The closure will come as a severe blow to the economies of the two cities.
Rabat – A rash of Spanish news outlets have reported on the alleged closure of the land border between Morocco and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla Friday morning, as part of an initiative to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
Late on Thursday night, March 12, RTVE reported, “Morocco has declared the closure of the land border,” saying it would take effect at 6 a.m.
Meanwhile, El Confidencial claimed: “Rabat did not officially announce the decision, because it does not recognize Spain’s sovereignty over both cities, but Moroccan agents stationed at the borders did notify their Spanish counterparts on Thursday afternoon.”
The official websites of the autonomous governments of the two cities have not published any notices of the alleged closure.
However, the official Twitter account for the autonomous government of Melilla published an urgent announcement late Thursday night, informing citizens “from 6 am the Beni Enzar border will be closed, so it is recommended that all Melilla citizens who are in Morocco return to the city as soon as possible.”
“The closure of the borders between #Melilla and Morocco was a decision taken in the late afternoon as a preventive measure against the coronavirus,” the tweet went on.
The “urgent” notice concluded by pledging to provide further information as soon as possible.
The widespread reports came after Rabat formally suspended air and maritime travel between Spain and Morocco on March 12.
An anonymous source at the Moroccan Interior Ministry confirmed to Morocco World News that the borders are closed as of 6 a.m. Friday morning.
COVID-19 reaches Melilla
The decision is part of the Moroccan government’s program to prevent the spread of the virus in the North African country. It comes after the number of cases in Spain soared, hitting over 3,900 with nearly 100 fatalities.
Melilla officially announced on Friday the first two confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the autonomous city. In a press release, the city’s government announced the two patients remain in stable condition in quarantine.
As of March 13, Morocco’s Ministry of Health has confirmed only seven cases of COVID-19 in the country, with all of the patients contracting the virus abroad.
Four of the patients had traveled to Morocco from France, while two came from Italy, and the most recent patient had traveled from Spain.
One patient, an 89-year-old woman, died. The woman had suffered from a preexisting chronic disease.
The other six patients are in quarantine in different hospitals in Casablanca, Marrakech, and Fez and remain in stable condition.
The land borders between Morocco and the two Spanish enclaves are some of the busiest in Africa, with nearly 25 million crossings annually. The enclaves also depend largely on formal and informal trade with Morocco, meaning that a closure could have a devastating economic impact on the two cities.
The two enclaves were already in the midst of an economic crisis before the outbreak of the virus after Morocco tightened border restrictions to clamp down on smuggling.
In January, the presidents of Ceuta and Melilla called Morocco’s decision an attempt to “isolate and suffocate” their economies.
Rabat began to enforce restrictions at the Ceuta border Tarajal II gate in October 2019 and closed the Melilla border nearly 20 months ago.
The presidents of the autonomous cities acknowledged that the enclaves are going through “moments of difficulty.” They said the “attitude of the neighboring country is not positive for our two cities,” reported Melillahoy in January.
Rabat’s decision to clamp down on the informal trade came after Morocco recorded a hemorrhage of tax and customs duties from informal smuggling, causing the country to lose millions of euros every year.
In February 2019, the director-general of the Moroccan Administration of Customs and Indirect Taxation, Nabyl Lakhdar, estimated the value of the products entering Morocco through the Ceuta border between MAD 6 billion and MAD 8 billion per year (between €550 million and €730 million).
Lakhdar emphasized that Morocco was forced to turn to “radical” solutions to “permanently” put an end to contraband border crossings with Melilla and Ceuta.
Ceuta and Melilla responded to the pressure on their economies by calling for a new economic model that does not “depend on Morocco.”
Representatives of the two enclaves met in January to put together a plan to strengthen their economies and “respond energetically” to Morocco’s attempt to “suffocate” the cities, the spokesperson for the government of Melilla announced in January.