Morocco uses migration to win economic improvements and support from Europe in the Western Sahara conflict

23.05.2021 - Madrid, Spain - Juana Pérez Montero

This post is also available in: Spanish

Morocco uses migration to win economic improvements and support from Europe in the Western Sahara conflict
Migrants swimming around the Tarajal spur (Image by Antonio Sempere)

In the early hours of Monday morning, 17 May, dozens of Moroccans, who ended up numbering around 8,000, began to enter Ceuta, the Spanish enclave city on Moroccan Territory. They did so by swimming, crossing the Tarajal and Benzú spurs – the points where the fence, which was built by the Spanish government to prevent the entry of migrants and is part of the European Union’s Southern Border, ends. And they did so because of the serious economic situation in their country and with the encouragement and support of the Moroccan military present in the area, as could be observed and as the migrants themselves reported.

This has generated a crisis between the Moroccan and Spanish governments, in which the migrants themselves have been the main victims. More than half returned to Morocco voluntarily and many others have been returned illegally, thus increasing the number of so-called “hot returns“. We cannot forget the young man who died trying to reach Spanish territory and those who are currently hospitalised.

It seems that once again, Morocco continues to blackmail the European Union, while the EU and the international community look the other way in the face of the systematic violation of human rights in its southern neighbour. A sign that it has achieved its objectives is that as we write this article, Morocco has prevented the entry into Spain of another 100 migrants who were trying to enter the country.

Regarding what has happened so far this week, the Moroccan government had already been threatening Spain with this after Brahim Ghali, president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and secretary general of the Polisario Front, was transferred to a hospital in Logroño (Spain) “for humanitarian reasons” given his state of health.

However, this is not a new position. It is repeated from time to time and since the last months of 2020, the ease with which boats have been able to leave Western Sahara for the Canary Islands has been evident. In doing so, the Moroccan government is seeking to negotiate better economic conditions with its northern partners and, currently, EU support for its position in the Western Sahara conflict.

To date, Western Sahara is considered by the UN and most of the international community as the last colony in Africa and a territory occupied by Morocco (Green March. 1975). In 1991, an agreement to hold a referendum was adopted but this has never taken place and the guarantors of the agreement, the United Nations, have done nothing to make it possible for the Sahrawi people to be able to decide their own future.

Spain continues to bear a heavy responsibility in this matter, having neglected its historical responsibility as the colonial power that de facto handed over the last of its colonies to its southern friend, Morocco. It was, in fact, an agreement between the then king of Spain, Juan Carlos I, and the father of the current Moroccan king, Hassan II. Today, the Sahrawi population still remembers that they were and still are the 53rd Spanish province as they never gained independence.

On the other hand, the situation has become more complicated for the Saharawis, given that in December 2020 – at the height of the armed conflict – Donald Trump, in one of his final international decisions, recognised Morocco as the best option for governing Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco doing the same with Israel with respect to Palestine. And Joe Biden has not backed down from that decision. Behind him, four or five other countries have recognised such a status and the Moroccan government continues to push for the African Union to do the same.

Returning to the migration crisis between the European Union and Morocco, the fences of Ceuta and Melilla – the other autonomous Spanish enclave city on African territory – formally represent the EU’s Southern Border but, in practice, it is more correct to say that this border is mobile and much wider, because Morocco has fulfilled its role as Europe’s guardian in this part, ensuring that few or no migrants reach the fences and, if they do, they are harassed by the Moroccan army. In return, Europe has made concessions to the Alawite government.

At the moment, especially in northern Morocco, the situation is explosive. Several tens of thousands of people (and with them, their families) have no way to survive as they were economically dependent on the daily entrance to the Spanish enclaves to buy and carry goods in exchange for a small salary. With Covid-19, Morocco closed the crossing. Moreover, the level of unemployment in the area has skyrocketed.

On the other hand, protests that have been violently suppressed in different parts of the country are on the rise, and with them, political prisoners. However, at the moment, the biggest conflict facing the Moroccan government is the armed conflict in the occupied territories of Western Sahara, for which it is seeking support from the European Union. A conflict that began on 14 November 2020, when Morocco carried out an attack on peaceful demonstrators at the Guerguerat border crossing, leading the Polisario Front to declare war on Morocco.

In this whole situation, Spain and the rest of the European Union and the International Community look the other way without wanting to commit themselves to Human Rights and the agreements they’ve signed.

Categories: Africa, Europe, Human Rights, International, Migrants, Politics
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