Spain struggles with spike in migrant arrivals at North African exclave

The jump in numbers arriving in Ceuta has stretched resources but cause is unknown

Migrants entering Ceuta in video filmed by Reduan Mohammed.
Jesús A. Cañas

Just before 4am, shouts break the early morning silence in Tejar de Ingenieros street in the city of Ceuta, one of Spain’s two exclaves in North Africa, along with Melilla. “Boza! Boza!” is the cry, or “Victory!” in the Fulani language of West Africa. Others try out their Spanish with a shout of “Thank you Spain!” as they make their way to the city’s migrant center (CETI).

They are just some of the 365 immigrants who managed to break their way through the border into the Spanish city on Monday morning, the second such assault on the frontier in less than three days after around 400 immigrants managed to reach Spanish soil on February 17 in a push which saw 15 immigrants and three officers with Spain’s Civil Guard injured. The combined total of arrivals over three days is 900.

The huge influx of migrant arrivals means the city’s migrant center is now looking after 1,400 people, although its nominal capacity is only 512. As a result, tents have been set up to provide help for the newly arrived migrants, according to city authorities.

The Civil Guard says the immigrants are organized and use guerrilla tactics

The city is dealing with an “extraordinary” situation, said local authorities, and the Civil Guard and humanitarian groups agree. However, the reason for the sudden spike in numbers remains unclear, despite assurances from all parties that everything possible is being done to help the new arrivals.

One possible reason for the jump is political. On December 21, the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) issued a ruling that could prohibit Morocco from exploiting natural resources in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Then, on February 6, Morocco’s Minister for Agriculture Aziz Akhannouch stated: “How do [Europeans] want us to do the work of blocking emigration from Africa when they don’t want to work with us? Why should we keep working as police officers and giving them [African immigrants established in Morocco] work?

“The problem of emigration is very expensive for Morocco and Europe should properly appreciate that,” Akhannouch added.

After those declarations, Spain said it would intercede on Morocco’s behalf with the EU. However, Reduan Mohamed, migration spokesperson for the anti-austerity party Podemos in Ceuta refused to rule out that geopolitical questions and bilateral agreements “could be a motive” for what had taken place in Ceuta.

The Civil Guard has complained about the lack of officers along an eight-kilometer stretch of the border

But Mohamed also recognizes that he has seen Moroccan gendarmes maintaining their “usual surveillance levels” during his recent trips to immigrant camps near the border. “They are divided up into ghettos and wait there for the perfect conditions and the right location along the border to try and cross. They are desperate and trying to escape wars and oppression,” he says.

Meanwhile, Ceuta President Juan Jesús Vivas ruled out political causes for the spike in numbers crossing the border, describing collaboration with Morocco as “essential and fundamental” in an interview with Spain’s COPE radio station.

Vivas highlighted the “selfless work” of security forces charged with defending the border in situations he described as “violent” with immigrants “assaulting the frontier” – a reference to the use of wire cutters to cut holes in the border fence.

The problem of emigration is very expensive for Morocco and Europe should properly appreciate that Aziz Akhannouch, Moroccan agriculture minister

“In the last few incidents, we have seen how [the immigrants] arrive organized and use guerrilla tactics,” he said.

The Civil Guard, for their part, has complained about the lack of officers along an eight-kilometer stretch of the border. In the fact of “extreme aggressiveness,” officers have been “unable to defend themselves,” said Omar Mohamed with the Civil Guard union, the AUGC.

The agent noted that the force has been unable to deploy riot tactics since a 2014 incident at the El Tarajal border crossing between Ceuta and Morocco, in which 15 people died while attempting to swim around a seawall to reach Spanish soil. Sixteen Civil Guard officers are being investigated over their use of rubber bullets to contain a group of around 400 people who had gathered at El Tarajal beach.

Also complicating the situation in Ceuta at present is the heavy weather in the Gibraltar Strait, which has seen the ports of Ceuta and Algeciras in Spain closed, blocking both Civil Guard reinforcements and the arrival of humanitarian aid.

English version by George Mills.

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