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What Is Happening in Ceuta, the Spanish Enclave Bordering Morocco?


Around 8,000 migrants illegally entered Ceuta, a Spanish swath of territory bordering Morocco on the North African coast, beginning on Monday, taking Spanish authorities by surprise.

Spain sent in the army and more police forces to tighten border controls and then began a mass expulsion of those who entered, among them families and minors.

The influx happened at a time of heightened tensions between Spain and Morocco over the Spanish government’s decision to allow the leader of a northern African independence group to seek treatment for Covid-19 in Spain.

What Is Happening in Ceuta, the Spanish Enclave Bordering Morocco? 2

A migrant is comforted by Spanish Red Cross member near the border of Morocco and Spain, at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on May 18.


Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

What is happening in Ceuta?

Many migrants from Africa try to reach Europe by the same route in search of a better life, although the number of migrants this week was unusually high.

Most of the migrants were young men, but Spanish authorities said they also included families and some unaccompanied minors. The most were Moroccans. The migrants entered illegally by sea, either swimming or using small boats to navigate around a breakwater that marks the border between Spanish Ceuta and Morocco.

Many of the migrants have already now been expelled. By Wednesday, Spain had expelled 5,600 of those who had entered illegally over the previous two days.

By Wednesday, the tide of arrivals also had dropped considerably, in a sign that Moroccan authorities had tightened their own border controls.

What Is Happening in Ceuta, the Spanish Enclave Bordering Morocco? 3

A Spanish civil guard waited for migrants to arrive at Ceuta on May 19.


Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

What is at the root of the diplomatic tensions between Morocco and Spain?

The Spanish government recently allowed Brahim Gali, the leader of the Polisario Front, a group representing the claim to independence of Western Sahara, a disputed territory over which Morocco claims sovereignty, to be hospitalized for Covid-19.

Moroccan Minister for Human Rights El Mostapha Ramid criticized Spain in a


post late Tuesday, calling Spain’s decision unacceptable. This followed other recent criticism by other Moroccan officials.

The Spanish government has said it admitted Mr. Gali on strict humanitarian grounds.

Some aid groups said the diplomatic tensions between the two countries may have played a role in triggering the rising number of arrivals.

Mohammed Ben Aisa, head of the Northern Observatory for Human Rights, a nonprofit group working with migrants in northern Morocco, told the Associated Press that the Moroccan authorities had recently reduced the usually heavy military presence along the coasts, in connection with Spain’s decision to host Mr. Gali.

Representatives for the Moroccan government couldn’t be reached to comment.

What Is Happening in Ceuta, the Spanish Enclave Bordering Morocco? 4

Moroccan security forces stood guard as Moroccan and Subsaharan migrants walked past a fence separating the Moroccan and Spanish side of the border near Ceuta on May 19.


Mosa’ab Elshamy/Associated Press

Where is Ceuta and why is it a part of Spain?

Ceuta is located on the north African coast, east of the Strait of Gibraltar, which separates Spain from Morocco. The city is an enclave surrounded by Moroccan territory and by the Mediterannean sea.

Together with Melilla, another Spanish enclave on the Moroccan Mediterranean coast, it represents the only land border between the European Union and Africa. Because of their position, both cities have been a magnet for migrants trying to enter Europe from northern Africa.

Ceuta became part of the Spanish empire in the 17th century, when Portugal ceded it to Spain. When Morocco, part of which was a Spanish protectorate for much of the first half of the 20th century, became an independent kingdom in 1956, Spain retained control over Ceuta.

Since the 1990s, the city has been granted a good degree of autonomy by the central government in Madrid. Its population of around 85,000 consists mainly of Christians and Muslims and includes other smaller religious groups.

Write to Giovanni Legorano at [email protected]

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