Spain has sent more than half of the 8,000 migrants who crossed into Spanish territory during the past two days back to Morocco, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Wednesday.
Thousands of migrants, who have become pawns in a diplomatic spat between Morocco and Spain, awoke to an uncertain future on Wednesday after sleeping where they could find shelter following their massive border breach to reach the European country’s north African enclave of Ceuta.
Exhausted by either scaling a double-wide border fence or risking their lives by swimming around a breakwater to reach a beach on the European side, many migrants spent the night in overcrowded warehouses under the gaze of the Spanish police.
Spain’s Interior Ministry said that it had returned 4,800 of the migrants. Those included some teenagers who appeared to be under 18 that Associated Press (AP) journalists saw Spanish police usher back across the border. Spanish law stipulates that unaccompanied minors must be taken into the custody of authorities.
"We have never seen such an arrival of this magnitude,” Red Cross spokesperson Isa Brasero told the AP. "The city has the means to take care of all the people that arrive at its shores, but you never imagine that you will face this type of situation.”
While Morocco tightened its border controls, some people kept coming, forcing Spanish authorities to increase their criticism of counterparts in Rabat. "This is an act of defiance,” Sanchez told Spain’s Parliament, a day after he visited Ceuta. "The lack of border control by Morocco is not a show of disrespect of Spain, but rather for the European Union."
Over the decades, Spain has built a close relationship with Morocco not only to crack down on illegal border crossings but also to increase economic ties and fight extremism.
But on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said for the first time in public that Spain believes Morocco loosened its border control to retaliate for Spain having given medical assistance to the head of the Western Sahara liberation movement, a disputed territory to Morocco’s south. "It tears our hearts out to see our neighbors sending children, even babies ... (because) they oppose a humanitarian gesture on our part,” Gonzalez Laya told Spanish public radio.
Morocco’s loosened border watch came after Spain decided to grant entry for medical treatment to the chief of a militant group that fights Morocco for the independence of Western Sahara. Morocco annexed the sprawling region on the west coast of Africa in 1975. Morocco’s Foreign Ministry had said Madrid’s move to assist Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front, was "inconsistent with the spirit of partnership and good neighborliness” and vowed there would be "consequences.”
In the first public comments on the situation in Ceuta by a Moroccan official, Mostapha Ramid, minister for human rights, said in a Facebook post Tuesday night that Spain’s move to receive the Polisario leader was "reckless, irresponsible and totally unacceptable.”
"What was Spain expecting from Morocco when it hosted an official from a group that is taking up arms against the kingdom?” he asked.
Ramid told the AP on Wednesday that he posted the comments as a Moroccan citizen and senior official upset by Spain’s decision to host Ghali, but not on behalf of the Moroccan government. But Moroccan lawmaker Youssef Gharbi, who serves on the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told the AP on Wednesday that the decision to allow Ghali to receive medical treatment "was the drop that made the cup spill over."
"We cannot cooperate in various fields such as security and trade and at the same time accept a stab in the back,” the lawmaker said. "In the past, Morocco stated clearly that it was against the independence of Catalonia ... We expect Spain to behave in a positive way.”
European officials supported Spain with a harsh message for Morocco in a crisis that had echoes of the dispute the EU had with Turkey over the Syrian refugee crisis five years ago. "Nobody can blackmail the European Union,” European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told Spanish National Radio.
The surge had become a trickle after Moroccan border guards enforced the frontier divided by the double-wide, 10-meter (32-foot) fence. Still, hundreds were trying to find their way across the frontier. Spanish officers fired tear gas into the buffer zone between the countries to dissuade more crossings.
Some people rowed small wooden boats to reach the beach where officers waited. At least 5,600 Moroccan adults were returned to Morocco, in line with a decades-old agreement between the two countries to expel all those who swim across the border. Around 2,000 minors were sent to warehouses run by charity groups. AP journalists saw unaccompanied children sleeping on the floor of a warehouse, as well as in tent beds set up by the Red Cross.
Many teenagers climbed fences and onto rooftops to try to get out of the warehouse zone controlled by police. Young Moroccans, carrying what they took with them from home in backpacks or plastic bags, wandered the city. Many shops were closed in Ceuta, a city with a population of 85,000 and an area of 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles). City head Juan Jesus Vivas said that school attendance dropped by 60% on Tuesday with families concerned for what Vivas called "an invasion.”
Among the arrivals were sub-Saharan Africans, who often migrate to flee poverty or violence at home and who saw the suddenly porous border as a chance to avoid an even more deadly sea journey to the Spanish mainland. Aisha Diakate, 25, fled conflict in Mali between 2018 after rebels killed her parents.
She ended up in Morocco where she struggled to find work and had to beg to survive. She walked from Tangiers and then swam across the border with her small child in arms. Now, after sleeping outside a warehouse, she was crushed to hear that she could be deported. "I swam here with my child, why are they now asking me to go? That’s not right,” Diakate said. "We have nothing. If we return to Morocco, it is just suffering.”