MADRID – Spain deployed its troops to the Moroccan border on Tuesday as thousands of migrants jumped fences or swam on European soil for the second day in a row after Rabat loosened border controls amid deepening diplomacy.
Overwhelming soldiers separated the adults from the little ones and carried children in their arms, while Red Cross workers helped an endless stream of migrants coming trembling and exhausted out of the water. One unconscious woman was lying on the sand before being carried away on a stretcher.
The sudden influx of migrants fueled the diplomatic spit between Rabat and Madrid over the disputed Western Sahara region and created a humanitarian crisis for Ceuta, the Spanish city of 85,000 in North Africa on the Mediterranean, separated from Morocco by ‘ a double-wide, 10-meter fence.
Amina Farkani, a 31-year-old Moroccan woman who commuted to work in Ceuta for 18 years until foreign workers were banned last year when outbreaks of the coronavirus began to increase, said she saw an opportunity to get back to work went when she heard the police did not control the border.,
“They made people pass by and stood there without speaking,” Farkani told The Associated Press. “People just walk by and pass and pass.”
Video cameras captured some people rushing up the hills around the city and jumping over the fences.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez canceled a trip to Paris, where he would attend a summit on international aid to Africa, and flew to Ceuta by helicopter. While calling Morocco a ‘friend of Spain’, Sánchez also urged authorities to respect ‘the shared border’.
By Tuesday morning, more than 7,000 people drowned by the sea had crossed the border into the city since early Monday, the Spanish government said, including 1,500 people considered teenagers. The number of arrivals slows down, but does not stop on Tuesday, just because Spain is deploying additional police and soldiers.
According to the Spanish Interior Ministry, at least 3,800 adults have already been returned to Morocco. Morocco and Spain signed an agreement three decades ago to evict everyone who swims across the border.
Yet many who arrived on Tuesday were sub-Saharan Africans. Spain has agreements to send some of the migrants back to their home country, but not all.
A young man has drowned and dozens have been treated for hypothermia or minor injuries, the Red Cross in Ceuta said. The adults are transferred to Ceuta’s main soccer stadium, while minors are sent to minorities by charities.
By Tuesday afternoon, Moroccan authorities had closed the road to the border post with Ceuta and riot police had dispersed crowds of migrants. Neither the government in Rabat nor local officials commented on the mass supply or responded to questions from The Associated Press.
“It’s such a strong invasion that we can not calculate the number of people who came in,” said Juan Jesús Vivas, president of Ceuta, an autonomous city of about 20 square kilometers.
“The army is on the border in a deterrent role, but there are large numbers of people on the Moroccan side waiting to enter,” he told Cadena SER radio.
Four Spanish armored vehicles parked at Tarajal Beach in Ceuta on Tuesday, where the boundary fence leads to a short breakwater.
In a video shared by a Spanish police union urging authorities to send in reinforcements, rioters behind the border fence used shields to protect themselves from stones thrown by people in Morocco.
Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska denied that local media reports said that unaccompanied Moroccan migrants under the age of 18, who may remain legally under the supervision of the Spanish authorities, were being deported.
The European Union’s leading migration official, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, described the incidents as ‘worrying’ and called on Morocco to prevent people from leaving in the first place.
“The most important thing now is that Morocco continues to prevent irregular departure, and that those who do not have the right to stay are returned in an orderly and effective manner,” Johansson told the European Parliament.
‘Spanish borders are European borders. The European Union wants to build a relationship with Morocco based on trust and shared commitments. Migration is an important element, ”she said.
Morocco’s relaxed border guard took place after Spain decided to grant access for medical treatment to a militant group campaigning for Morocco’s independence from Western Sahara. Morocco annexed the vast region of Africa’s west coast in 1975.
The Moroccan Foreign Ministry said Madrid’s efforts to assist Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front, were “contrary to the spirit of partnership and good neighborliness” and promised that there would be ‘consequences’.
Vivas, Ceuta’s conservative regional president, said residents were in a state of “anxiety, worry and fear” and that 60 percent of the city’s children did not show up for school on Tuesday. He also linked the sudden mass arrival to Spain’s compassionate aid to Ghali.
However, the Spanish government itself officially rejects the idea that Morocco punishes Spain for a humanitarian move.
The prime minister appeared on live television to announce that he would visit Ceuta and that his top priority was to ensure security in the city “in the face of any challenge, any possibility and under any circumstances.”
Over the decades, Spain has built a close relationship with Morocco to curb illegal border crossings, but also to increase economic exchanges and fight extremism. Sánchez avoided direct criticism of Rabat in his speech on Tuesday.
“To be effective,” he said, “cooperation must always be based on respect – respect for the shared boundary.”
Sánchez also experienced a political storm at home, with the conservative Vox party blaming the migration crisis for the “inactivity” of the government and quickly sending his leader on a visit to Ceuta.
Many African migrants consider Ceuta and nearby Melilla, another Spanish territory, as a gateway to Europe. In 2020, 2,228 chose to go through the sea or land through the two enclaves, often at risk of injury or death.
On Tuesday, another 80 African migrants reached Melilla, 350 kilometers (218 miles) east of Ceuta, by jumping over the enclave’s double fence.
By Renata Brito and Aritz Parra