Migration Crisis in Spain: What Happened in Ceuta and Why?

migration crisis in ceuta
Illustration: Marta Caro
migration crisis in ceuta
Illustration: Marta Caro

On Monday and Tuesday, about 9,000 migrants entered illegally from Morocco into the Spanish North African exclave city of Ceuta, either swimming or using inflatable rafts, sparking the gravest migration crisis in Spain’s recent history. Another 86 people managed to jump the border fence in Melilla, the second Spanish exclave city in the region. Never such a high number of migrants had breached the border in such a short time.

Ceuta, a city with a population of 85,000, is connected to mainland Spain by ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar. Due to this closeness to the peninsula, Ceuta and Melilla have long been hotspots for migrants seeking to enter Europe.

A Spanish Civil Guard diver rescuing a baby
A Spanish Civil Guard diver rescuing a baby on Tuesday | HANDOUT

When Did it Start?

It all began on Sunday, with rumors that local authorities were relaxing border controls. On Monday morning, hundreds of people, notably Moroccans but also some sub-Saharans, had gathered in front of the breakwaters separating the North African country from Ceuta. On Tuesday morning, over 8,000 people had crossed the border, and dozens more did so during the day. Among the migrants there were whole families and about 2,000 minors. The central government deployed the army and an extra 200 police officers to patrol de border and round up migrants on Tarajal beach to send them back to Morocco through the border fence.

What Caused the Incident?

The Moroccan government remained quiet about the incident at first, but the incident has come amid diplomatic tensions over the hospitalization in April of Brahim Ghali in La Rioja after he tested positive for Covid-19. Ghali is the founder of the Polisario Front, a liberation movement for the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that Morocco annexed in the 1970s, that is outlawed in parts under Moroccan control.

In December last year, Donald Trump recognized the Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and now Morocco is stepping up efforts to force Spain and the European Union to do likewise.

On Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister Arancha González Laya told the Cadena SER radio network that Moroccan authorities told her the situation was “not due to the disagreement”, but on Tuesday the Moroccan ambassador to Spain, Karima Benyaich, said to Europa Press ahead of a meeting with Spain’s foreign minister that there are “acts that have consequences and that have to be accepted”.

What Will Happen to Minors?

Around 7,500 individuals have been sent back to Morocco, according to the Spanish Interior Ministry. Although minors cannot be pushed back under Spanish law, several sources saw the army and the police sending youngsters back. Nearly 450 minors are stranded in Ceuta. The local government has set up a hotline to reunite the children with their families. Some are staying in shelters and warehouses across the city, but many of them are sleeping rough in the city parks.

Dearexpat, is aimed at English-speaking readers who have been living in Spain for long enough to be interested in the country’s current affairs, with a focus on politics, the economy, society, and culture. In fact, anyone, anywhere with a keen interest in Spain might find it helpful. Since we are usually overwhelmed by an endless outpouring of news, this newsletter will be published on Fridays to provide readers with an overview of the most noteworthy events taking place during the week.

Get up to date with what is going on in Spain in just one go.
Sign up to Dearexpat,

On Monday and Tuesday, about 9,000 migrants entered illegally from Morocco into the Spanish North African exclave city of Ceuta, either swimming or using inflatable rafts, sparking the gravest migration crisis in Spain’s recent history. Another 86 people managed to jump the border fence in Melilla, the second Spanish exclave city in the region. Never such a high number of migrants had breached the border in such a short time.

Ceuta, a city with a population of 85,000, is connected to mainland Spain by ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar. Due to this closeness to the peninsula, Ceuta and Melilla have long been hotspots for migrants seeking to enter Europe.

A Spanish Civil Guard diver rescuing a baby
A Spanish Civil Guard diver rescuing a baby on Tuesday | HANDOUT

When Did it Start?

It all began on Sunday, with rumors that local authorities were relaxing border controls. On Monday morning, hundreds of people, notably Moroccans but also some sub-Saharans, had gathered in front of the breakwaters separating the North African country from Ceuta. On Tuesday morning, over 8,000 people had crossed the border, and dozens more did so during the day. Among the migrants there were whole families and about 2,000 minors. The central government deployed the army and an extra 200 police officers to patrol de border and round up migrants on Tarajal beach to send them back to Morocco through the border fence.

What Caused the Incident?

The Moroccan government remained quiet about the incident at first, but the incident has come amid diplomatic tensions over the hospitalization in April of Brahim Ghali in La Rioja after he tested positive for Covid-19. Ghali is the founder of the Polisario Front, a liberation movement for the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that Morocco annexed in the 1970s, that is outlawed in parts under Moroccan control.

In December last year, Donald Trump recognized the Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and now Morocco is stepping up efforts to force Spain and the European Union to do likewise.

On Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister Arancha González Laya told the Cadena SER radio network that Moroccan authorities told her the situation was “not due to the disagreement”, but on Tuesday the Moroccan ambassador to Spain, Karima Benyaich, said to Europa Press ahead of a meeting with Spain’s foreign minister that there are “acts that have consequences and that have to be accepted”.

What Will Happen to Minors?

Around 7,500 individuals have been sent back to Morocco, according to the Spanish Interior Ministry. Although minors cannot be pushed back under Spanish law, several sources saw the army and the police sending youngsters back. Nearly 450 minors are stranded in Ceuta. The local government has set up a hotline to reunite the children with their families. Some are staying in shelters and warehouses across the city, but many of them are sleeping rough in the city parks.

Dearexpat, is aimed at English-speaking readers who have been living in Spain for long enough to be interested in the country’s current affairs, with a focus on politics, the economy, society, and culture. In fact, anyone, anywhere with a keen interest in Spain might find it helpful. Since we are usually overwhelmed by an endless outpouring of news, this newsletter will be published every Friday to provide readers with an overview of the most noteworthy events taking place during the previous week.

Get up to date with what is going on in Spain in just one go. Sign up to Dearexpat,

Dearexpat, is aimed at English-speaking readers who have been living in Spain for long enough to be interested in the country’s current affairs, with a focus on politics, the economy, society, and culture. In fact, anyone, anywhere with a keen interest in Spain might find it helpful. Since we are usually overwhelmed by an endless outpouring of news, this newsletter will be published every Friday to provide readers with an overview of the most noteworthy events taking place during the previous week.

Get up to date with what is going on in Spain in just one go. Sign up to Dearexpat,