplored Spain’s stance on the matter and assured that it ‘took note’ of the insult by including an enemy. 

‘This is a political crisis, a decision deliberately taken by the circles of power in Rabat. The aim is twofold: To let Spain know that Morocco is dissatisfied thereby provoking a reaction from the Spanish government. And influencing the political playing field,’ analysed Haizam Amirah Fernández, senior researcher at the Royal Institute Elcano, while talking to RTVE. 

According to Amirah Fernández, Trump’s intention, which he communicated via a tweet, to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara in exchange for the normalisation of relations with Israel ‘has greatly increased the instability in the Western Mediterranean’ and thus also encouraged Morocco. It now expects the European Union and Spain to follow in Trump’s footsteps.  

Cogesa Expats

Fernández also suspects that the Moroccan government is pursuing a policy of nationalism. And as such, reviving its traditional territorial claim to Ceuta, Melilla and the islets in order to ‘ease the internal pressure’ of public opinion.  

Impact of the pandemic  

In addition to the bilateral political context, the northern region bordering Ceuta and Melilla is struggling with a poor economic situation due to the corona pandemic. Furthermore, the fall in gross domestic product and the increase in debt, the closure of the borders has left many families – who live off informal trade with the autonomous cities – without any income. In Castillejos (Fnideq, in Arabic), the town from which many of the refugees who crossed the Ceuta fence have come, there have been several demonstrations in recent months out of discontent. 

We are talking about a migration from the geographical environment, which was already very poor before the pandemic. And which since has been particularly affected by the closure of the borders,’ explains Blanca Garcés, researcher at the Centre for International Affairs of Barcelona (CIDOB) and coordinator of the Migrations Department. Every day, thousands of people enter and leave Ceuta and Melilla to work or exchange goods. This economy has collapsed overnight,’ she adds.  

Ruth Ferrero, professor of political science at Complutense University of Madrid and researcher at the Complutense Institute of International Studies (ICEI), agrees that among those who have crossed illegally into Ceuta, whole families have been ruined by Covid-19. They are also victims of their own government, she told RTVE

The risks of the ‘externalisation’ of borders  

At a deeper level, what has happened demonstrates the limits of the migration policy pursued by the EU over the past 20 years. Moreover, this consists of externalising the control of migration flows, leaving them in the hands of other countries. 

This externalisation policy is on the one hand ‘effective’ because it reduces the number of arrivals in the EU countries, Blanca Garcés acknowledges, but at the same time the price is high in terms of human rights and gives countries a free hand to exert political pressure. ‘EU member states, in this case Spain, end up as prisoners’, the CIDOB researcher believes. 

She continues: ‘Morocco is now using this as a “quick” strategy and as a “warning”. Just like the Turkish government did a year ago when it opened the passage of thousands of migrants to Greece.  

Ineffective policy 

‘It is an erratic policy, ineffective, incompatible with its objectives, and it leaves the possibility of blackmail to the states it negotiates with,’ Ferrero believes, recalling that Morocco is not a democracy. As an alternative, she proposes a ‘proactive migration policy’ to ensure safe routes to European labour markets.  For Garcés, the most appropriate migration policy is one that improves living conditions ‘on the other side’. ‘If you have a population in the north of Morocco that is young and, according to the polls, wants to emigrate, that is a time bomb,’ she explains. This can only make the crisis in Cueta worse.

Whatever the case, the border dispute cannot escalate further if Morocco wants to maintain its relations with the EU and the economic support that comes with them. The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, reminded on Tuesday that Spain’s borders are ‘European borders’ and that the relationship with Morocco should be ‘based on trust’. 

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