Morocco hailed as an “essential ally” by the Spanish prime minister amid political pushback over too many concessions. Spanish migration cooperation with Morocco has significantly decreased arrivals to the Canary Islands but the cycle of deaths and distress continues in the Atlantic route and the Alboran Sea (Western Mediterranean).

Spanish PM, Pedro Sanchez recently defined Morocco as “an essential ally for our security and for orderly migration in our country and on the European continent”. According to Sanchez “the figures speak for themselves: the Atlantic route [to the Canary Islands] is the only route in Europe” where the number of entries of “illegal” migrants “is decreasing in a context of a general increase in illegal immigration to the European continent”. The Spanish PM cited figures for the first quarter of 2023 showing a 63 per cent decrease in arrivals to the Canary Islands Compared to an increase of arrivals in Greece and Italy over the same period by 95 per cent and 300 per cent, respectively. Reportedly, as of 15 April 2,376 migrants managed to cross the Atlantic, arriving on the Canary Islands while 6,359 people arrived by that route in the same period of 2022. Spanish Moroccan relations improved after years of diplomatic tension in March 2022 after Spain adopted Rabat’s position on Western Sahara. However, Spanish concessions have seen some pushback including from their own ranks. Labor Minister, Yolanda Diaz, who has announced her candidacy for prime minister in the general elections set for the end of the year, has described Morocco as a “dictatorship” and stated that she would “without a shadow of a doubt” reverse Sanchez’s agreement with Morocco on the Sahara if she came to power. Deputy of the Basque Nationalist Party, Aitor Esteban, stated: “You have managed to stop immigration from Morocco by selling the Sahara, by selling the rights of the Saharawis”. In Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) 2022 World Report, the organisation writes: “Moroccan authorities systematically prevent gatherings supporting Sahrawi self-determination, obstruct the work of some local human rights NGOs, including by blocking their legal registration, and on occasion beat activists and journalists in their custody and on the streets, or raid their houses and destroy or confiscate their belongings”.

Controversies over Spanish cooperation with Morocco culminated with the Melilla massacre in June 2022 and the following failure by authorities on both sides to provide a thorough investigation as well as an intensified crackdown on migrants including survivors of the massacre in the North African state. Since the Melilla tragedy, the city of Nador on the Moroccan side of the border has become a hostile place for people seeking access to Europe with authorities conducting racial profiling, increased controls and police raids. According to the Moroccan Association for Human Rights of Nador (AMDH), 80 migrants were arrested and five were injured in a recent “violent raid”. Migrants arrested by police are detained or forcibly deported away from the border. 18-year-old Sudanese survivor of the Melilla tragedy, Ali who was forcibly transferred more than 700 kilometres south of Nador explains: “They locked me up for two nights and took me away [from the border]. Osman, also a Melilla survivor from Sudan stated: “We are refugees, if they find us at the borders they must help us, but instead of helping us and opening the borders they beat us, hate us, belittle us and violate us, they do not want us”. Meanwhile, the conflict between warring generals in Sudan has entered its third week and more than 100,000 have fled the country with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warning that the violence could result in more than 800,000 refugees.

On 2 May, the collective Caminando Fronteras stated: “In the last five years, 11,522 people have died on the migratory routes to Spain. The families of the victims have been abandoned in their grief”. In the context of “the gap between the number of migrants leaving the coast of Africa and arriving in the Canary Islands” ECRE member, the Spanish Red Cross’s Missing Migrants project team is working to identify missing people – the caseload has reportedly reached 8,000 since 2018. In partnership with software developers, the Red Cross are in the process of implementing applications and platforms to facilitate their work. José Pablo Barribard, a forensic anthropologist at the International Committee of the Red Cross, explains: “If a boat reaches the coast of the Canary and survivors report that a migrant named Khaled (for example) was with them and fell into the water, and at the same time, a Moroccan family has contacted us and said that their son, Khaled, had left on a migrant boat on the same day, and they did not hear any news from him, we enter this information on the SCAN tool that analyzes it, and visually shows the relationship between the information, so that we see that different parties are talking about the same person, and thus determine Khaled’s fate”.

Meanwhile, the cycle of deaths and distress continues on the Atlantic route and the Alboran Sea. On 3 May, Alarm Phone reported: ”2 dead and 26 missing in the Atlantic! The body of Azzedine and a 5-year-old girl were washed up on the beach of Benslimane. They had left Skhirat, Morocco, trying to reach Cádiz with 26 other people who are still missing. RCC Rabat does not provide any information to us”. On 19 April, Caminando Fronteras confirmed the deaths of 19 migrants after their boat sunk attempting to reach the Canary Islands. Helena Maleno, spokesperson for the organisation, stated: “TRAGEDY. Nineteen people have been confirmed dead, including seven women and a child, in a boat that sank this morning on the Canarian Route. The delay in the rescues continues to leave victims”. The NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported of several boats in distress on route to Spain. On 26 April, the organisations reported of 8 people missing in the Alborán Sea, stating: “It has been five days since the families of the eight missing have heard from them, after they left from Algeria, trying to reach Europe. We will continue to support the families in their search for their loved ones and fight for freedom of movement”. After six days of being adrift, SALVAMENTO MARÍTIMO confirmed the rescue of the 8 people. On 2 May, Alarm Phone further reported: “17 people missing in the Alboran Sea! Alarm Phone was alerted by relatives to a boat that had left from Oran, Algeria, on 26th April with 17 people on board. Salvamento Marítimo is informed – we urge them to continue the search”. On 19 April, the rescue of 344 North African and sub-Saharan migrants from six different boats by Spanish authorities was reported. Survivors disembarked on the Canary Islands. Further, rescues by Salvamento Marítimo and La Guardia Civil were reported including on 21 April (18 people), 25 April (26 people), 26 April (19 people) and 2 May (8 people).

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