Ceuta and Melilla: externalised border control, systematic violence

CN: this article contains discussion of xenophobia and violence


Between 17 and 19 May 2021, some 10 000 migrants crossed the border into Spain’s North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Morocco had relaxed its border controls in Ceuta in retaliation against Spain’s decision to allow Brahim Gali, a leader of the Polisario Front – a militant organisation opposed to Moroccan rule in the Western Sahara – to receive treatment in a Spanish hospital. Whilst the European Union rushed to condemn Morocco, this latest flashpoint in political tensions serves to highlight the longstanding dangers of externalising border control. For years, people looking for a better life have been forcibly returned through illegal pushbacks and denied their right to lodge a claim for asylum. Despite Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s initial promises of a humanitarian approach to immigration, the reality remains stark. Spain and the EU are complicit in the human rights abuses systematically committed by Moroccan and Spanish authorities alike in Ceuta and Melilla.

Externalised borders 

Since the establishment of Frontex in 2004, the European Union has been continuously intensifying efforts to arm its external borders. Frontex is tasked primarily with co-ordinating the border security efforts of member states, yet over the years its role has expanded, and it now operates within the territories of countries bordering the EU. The EU has pursued a series of readmission agreements with these countries. The 2016 EU-Turkey Statement on the Greek Islands – which agreed that ‘irregular’ arrivals into Greece would be returned to Turkey – is perhaps the most notable example of the EU’s attempts to outsource its management of migration to non-EU countries. 

As Politika News has previously reported, Frontex are frequently accused of facilitating or ignoring violence against refugees headed for Greece. More broadly, as one NGO has reported, the majority of the 35 countries that the EU prioritises for border externalisation are governed by leaders who overtly violate the rights of their own citizens.

Yet the appalling incidents of human rights abuses recently witnessed in the Aegean are far from a novelty. For almost two decades, Morocco has collaborated with Spain to illegally push back and deport those who manage to enter Ceuta and Melilla.  The tiny Spanish enclaves on Morocco’s northern coast constitute the EU’s only land border with the African continent. They have therefore long been a focal point for migrants attempting to reach Europe. Yet even if migrants and asylum seekers do manage to cross the six-metre-high fences into Spanish territories, there is little chance that they will find the refuge in Europe that they seek. The Spanish-Moroccan Agreement on Readmission, signed in 1992, was one of the first bilateral agreements between an EU member and non-EU state to forcibly return people on the move to the country through which they transited, and such practices remain in full force today. 

The Moroccan authorities control entry to Ceuta and Melilla and, although the number of police personnel stationed at the border fluctuates, Moroccan forces considerably outnumber their Spanish counterparts. Not only do the Moroccan authorities constitute a greater visible presence at the Spanish border, but they also work to strategically detain sub-Saharan Africans before they can reach the border to claim asylum. There have been reports of Moroccan officers in Melilla turning people away at the borders with misinformation, falsely stating that people cannot claim asylum without a valid passport or confiscating the passports of asylum seekers who do make it to the interview process.

When Morocco relaxed its border controls on 17 May, in retaliation against the Spanish government’s decision to allow Brahim Gali to receive treatment in a hospital on the mainland, Sánchez’s administration sent in more troops to fortify border controls. Spanish officials later confirmed that of the 8 000 migrants who entered Ceuta between 17 and 19 May, over 5 600 were immediately sent back. One Red Cross volunteer – who is no longer in Ceuta – has been recounting his observations during his time in the enclave to Politika News. He noted that the Spanish police presence appeared to be increasingly militarised during the events of mid-May: “There were also armoured vans that I had never seen before stationed near the border.”

Spain – and the European Union – fund Morocco’s control of the borders at Ceuta and Melilla. In 2018, the EU pledged to give the North-African state €140 million to help it contain migration flows; just one year later, in 2019, the Spanish government approved a further €30 million to be sent to Morocco for the same purpose. Spain’s participation in the human rights violations that occur at the border is thus implicit, as successive governments have financed – and thereby facilitated – the violent tactics employed by Moroccan forces to prevent human entry into Spanish territories. The events of mid-May made Spain’s role in the horrors that routinely occur at the border visible to the wider world. Spanish Guardia Civil officers were also filmed engaging in acts of violence .

The EU is typically able to feign ignorance of the human rights abuses which are systematically committed by Moroccan forces. In Melilla, a Spanish Army helicopter leaves the city every week to identify the camps established by sub-Saharan Africans on the outskirts of the city, which are then destroyed by the Moroccan Special Forces on the ground.

Such examples of collaboration render it unequivocally clear that Spain is funding the Moroccan state to keep migrants and potential asylum seekers out of EU territory at any cost. As one report by Migreurop summarises: “Although the shots are fired by the Moroccan police, it is the European Union which provides the weapons.” 

‘A recipe for abuse’

Human Rights Watch has previously labelled this outsourcing of border control a “recipe for abuse”. Spain continues to pursue this policy in full awareness of the abuses that are being committed by the Moroccan authorities it funds. 

Ceuta and Melilla are internationally agreed to be Spanish territories, and hence part of the EU. Yet those who do manage to cross the border are denied their rights as laid out under EU law. The vast majority are unable to apply for asylum, and there have been multiple reports of Spain allowing Moroccan authorities to enter the enclaves to round up and deport those who have managed to enter.

The events of mid-May demonstrate the ways in which people on the move have become pawns in a political game between the EU and the countries that make up its external borders. As regards the Moroccan relaxation of border controls on 17 May, the Moroccan Minister of State for Human Rights, Mustapha Ramid, wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post: “What did Spain expect from Morocco, which sees its neighbour hosting the head of a group that took up arms against the kingdom?”

This is not the first time that the Moroccan government has relaxed border controls as a means of exercising political pressure: in the run up to the EU-Morocco negotiations on agriculture and fisheries in February 2017, more people managed to cross the fence in three days than they had in the previous six months. 

Unsurprisingly, the EU Commission Vice President, Margaritis Schinas, rushed to condemn Morocco for the events of mid-May, conveniently glossing over the role of Spain and the EU in the human rights abuses committed in Ceuta and Melilla: “In recent months we have seen attempts by third countries to instrumentalise this issue [of migration] and we will make it very clear that no one can blackmail the European Union. We are too strong to be victims of these tactics that are not admissible in today’s Europe”.

Schinas’ words abound with bitter irony, for the European Union of today clearly has little issue with furthering its policy of sanctioning third countries to push back people on the move at whatever cost. Whilst Morocco undoubtedly relaxed border controls in Ceuta in the full awareness of the chaos that could ensue, such a situation would quite simply never have arisen had Spain – and the EU more broadly – taken full responsibility for the management of peoples and the correct processing of asylum claims from the outset. Indeed, it is hard to view Schinas’ statement as anything other than a wholly cynical deflection of responsibility from the EU to Morocco. 

The hypocrisy of Sánchez’s government 

For as long as Spain continues to fund Morocco, it remains wholly complicit in the systematic violence inflicted by the Moroccan authorities on those attempting to cross the border. Unfortunately, there is every indication to suggest that the events of mid-May, far from prompting a rethink, have in fact strengthened the Spanish government’s determination to continue pursuing a policy of externalised border control.

Although Spain had previously resisted the presence of Frontex in Ceuta and Melilla, it was made official by the Spanish government that on 18 June 2021, the Policía Nacional (National Police) would begin a joint operation with Frontex in the Port of Ceuta, under the name ‘JO MINERVA 2O21’. 

Such a decision to increase the militarisation of Spain’s borders appears in stark contrast to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s 2018 election promises to adopt a more humanitarian approach to immigration policy. Indeed, the latest flashpoint in political tensions between Spain and Morocco over the question of border control reveals the inconsistencies and bare-faced hypocrisies in the purportedly progressive government’s approach to immigration. 

In June 2018, a mere week after taking office, Sánchez announced that Spain would allow the ship Aquarius, with 629 people on board, to dock in Valencia, after both Malta and Italy refused to take in the migrant vessel. Sánchez’s office announced: “It is our duty to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people, to comply with our human rights obligation”.

Yet as time progresses, this ‘humanitarian’ decision begins to appear more as a cynical ploy designed to distance the then newly inaugurated PSOE government from the outgoing right-wing administration of Mariano Rajoy. Such a decision allowed Sánchez to curry favour with Podemos and the other leftist parties which had returned PSOE to power, whilst also allowing the new Prime Minister to posit himself as a pro-EU team player at a time when cooperation with Brussels among member states was already waning. 

In 2021, Spain – and Sánchez – are certainly not “complying with [their] human rights obligation” as they lauded themselves for doing back in 2018. In allowing Moroccan authorities to push back those seeking asylum at the border, and even to round up those who have already entered the Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish government collaborates with Morocco to deny migrants their right to apply for asylum.

Furthermore, there are worrying signs that the Spanish authorities in Ceuta are seeking to limit NGO presence within the territory. The Red Cross volunteer who spoke with Politika News told us that, “A week after [the events of 17 May] my friends and I went to volunteer again but we were told that the centre was actually being handled by the police and that no volunteers were allowed to enter. The Red Cross could only help from the outside by preparing meals while the police or army distributed the food to the migrants inside.”

Sánchez’s initial actions in 2018 appear hollow, motivated by a cynical political posturing rather than a genuine concern for the plight of desperate civilians. Of those who do manage to reach the Peninsula, few find the stability and security they seek. In June 2018, El País reported that refugee centres and NGOs in southern Spain were unable to keep up with the number of arrivals, and those who manage to evade the authorities typically face further exploitation in the greenhouses of Almería, with many women forced into sex work.  

‘Wiping their hands clean’

Politika News‘ source from the Red Cross could not be more damning of the Spanish and EU border policy in the enclaves: 

“From a humanitarian standpoint, I think the externalisation of border control has been a very dangerous and irresponsible policy. Essentially, the policy has allowed the EU and Spain to unload much of the responsibility of physically maintaining control at the border to Morocco and therefore can wipe their hands clean of the violence inflicted by their neighbour. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of Moroccan women being beaten at the border crossing or of Sub-Saharan Africans being abused by Moroccan officials even before attempting to cross the border. The EU won’t admit it, but they have funded violent tactics through this policy whilst still being able to feign ignorance of the harsh realities of the border.”

For as long as Spain – and the EU more broadly – continues to externalise border controls, it remains wholly complicit in the violation of human rights. In most cases, these acts of violence are conveniently hidden from European audiences, committed on the soil of the African continent. Yet the events of mid-May, which briefly gained media attention, are far from an unfortunate anomaly in border policy. It is time that EU complicity in such human rights violations – enabled by the policy of border externalisation – is understood and brought to an end.

All views expressed are the writer’s own.

Article Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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