Spain denounces Morocco's 'disrespect' to EU after migrant influx

Spain denounces Morocco's 'disrespect' to EU after migrant influx
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez vowed to 'restore order' after the unprecedented surge, as the government said some 5,600 migrants had already been sent back. 
4 min read
The record numbers of migrant arrivals have sent diplomatic tensions soaring between Madrid and Rabat [Getty]

Migrants were still massed along the border of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta Wednesday, as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez denounced Morocco's "disrespect" to Spain and the European Union.

A few migrants were still trying to swim from Morocco into Spanish territory, despite the soldiers patrolling the beaches there ready to march them back over the border.

But even as the numbers trying to breach Spain's border dwindled after the 8,000 or so who crossed on Monday, one European commissioner vowed the EU would not be "intimidated".

The record numbers of migrant arrivals have sent diplomatic tensions soaring between Madrid and Rabat.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez vowed to "restore order" after the unprecedented surge, as the government said some 5,600 migrants had already been sent back. 

"This is an act of defiance," he told parliament Wednesday, a day after he visited Ceuta.

"The lack of border control by Morocco is not a show of disrespect of Spain, but rather of the European Union."

The influx comes against the backdrop of increased tensions with Morocco over Spain's decision to provide medical treatment for the leader of the Polisario Front. The head of the Western Sahara independence movement has been seriously ill with Covid-19.

The row revived the issue of migration into the EU, but the Vice President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas, said Wednesday the continent "won't be intimidated by anyone". 

There have been "a few attempts by third countries... over the past 15 months" to leverage the migrant issue, he said on Spanish radio.

But Europe would "not be a victim of these tactics", he added.

"Ceuta is Europe, this border is a European border and what happens there is not a problem for Madrid, but a problem for all" Europeans."

'Little work'

On the ground, people continued to gather on the Moroccan border with Spain Wednesday.

A handful of people, mostly Moroccan, swam to reach the Spanish side, their slow progress carefully watched by dozens of soldiers deployed along the beach with riot shields and batons, according to an AFP correspondent on the scene.

It was not clear how many managed to cross, but those who did make it to shore were immediately picked up by soldiers and escorted to where medics were offering help, although few appeared to need it.

They were then frog-marched back to the border fence and sent home.

Although the swim from African to European territory is a swim of barely 200 metres (yards), many tried to push beyond the nearest beach to avoid the waiting troops.

Near the border fence, hundreds of people were massed on the neighbouring Moroccan beach. 

"There is  very little work in Morocco," said Othman, a 24-year-old barber from the northern city of Tetouan as he waited to be returned to Morocco from Ceuta.

"There is work for us in Spain," he added.

'Steep price'

Analysts said it was clear Morocco had turned a blind eye to the human tide surging into Ceuta to put diplomatic pressure on Spain to recognise its sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Most of the migrants crossed into Ceuta largely unimpeded by Moroccan security forces on Monday, but by Tuesday morning, Rabat had deployed reinforcements at the Fnideq border crossing.

Overnight Wednesday, police on the Moroccan side of the border blocked dozens of youths from crossing over, who responded by throwing rocks.

To reach Ceuta, the migrants swam or simply walked at low tide from Moroccan beaches a few kilometres to the south. Some used inflatable swimming rings and rubber dinghies.

But one man drowned making the attempt, Spanish officials said.

The crisis comes after Madrid allowed Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali to fly to northern Spain in mid-April to be treated for Covid-19, angering Rabat.  

The Front has fought for the independence of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony mainly under Moroccan control.

Morocco's minister of state for human rights, Mustapha Ramid, said Wednesday it was "clear" Spain had favoured its ties with the Polisario and Algeria over those with Morocco by hosting Ghali.

"Spain must also know that the price for discrediting Morocco is steep," he added in a Facebook post.

Morocco's authorities have long wanted Spain to acknowledge their authority over Western Sahara, as Washington did in December under former president Donald Trump. 

Spain maintains that a solution to the issue can only come from a United Nations-brokered agreement.

During a radio interview on Wednesday, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said Madrid "could not" change its position because Spain "respects international law".