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Spain steps up pressure on Morocco after record refugee influx in territory

Red Cross members assist a refugee who arrived swimming to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on May 18, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

Spain has stepped up diplomatic pressure on Morocco after a record number of refugees reached Ceuta, a tiny Spanish territory in North Africa, amid political tensions between the two countries over Western Sahara.

On Tuesday, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez flew to Ceuta, vowing to “restore order” in the Spanish enclave, after some 8,000 refugees, including 1,500 minors, reached its seashores by swimming or walking at low tide from beaches in neighboring Morocco a day earlier.

“We will restore order in the city and along our borders as quickly as possible,” he said, adding, “This sudden arrival of irregular migrants is a serious crisis for Spain and Europe.”

Sanchez said Madrid would deploy an extra 50 law enforcement officials to strengthen the 200 troops already stationed across the enclave to patrol the border with Morocco.

On Tuesday, armored vehicles were guarding Ceuta, and soldiers and police used batons to clear refugees from the beach and threw smoke bombs to discourage others from crossing.

Spanish soldiers stand guard as refugees stand on rocks off the shore of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on May 18, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

The number of arrivals by sea had slowed, and some refugees were voluntarily returning to Morocco, a Reuters reporter on the ground said. A few others could be seen being carried away by soldiers. Footage of the beach at around 8 p.m. local time showed that nearly all the refugees had been cleared.

Spain said approximately 4,000 refugees had already been sent back to Morocco, under a readmission deal.

European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas also said in a post on Twitter that the enclave’s frontier was a European border, expressing his “full solidarity with Spain.”

Spain also summoned Morocco’s ambassador to express displeasure at the mass arrivals in Ceuta.

Immediately afterwards, Morocco’s Foreign Ministry said it had recalled its ambassador from Spain.

Analysts say Morocco is intentionally looking the other way as the refugees arrive in Ceuta to place diplomatic pressure on Spain to recognize its sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Early on Tuesday, another 300 refugees attempted to cross into Spain’s Northern African enclave of Melilla by climbing over a border fence, with 86 being able to force their way into the territory.

Spain’s two North African enclaves, Melilla and Ceuta, have the European Union (EU)’s only land borders with Africa. They are often used as entry points into Europe for African refugees, who either climb over their border fences or try to swim along the coast.

The latest surge in arrivals came after Rabat expressed anger last month over Spain’s decision to admit the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, to a Spanish hospital for COVID-19 treatment.

In a strongly-worded statement, Morocco’s Foreign Ministry accused Spain of admitting Ghali under a false identity without informing Rabat and warned of consequences for the ties between the countries.

Isaias Barrenada, a world relations professor on the Complutense College of Madrid, said Morocco had sent a “strong message” to Spain by permitting the refugee surge into Ceuta.

However, Spain’s foreign minister insisted that Rabat had “assured” Madrid there was no connection between the surge and Ghali’s presence in Spain.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara — a former Spanish colony — in 1975, and has since been in conflict with the Algeria-backed Polisario Front. The movement has been fighting for the independence of the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara and a referendum on their self-determination.

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