In just 36 hours 8,000 people, at least a quarter of them children, have arrived to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta from Morocco amid a diplomatic stand-off between the two countries over hospital treatment in La Rioja of exiled Western Sahara independence leader. The Spanish Ombudsman calls on the Ministry of Social Affairs to reach an agreement with local authorities to improve the protection of unaccompanied children in the Canary Islands.

Information about Morocco suspending its border monitoring reportedly started circulating over the weekend in what Spanish media has interpreted as an attempt to destabilise the Ceuta border. This comes amid diplomatic tensions between the countries over leaked information about Spain’s acceptance of the exiled Western Sahara independence leader, Brahim Ghali, for COVID treatment in a hospital in La Rioja. Speaking to European media prior to a meeting with the Spanish minister of foreign affairs on 18 May, the Moroccan ambassador to Spain  linked the arrival of thousands of people to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta to the diplomatic dispute stating that actions have consequences and that: “There are attitudes that cannot be accepted”. The Spanish Council of Ministers on 18 May granted EUR 30 million to assist Morocco in its efforts to block irregular immigration. Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez has travelled to Ceuta promising to “restore order” and the army as well as 200 police officers have been deployed in the enclave where 8,000 people, 25% of them children and some very young, have arrived from Morocco within just 36 hours. Thousands have already been returned in what authorities refer to as ‘border rejections’ but local media defined as hot returns and videos have documented Spanish soldiers beating people and throwing them back into the sea. According to Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch: “It seems very unlikely for Spain to have returned 5,600 people in the space of a matter of hours in a way that allows for any kind of individual assessment or careful examination of individual circumstances.” She further noted: “It’s contrary to Spanish law, it’s contrary to European law and it violates international human rights and refugee law”.

Many have arrived to Ceuta with rubber boats or by swimming and while Guardia Civil reports of rescues at least one person has died attempting to reach the enclave with strong winds putting people at great risk. Top EU officials including European Council President, Charles Michel, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission Vice President, Margaritis Schinas, and European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson have all expressed solidarity with Spain and while praising cooperation with Morocco on migration EU urges the country to take back people arriving irregularly. Director of Immigration Policies at Instrategies, Gemma Pinyol-Jimenez however, links the current situation to a deeper dysfunction of 20 years of EU policies of securitization, dehumanization and outsourcing migration management, turning even modest numbers of arrivals into a geo-political bargaining chip for neighbouring countries.

According to Spanish Ombudsman, Francisco Fernández Marugán, Spanish authorities should not leave the local child protection services on the Canary Islands alone with the responsibility of protecting the nearly 3,000 children who arrived on the Islands throughout 2020 and the first months of 2021. Data from the Government of the Canary Islands reveals that as of March 2021, 2,577 unaccompanied children were accommodated on the islands, 2,110 of which were hosted in emergency accommodation and with only 134 obtaining residency permits in 2020. Accordingly, the Ombudsman has proposed to the Spanish Ministry of Social Affairs to develop a multiannual Strategic Plan for the integration of unaccompanied children covering identification of protection needs, identification of potential victims of trafficking, age determination procedures, documentation of legal residence and socio-labour integration upon the age of 18. On 19 May the Spanish government reached out to other Spanish regions asking them to accept unaccompanied minors from Ceuta where hundreds of children are sleeping in overcrowded reception centres or are forced to sleep in the streets given the increase of arrivals. A source familiar with the talks told Reuters that an agreement is expected in the coming days even though centres in regions such as Andalusia or the Canary Islands are already overcrowded.

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Photo: ECRE

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.