In mid-May 2021, more than 8000 migrants reached Ceuta, on the background of a diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Spain. After the army’s intervention and even a visit of the Spanish president Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish authorities quickly managed to expel the great majority of the migrants towards Morocco. However, the fate of hundreds of minors remaining on the territory, sometimes at a very young age, still needs to be defined, whereas both Rabat and Paris have declared their will to cooperate in order to facilitate their homecoming. In this regard, the king of Morocco has announced his willingness to permanently settle the matter of the minors illegally staying in Europe, with a gesture perceived détente.
Ceuta, together with Melilla, is a Spanish enclave of approximately 18 km² in the north of Morocco, representing the only terrestrial border between Africa and the European Union. The Moroccan Kingdom has never officially recognized Spanish sovereignty on the two enclaves, causing tensions between the two countries. Since 1992, an agreement between the two countries has allowed the expulsion of migrants illegally entering Ceuta, except the minors. Despite the construction of a wall the year after, the region was characterised by a certain level of commercial and workers flow across the border, ensuring its prosperity. However, in 2019, to prevent smuggling and further losses in fiscal entrances, Morocco decided to close the checkpoint dedicated to trades. The closing of the border has increased tensions and many inhabitants have been advocating in favour of a reopening, often seen as the only chance of economic survival in the area.
The unprecedented flow allegedly took place as the Moroccan law enforcement abstained from guarding the border for several hours. The deterioration of relations between the two countries began at the end of April 2021, when the head of Front Polisario, an independentist movement in Western Sahara, was received and treated in Spain to recover from Covid-19. Indeed, the status of Western Sahara has been opposing Morocco and the Front Polisario since 1976, soon after the sovereignty of the former Spanish colony was transferred to Morocco. After almost thirty years of cease-fire, hostilities resumed last mid-November, when some Moroccan troops were deployed to disperse independentists blocking the only commercial route towards Mauritania. Furthermore, at the end of December 2020, the Trump administration officially recognized the sovereignty of Morocco on Western Sahara, in exchange for a normalization of relations with Israel. The recognition has emboldened Morocco’s claims and it has caused an increase in the intensity of the operations run by Polisario. In this context, the Kingdom is proving to be less willing to accept any kind of provocations, and border protection is clearly a crucial instrument to convey messages in the relations with Spain.
The crisis in Ceuta shows the presence of new geopolitical tensions in the Mediterranean, with migration flows tending towards the West. Spain became, over 2020,the main country of arrival in Europe, with 42% of its migration flows. The overall trend has shifted since it does not only involve migrants from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, but also the populations of the coastal states. Together with the worsening of political and economic conditions in Algeria and Tunisia, a major role has been played by Morocco’s change of attitude, as confirmed by a huge increase of the arrivals in the Canary Islands. The episode of Ceuta, after the accidents of Moria in Greece last September, is one more example of how the EU still lacks a real grip on the migration phenomenon. At the same time, it remains to be seen whether there will be enough political consensus to approve the new European Pact on Migration, supposed to avoid the repetition of a crisis like the one of 2015-2016, when 2.3 million illegal crossings of the external borders were registered.