Over the week of May 21st, over 8,000 migrants entered the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the coast of North Africa. These migrants are now being used as pieces in a political spat between Morocco and Spain, whose latest diplomatic disagreement is a territorial dispute over the enclave in which these migrants are currently being detained. Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez visited the territory on the 17th, promising to expel the migrants from Spanish territory by any means possible. If deported to Morocco, these migrants will be returned to the inadequate living conditions which led them to risk their lives in pursuit of migration.
Morocco, for its part, seems to have let these migrants cross in response to Spain’s medical treatment of Brahim Ghali. Ghali claims leadership of the Sarawahi Arab Republic, a region which Morocco considers part of its territory (and which it has de facto control over) under the name Western Sahara. Under normal circumstances, Morocco patrols its northern border quite thoroughly in order to prevent crossings. In this case, it refused to do so. Thus, refugees, including thousands of Moroccans, have been subjected to the dangers of swimming around Ceuta’s fortifications by a government which knew they would not succeed in their aims – and did not care.
Yet Morocco is not the country denying those in need a place in its society, nor is it forcing a punitive response from Spain. The Spanish decision to send these migrants, over 2,000 of whom are children, back to a country in which they are unable to live decently is one that was taken regardless of the diplomatic situation. This is part of a larger trend among Mediterranean nations in the European Union, which are opposed to migration because they face the highest burden when migrants arrive.
What’s more, Spain’s border on the African mainland is also the border of the European Union, and Prime Minister Sánchez has used that European mantle to bolster his case for returning these migrants to Morocco. “This sudden arrival of irregular migrants is a serious crisis for Spain and for Europe,” Sánchez argued. Even though migration has dropped significantly from a peak in the mid-2010s, the governments and populations of southern Europe still view these numbers as too high. Sánchez may seek to set a precedent by punishing these migrants with return.
Yet this animosity comes from countries, like Spain, which have far more resources to provide for and process these refugees than their neighbours to the south. Spain, even if it cannot provide for these most recent arrivals in Ceuta without shouldering a significant burden, is far better equipped to do so than Morocco. Furthermore, the nation faces persistent labour shortages, with 41% of Spanish executives saying it was an issue in a 2020 survey by ManpowerGroup. Given Spain’s structural need for new labour, and Morocco’s inability to provide employment or even basic human needs for refugees, this most recent diplomatic spat seems to fly in the face of logic. This already farcical episode is downright counterproductive.
Morocco, for its part, should not permit migrants to risk their lives only to come under forcible detention and inhumane treatment in Spain. Moroccan officials who allowed this episode to occur were surely aware of the consequences of their actions and showed reckless disregard for human life in pursuit of punishing their neighbour Spain. This, too, is despicable behaviour, and using thousands of vulnerable people as pawns in a diplomatic game is unacceptable on any terms.
Morocco and Spain must maintain open lines of dialogue in diplomatic manners in spite of their disagreements, and the international community, including the European Union, must take concrete steps to ensure that this happens. Refugees don’t appear from thin air, and if European nations wish to see a reduction in asylum-seekers, they ought to address the problem peacefully and contribute to the development of partner nations. Ultimately, tit-for-tat hostility between Morocco and Spain will only hurt both nations and leave the most vulnerable further in harm’s way. If that was unclear before this crisis, eight thousand reminders currently sit in Ceuta. Their lives are in the balance.