The refugee crisis in Spain reveals the EU’s lack of attention to migratory politics

The pictures from the coast in the enclave Ceuta last week revived memories from the migratory crisis in 2015 and 2016: with over 8,000 migrants from a variety of African countries arriving from Morocco on Spanish soil, the local authorities and organisations were left out of their depth. The incident has highlighted the severe lack of attention that is given to European migratory politics.
Photo by Jon Nasca/REUTERS

Improvisation and unpreparedness in Spain

On 17 May 2021, the number of migrants arriving in Spain via Morocco exploded; instead of the usual number of arrivals into the EU country, several thousand individuals crossed the border. This caused chaos in the small Spanish enclave situated at the Moroccan coast and led to dramatic scenes. Social media and international news particularly picked up on the resuce of a two-month old infant from the ocean.

Even Spanish armed forces were deployed to the zone to support helpers from non-profit organisations such as the Red Cross and ensure safety. Mostly however, the military was used to send back arrivals to Morocco and to prevent further crossings.

What made the situation so noteworthy and provocative in the eyes of the Spanish authorities? For one, the laissez-faire policy of Moroccan border guards was taken as a partial explanation for why so many refugees crossed into Ceuta; instead of retaining refugees at the border as usual, Moroccan guards allegedly let them cross, by land or by sea, resulting in the sudden arrival of several thousand adults and minors. The latter angered Spanish authorities in particular. Martina Robles, the Spanish Minister of Defence said Morocco was attempting to “blackmail” Spain by letting in children as young as seven.

The majority of the refugees having made it over the border were sent back almost immediately. Some migrants have also attempted to cross the border to Melilla, the second Spanish enclave. They were however quickly deterred by security forces. At least on the terrain, the situation has therefore eased since 20 May 2021. In a political dimension, the crisis is not yet over.

A crisis out of nowhere?

We should note that this incident does not come out of the blue. The relations between the Spain and Morocco have already been somewhat tense over the last weeks; this was caused by the medical treatment of Brahim Ghali, leader of a Moroccan political independence movement, in a Spanish hospital. Naturally, this provoked considerable discontent among Moroccan politicians. The Polisario Front movement led by Ghali is an independence movement in Western Sahara, a region which is however largely controlled by Rabat. The hostilities in the region have surged since last November, adding context to the current diplomatic crisis.

Another important factor is the changing of migratory routes. During the crisis of 2015-16, the majority of refugees arriving in Europe came over the so-called Balkan route; this meant travel via Turkey and the Greece frontier to Eastern Europe and from there to destinations such as Germany. Arguably more dangerous, crossing the Mediterranean from Tunisia or Libya also allowed refugees to reach the EU via Italy. The third route via Spain is especially used by refugees from Western Africa, notably Senegal, Western Sahara or Morocco.

The treaty established between the EU and Turkey in 2016 has since shifted the flux of migrants; as part of the deal, Turkey prevents a large majority of people arriving via the Middle East from crossing the border. This means that, between 2016 and 2020, the situation has been reversed: Spain is now the arrival country for 42 % of migrants coming to the EU, while in 2016, that number was at 3.4 %. Spain thus finds itself at the centre of a geopolitical problem that has never truly disappeared, but merely shifted.

Rethinking migratory politics

The incident sheds light on the necessity of rethinking migratory politics. The wider problem of migration, albeit less acute than during the crisis of 2015, continues to persist. Finding a solution is thus arguably complex. The deal between the EU and Turkey has been successful in terms of reducing the number of migrants; yet it merely represents a way of buying time. It is also an effective shying away from global humanitarian responsibilities, not to mention the fact that it represents a pressure point that Ankara can use to its advantage.

While it is neither possible nor the EU’s duty to welcome all refugees wanting to cross into Europe, it does have a responsibility of finding solutions for the root problems of the mass migrations from Africa. After all, a considerable number of problems which cause individuals to flee from their various countries – military conflict, drought, famines, ethnic tensions – were caused, sometimes directly, by European nations. This includes colonial policies and postcolonial lack of support, but also climate change and exploitation.

Today’s international politics regularly demonstrate that no crisis only concerns a limited part of the world; migration is perhaps the best example for this. Thus, a migratory crisis between Spain and Morocco is also a crisis between Europe and Africa, requiring solutions from all parties.


unpreparedness = manque de préparation

to be out of someone’s depth [Royaume-Uni] = être dépassé, ne plus avoir pied

to rethink = repenser

albeit = bien que

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