Morocco and Spain play fast and loose with migrant lives

Morocco and Spain play fast and loose with migrant lives
Opinion: Diplomatic disagreements are never an excuse for abusing migrants, or using them for political point-scoring, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
29 May, 2021
Spanish police intercept a migrant trying to swim from Morocco to the Spanish enclave, Ceuta [Getty]

The recent scenes of thousands of migrants arriving on the shores of Ceuta only to experience the heavy-handed violence of Spanish forces, were distressing - to say the least.

Within a couple of days, some 8,000 migrants had swum or climbed into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in the northern tip of Africa. Many of those who made the journey were from neighbouring Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa. Images and videos circulating online showed police and soldiers aggressively capturing people as they tried to reach safety. 

Around 2,000 were reportedly minors, and many appeared visibly distressed, exhausted and suffering from hypothermia. However, despite the exception that gives unaccompanied minors a legal right to remain on the Spanish territory, they were about two-thirds of those immediately deported to Morocco.

"Many of the migrants were beaten and detained before being expelled, though this seemed to be of no concern to either Spanish or Moroccan state officials"

Many of the migrants were beaten and detained before being expelled, though this seemed to be of no concern to either Spanish or Moroccan state officials, even after the news broke that some had lost their lives trying to reach the shore.

Instead, the focus of Spanish leaders was to simultaneously fan the flames of xenophobia and redirect the blame to the doorstep of Rabat. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez warned that "this sudden arrival of irregular migrants is a serious crisis for Spain and Europe".

The Moroccan political establishment, on the other hand, alluded to the incidents as retaliation following ongoing disagreements relating to the kingdom's claims over the Western Sahara. Both ruling classes were agreed on one thing: the humanity of the migrant is of no interest to them - only the potential they represent in internal and international political calculations.

Recently, the independence leader of occupied Western Sahara's Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, was admitted to a Madrid hospital for Covid-19 treatment. It is thought that in response to Spain's decision to host their political opponent, Moroccan authorities loosened border controls, allowing a sudden surge in migrants to enter Ceuta.


 El Mustapha Ramid, the minister of state for human rights in Morocco described Spain's decision to take Ghali in, as a "reckless and totally unacceptable act". He added that they had "the right to lean back" as a consequence.

 Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita blamed Spain for the tensions, which even led to the withdrawal of their ambassador to Madrid. "If there is a problem or a crisis it is because Spain preferred to act and coordinate with the adversaries of Morocco against the feelings of the Moroccan people in relation to a fundamental issue for the kingdom," Bourita stated.

Regardless of the reasons for the sudden movement of people towards Ceuta, endangering those seeking to make the journey to Europe in order to destabilise a political opponent is never justified. Nor is the reception that awaited them at the hands of Spanish forces. Both approaches are sadly a sign of the times, in which migrants, the poor and the oppressed are increasingly considered worthless. Political pawns at best, nuisances to be eliminated at worst.

The scenes on the shores of Ceuta are yet another demonstration of the violent nature of Fortress Europe that does everything it can to dehumanise, and keep migrants out. The response by EU representatives only seemed to reaffirm its priorities.

EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson expressed her worry over the events, reinforcing that "Spanish borders are European borders." Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission vice president posted "full solidarity with Spain" on social media, and also emphasised that the frontier is a European border.

It should come as little surprise that the mouthpieces of an institution that allows thousands of refugees to die at sea, or outsources their repression and incarceration to reactionary and violent regimes outside of its borders, cannot muster a single word of concern for the human victims of this feud. It remains, however, deeply shocking. 

The larger framework on which this situation rests, and which remains ignored in the general coverage of mainstream media, is one of dependency and a colonial legacy that never ended. The EU requires the cooperation of Morocco to carry out its anti-migrant practices and keep people out of Ceuta. The latter remains, of course, an occupied territory by a former colonial power that has still not fully been kicked out of Africa.

"The scenes on the shores of Ceuta are yet another demonstration of the violent nature of Fortress Europe"

But it is also no wonder that the kingdom feels confident enough to express its opposition to the support Spain has given to pro-independence figure, Ghali. If Spain - and by extension the EU - can justify their continued colonial occupations, why should Morocco not feel just as able to defend its unilateral claim to sovereignty over the Western Sahara? 

The thousands of migrants seeking a better life by making the dangerous journey to Europe, are just collateral damage in the political manoeuvring of all the repressive states involved. They can be beaten and dragged across territories and borders for political point-scoring and diplomatic manoeuvring without any consideration for their lives.  

The truth is that no state can provide liberation to the exploited and the oppressed. At best, when under pressure, they can extend temporary reprieve. So while we should continue to resist their policies we should also be clear that on either side of the Mediterranean, there will be no fundamental change until all systems of oppression are overturned. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of  The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.