Thousands of migrants remain in Ceuta as Morocco blocks deportations

Two weeks after more than 9,000 people breached the border, life is yet to return to normal in the North African Spanish city, with more than 700 unidentified Moroccans still in the exclave

Three Moroccan men in Ceuta flee from police on May 23.
Three Moroccan men in Ceuta flee from police on May 23.Javier Bauluz

Two weeks have passed since more than 9,000 migrants crossed into Ceuta from Morocco, but life in the Spanish city is yet to return to normal. For days now, the Rabat government has been blocking the deportation of hundreds of its citizens, who crossed into the North African exclave between May 17 and 19 unhindered by Moroccan security forces. After the mass arrivals, Morocco initially helped with the deportations and those who voluntarily wanted to leave. But since the middle of last week, it has become increasingly difficult to deport the recent arrivals, according to Spanish police forces. While Morocco continues to allow its citizens to freely return to the country, most of those who wanted to leave have already done so.

The country’s lack of cooperation has delayed the return of normality in Ceuta, a city of less than 19 square kilometers of territory that has been overwhelmed by the migrant crisis. According to police sources, there are between 700 and 1,000 Moroccans in Ceuta who are yet to be identified, as well as around 1,000 underage migrants who are living in four emergency shelters organized by the local government.

Morocco’s refusal to accept the deportations is being interpreted as a new means of pressuring Spain, and has raised concern among authorities in Ceuta and the Spanish central government, which has once again unsuccessfully called for Rabat’s cooperation. “We have maintained contact at several levels to unblock this situation and renew relations,” said sources from the Interior Ministry.

Two young Moroccans on Calamocarro beach in Ceuta.
Two young Moroccans on Calamocarro beach in Ceuta.Javier Bauluz

For a week, Moroccan authorities helped to ease the crisis and agreed to open the borders every two hours to accept the deportation of groups of 40 people. In order to fill this quota, Spanish security forces carried out a number of raids to arrest the largest number of migrants possible.

This method facilitated the deportation of hundreds of people, according to sources close to the operation. But since last Tuesday, the speed of the deportations has fallen significantly. This is due, on the one hand, to the fact that while Spanish authorities initially carried out “refusals at the border,” a euphemism for irregular expulsions or express deportations, they have now started to open deportation proceedings, which is a longer, legal process that requires paperwork and guarantees for the person set to be forcibly returned.

The other factor is that Morocco is being less helpful. Moroccan authorities, for example, impeded a young girl in Ceuta from reuniting with her family on the other side of the border, and have even stopped people voluntarily leaving the exclave if they cannot prove that they arrived during the critical days of the crisis. This is the case for porter women, who have been trapped in Ceuta since Morocco closed its borders in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many of these women took advantage of the temporary border reopening due to the migrant crisis to return home.

While Spain looks for an alternative plan, hundreds of Moroccans – both adults and children – continue to hide from Spanish police in homes, forests, beaches and strategic facilities in Ceuta. The situation in the port of Ceuta is currently of greatest concern, as dozens of people have gathered there in the hope of reaching the Spanish mainland as a stowaway. Attempts to enter ferries as a stowaway are very dangerous, and on several occasions have forced port traffic to a standstill.

Migrants in Ceuta hide from police in between sewage pipes on May 23.
Migrants in Ceuta hide from police in between sewage pipes on May 23.Javier Bauluz

The central government’s delegate in Ceuta, Salvadora Mateos, expressed hope on Monday that Morocco’s attitude would change after Brahim Gali, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro (Polisario Front), appeared before Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, via video link. Spain’s decision to allow the 73-year-old leader to receive medical treatment for Covid-19 in a hospital in Logroño precipitated the crisis in Ceuta, as the Polisario Front is outlawed in the parts of Western Sahara under Moroccan control. Morocco denounced the move as an affront to the spirit of “association and good neighborliness,” while Spain defended it as a purely “humanitarian” decision. Mateos suggested Spain wait until Tuesday, when Bali will face trial over allegations he committed torture and illegal detention in Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria in 2019, among other offenses, to see if Morocco adopts a more helpful approach.

But just hours after Mateos made this suggestion, Morocco’s foreign affairs minister, Naser Burita, released a press statement saying: “The crisis is not limited to the issue of one man. It does not begin with his arrival, nor will it end with his departure,” in reference to Bali. The press release said that the cause of the diplomatic row was Spain’s failure to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara – as former US president Donald Trump did in 2020. Western Sahara was occupied by Spain until 1975 when Morocco annexed the colony. The move triggered a war that year between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front, which seeks self-determination for the Sahrawi people in the territory. Spain, in line with the United Nations, considers Western Sahara a disputed territory. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on Tuesday that it was “unacceptable” for the Moroccan government to use “disagreements on foreign policy” to justify the “attack on Spanish borders.”

In addition to Rabat’s lack of collaboration, other problems are also making it difficult for life in Ceuta to return to normal. According to government sources, the executive is making all necessary means available, but police in Ceuta still do not have a space to hold, identify and process deportation requests. This was a problem before the migrant crisis erupted between May 17 and 19, but has become even more pressing now that Morocco is refusing to deport migrants, meaning officers have to relocate the people sent back. Nor do authorities have a place to carry out coronavirus tests on the new arrivals and isolate those who are infected. Before the crisis, the Ceuta government was in charge of quarantines, but given the current circumstances, it has warned that it cannot handle any more responsibility.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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