Spain turned up diplomatic leverage in Rabat Tuesday when its Prime Minister flew to Ceuta, vowing, in the North African enclave, to “restore peace” following a reported 8,000 migrants arriving from Morocco to its beaches.
With bilateral relations still broken between the two nations due to a Western Sahara-linking political dispute, a Spanish top diplomat summoned the ambassador of Morocco to voice her “displeasure” as thousands of refugees entered the enclave while Moroccan security forces held their eyes blind.
“I advised (the ambassador) that border protection is and must remain jointly in Spain and Morocco,” said Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya to journalists.
Shortly afterwards, Morocco’s Ministry of International Affairs said it had recalled its Spanish ambassador.
After the record inflow which overwhelmed the small peninsula, Spanish Premier Pedro Sanchez flew into Ceuta.
“We’re going to establish order as soon as possible in the city and along our boundaries,” promised Sánchez in advance of a planned tour of Melilla, Spain’s other coastal enclave, some 400 km east of the nation.
The Spanish Minister of the Interior said on Monday morning that about 8,000 immigrants had arrived in Ceuta, but half had already been returned to Morocco.
Madrid will send another 50 police officials to strengthen the 200 already deployed on Tuesday, while another 150 are standing by, added the Ministry.
The government said it had set up a “streamline” system that will “operate 24 hours a day” for the return of migrants to Morocco.
“A serious problem for Spain and Europe is arising from the unexpected entry of illegal migrants,” warned Sanchez, who canceled Tuesday’s Paris trip to attend a financing summit for Africa.
“An attack on our borders has occurred,” said Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo.
Ceuta and Melilla have the only EU land frontiers with Africa and are common places for citizens escaping hunger and war in Africa.
EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson asked Morocco to stop the “worrying” surge in arrivals. Leader of the European Council Charles Michel expressed his agreement with Madrid, tweeting “The boundaries of Spain are the borders of the European Union.”
Analysts said Morocco had turned a blind eye to Ceuta’s human tide to compel Spain to recognize its sovereignty over Western Sahara.
On Monday, the majority of migrants traveled to Ceuta mostly unimpeded by Moroccan security powers.
However, by Tuesday morning, Rabat had deployed reinforcements at the Fnideq border crossing to shoot tear gas to scatter those attempting to enter, according to an AFP correspondent.
“The situation is much calmer. The Moroccan authorities impede the arrival of their people at the resort, “A source told AFP in Ceuta to the Spanish government delegation.
Though he claimed that the arrivals had ended at midday, live images from Spanish public TV RTVE seemed to be showing several migrants who were wading through the sea.
Another 300 migrants attempted to reach Melilla early Tuesday by climbing up a strong fence, with 86 making it through.
-‘Cross or try to die’-
The migrants entered Ceuta with the use of inflatable swimming rings and rubber dinghies and walked at low tide from Moroccan beaches a few kilometers to the south.
One man drowned on the way, officials in Spain reported.
Ouarda, a 26-year-old single mother from Tetouan, a close place, said she came when she noticed it was possible to cross on Facebook.
“I took a taxi here with my friend because I can no longer feed my family. I’m not afraid — either I’m going to die or I’m going to cross.”
Videos on social media show scores of people sporting beachwear from rugged outcrops.
-Western Sahara spat-
This crisis is in the context of rising strains with Rabat over Madrid’s decision to offer medical care to the leader of the freedom movement in Western Sahara, who was severely ill with Covid-19.
Rabat was upset when reports came out that Polisario chief Brahim Ghali was flown to Northern Spain for hospital care in mid-April.
The Polisario Front has long struggled for the liberation of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, which is primarily under Moroccan rule.
The Moroccan authorities have long sought to see Spain recognize its power over Western Sahara, as Washington did in December under former President Donald Trump.
Morocco has sent a “strong message” to encourage the migrants to flood Ceuta, said Isaias Barrenada, an international relations professor at the University of Complutense in Madrid.
“Spain has a crisis, without the assistance of Morocco on the management of migration, so Spain ought to respond to the demands of Morocco,” he said to AFP.
But the Spanish Foreign Minister maintained that Rabat had “assured” Madrid that the migrant surge and Ghali’s existence in Spain were not linked.