Spanish Bastions of Ceuta and Melilla are Under Siege

Ceuta border fence Photo: Mario Sánchez/Wikipedia Commons

According to the Moroccan army more than one thousand migrants were intercepted on New Year’s Eve, attempting to reach the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. In the southernmost border of the EU, Spain had erected physical fences long ago to prevent uncontrolled inflow of people. At the same time Morocco often uses migration as a weapon to receive financial support from Madrid or Brussels.

According to Euractiv, Moroccan armed forces conducted several operations in the cities of Nador, M’diq, and Fnideq on the final day of 2023, resulting in the detention of over 1110 individuals. The 175 migrants who were being held close to the border with Melilla in Nador – as stated by the army’s general staff – were from Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, and Morocco.

The only land borders of the European Union on the African continent are Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish territories on the northern Moroccan coast that are frequently targeted by migrants attempting to reach mainland Europe Between Spain and Morocco there have been also regular diplomatic crises over the two enclaves, along Morocco’s dispute with rebels over the Western Sahara.

In February 2023, Morocco and Spain inked a cooperation agreement on migration, and in order to address the problem, Morocco has received €500 Million in aid from the European Union.

Instrumentalisation of Migration by Morocco

In Melilla, a famous photograph was taken in 2014. In the photo, two individuals are playing golf, while just a few meters away, a dozen migrants are straddling the border fence, a border guard in pursuit. The photograph captured the essence of the situation of the enclave: a place perched on the cusp of two jarring realities, trying to block out its disquieting role, keeping the rest of the world out of Europe. It was 1993 when the two city’s perimeters began to be marked by fences, for the first time. In order to seal the border, the Spanish government has continued to reinforce the fences and in 2005 the third line was built.

Since the 17th Century, both Ceuta and Melilla have been under Spanish rule as enclaves. They enjoy semi-autonomous status within Spain, similar to Basque Country, or Catalonia. However, Morocco has long claimed the port cities.

The migration wave coincides with heightened tensions surrounding the Western Sahara, a region that Spain controlled until Morocco annexed it in 1975. Since then, Morocco and the native Sahrawi people, under the leadership of the Polisario Front, have been in conflict over who rules in Western Sahara.

Recent clashes

At least 6000 Sub-Saharan migrants arrived at Ceuta’s border in May 2021. In response to the influx of migrants Spanish troops were deployed. Just prior to the incident the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, was admitted by Spain to receive medical care. The Moroccan government denounced this offensive move then issued a warning that there might be “consequences.”  That, according to Arancha Gonzáles, the Spanish MFA at the time, was a sign of political pressure from Rabat. A significant portion of the refugees were reportedly Moroccan, and it is said that Moroccan border guards allowed the migrants to enter Ceuta. In June 2022 some two thousand migrants stormed the border fences in Melilla, in the incident reportedly 23 of them died.

Such challenges are likely to make the two neighbors’ typically close cooperation on the migrant issue more difficult.


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