More than 850 migrants have breached the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta over the past week, amid heightened tensions between the North African kingdom and the European Union over a free trade dispute.
Migrants celebrate after forcing their way through a border fence between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on February 17, 2017. Credit Antonio Sempere, AFP
Located on the northern tip of Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, Ceuta is one of only two land borders between Europe and Africa, making it an attractive entry point for many migrants in search of a better life.
Around 500 migrants stormed the 8-kilometre (5-mile) stretch of barbed wire and steel fencing that separates Morocco from the Spanish territory on Friday, in what was the largest incursion in more than a decade.
The border was again breached on Monday, when 356 migrants forced their way into Ceuta. Ecstatic, some kissed the ground shouting, “Thank you lord” and “Viva España”.
There are now more than 1,400 migrants waiting to be processed by authorities in Ceuta, which has requested more tents to house the influx of new arrivals.
Western Sahara trade dispute
The crossings come amid heightened tensions between Morocco and the European Union over a bilateral free trade agreement on agricultural and fishery products.
Until late last year, the deal encompassed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony annexed by Morocco in 1975 known for its abundant offshore fishing. But on December 21, 2016, the European Court of Justice challenged Morocco’s claim to the region, ruling that it was not subject to any EU-Morocco trade agreements.
Although the decision was welcomed by the Western Sahara independence movement, Polisario Front, Morocco’s government reacted angrily, issuing Europe a stark warning over immigration if it failed to respect the original terms of the deal.
“Any obstacle in the application of this agreement is a direct attack on thousands of jobs… on both sides, and risks the resumption of migratory flows, which Morocco has succeeded in containing through a deliberate, sustained effort,” the agricultural ministry said in a statement.
‘Morocco will open and close borders as it sees fit’
Morocco’s response has been interpreted by some analysts as an attempt to pressure the EU by hitting the bloc where it hurts: the migrant crisis.
“Morocco’s entire foreign policy is influenced by what’s happening in Western Sahara,” Khadija Mohsen-Finan, a North Africa expert and professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, told FRANCE 24. “If the EU does not support Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara and turn a blind eye to products coming from this region, then [Morocco] will open and close its borders as it sees fit.”
Europe has been struggling to deal with an influx of migrants fleeing war and poverty in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Italy and Greece are among two of the countries hardest hit by the crisis, with an estimated 344,793 people arriving on their shores in 2016, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
With more and more migrants arriving in Spain each month, there are concerns that the country will soon also be stretched beyond capacity – especially if Morocco halts efforts to control its border with Ceuta.
The last mass attempt by migrants to cross into the Spanish enclave was on New Year’s Day, when more than 1,000 people tried to jump the double fence separating the two countries. The incident left five Spanish and 50 Moroccan border guards injured, including one officer who lost an eye.