Over 30,000 Moroccan citizens are stranded abroad amid the global novel coronavirus pandemic, with no end to their exile in sight.
Rabat – Ceuta and Morocco have pressed pause on the repatriation of Moroccan citizens stranded in the city enclave amid rising tensions.
The humanitarian operation hit a roadblock after Rabat suspended negotiations on Saturday, May 16. The reasons behind the sudden freeze remain, according to Ceuta al Dia, “a mystery.”
News outlets in both Spain and Morocco, however, have reported that the government in Ceuta found discrepancies in the lists of Moroccan citizens to be repatriated.
Rabat’s list of people eligible for repatriation from both Ceuta and the enclave of Melilla contains 420 names. However, Spanish authorities presented a register of 1,300 names, reports Moroccan news outlet Le360.
In Ceuta alone, authorities claim 700 Moroccans are waiting for repatriation; however, Rabat has recorded only 280.
Moroccan diplomatic sources told Le360 that, according to Rabat, 140 citizens are still stuck in Melilla. Authorities in Melilla claim the true figure is 600, including the 200 Moroccans who have already crossed the border.
While reports circulate in Morocco that Spanish authorities are using the repatriation efforts to send irregular migrants into Morocco, having long complained about the presence of undocumented minors in the city, Spanish newspapers insist that Rabat is refusing to take responsibility for its citizens amid the global COVID-19 crisis.
Rabat, however, considers only people residing permanently in Morocco and who had traveled to Ceuta or Melilla for reasons of health care, tourism, or business at the time of the border closures as eligible for repatriation.
Spanish newspaper El Espanol, however, claims that the pause in negotiations came after one of the Moroccans who crossed the Beni Enzar border between Melilla and Morocco on Friday, May 15, allegedly tested positive for COVID-19. The approved border crossing was part of Rabat’s operation to bring home its citizens stranded in the city.
The battle of tongues has been stirring between Spanish enclave Ceuta and Rabat since May 15, when Morocco arranged the first repatriations from Melilla.
The decision to repatriate only 200 Moroccans from Melilla was “incomprehensible and without any justification,” Vivas told El Confidencial.
The right-wing politician called on the central government in Madrid to petition the Moroccan government for “wider” repatriations from both Melilla and Ceuta.
Vivas went so far as to threaten the Moroccan government, saying he would close the Liberty Sports Center where 140 Moroccans are currently staying after finding themselves stranded in the city with nowhere to stay and no way to return home.
This is not the first time that Vivas has stirred tensions between Morocco and Ceuta on the issue of undocumented minors in the enclave.
In January 2020 after Morocco moved to tighten restrictions on informal cross-border trade between Morocco and the city enclaves, Vivas hit out at Rabat, accusing it of trying to “suffocate” Ceuta and Melilla.
Morocco implemented harsher restrictions to stop the hemorrhage of revenue caused by the informal economy.
Morocco had long turned a blind eye to the practice, despite its illegal nature and the detrimental impact on the North African country’s economy.
The director-general of the Moroccan Administration of Customs and Indirect Taxation, Nabyl Lakhdar, in February 2019 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), representing a massive hit to the Moroccan economy.
“We will come out ahead because as hard as our neighbor country tries, we have Spain, a great country, behind us and we are convinced that it will be able to come to the aid of these two cities,” he said, in a bid to stir bellicose, anti-Morocco sentiment.
Vivas acknowledged that the new restrictions had put pressure on Ceuta’s economy, adding that the number of unaccompanied Moroccan minors who enter the cities without documentation is causing more problems for Ceuta and Melilla. The ongoing issue, he said, is “forcing” the enclaves to act.”
The Ceuta president spoke out again in March 2020, at the peak of Spain’s coronavirus pandemic, to criticize Morocco’s handling of unaccompanied minors in Ceuta.
“When this [the COVID-19 crisis] is over, Morocco will have to deal with its unaccompanied minors,” argued Vivas on Tuesday, March 24.
“This is happening as the consequence of a structural phenomenon that Ceuta suffers unfairly,” he said. “Since it is not normal for Ceuta and Melilla, which represent 0.04% of the total population of Spain, to support 15% of all the unaccompanied minors there are in Spain.”
A number of fights have broken out between the Moroccans lodged in the sports center, causing damage to the facilities, claims El Confidencial. It remains unclear whether Vivas’ threats are grounded in reality or merely a high stakes poker move, designed to force Rabat’s hand.
The Spanish press
Though Vivas is not the first to criticize Rabat for its slow response to the plight of Moroccans stranded in the city enclaves, the timing of his latest comments, combined with the threat of evicting desperate Moroccan citizens amid the COVID-19 lockdown, does cast a shadow on his motives.
Like Vivas, the Spanish press is often quick to hit out at Morocco, regularly accusing the North African country of nefarious maneuvers and political cynicism.
In late April, El Espanol accused Morocco of exploiting “the COVID-19 pandemic to keep the land borders closed until the month of September.” The newspaper added that the “objective” is to “drown” informal trade between residents of northern Morocco and the Spanish enclaves.
The headlines splashed across Spanish media came after a number of newspapers accused Morocco of exploiting the pandemic to unlawfully seize the waters off the Canary Islands.
The sensationalist April 1 headlines were responding to Morocco’s decision to formalize a set of laws, in line with international regulations, to define its maritime borders in the waters between the coast of Morocco’s Western Sahara and the Spanish Canary Islands.
Unable to praise Morocco for the move to finally repatriate its citizens from Melilla after months of waiting, Spanish newspapers reported that Rabat did not consult Spain’s central government in Madrid or the autonomous governments in Ceuta and Melilla ahead of the May 15 repatriations.
“The repatriations from Melilla were not the fruit of negotiations between Spain and Madrid,” El Confidencial wrote, citing diplomatic sources.
At 11 a.m. on the morning of May 15, the Spanish consul in Nador sent a 200-strong list to the government in Melilla with details of Moroccan citizens stranded in the city who would be permitted to cross the border into Morocco.
The list, according to El Confidencial, came as a surprise to authorities in Melilla. The 200 names allegedly included only two Moroccan citizens staying in emergency accommodation for foreigners stranded in the city. The remainder of the list comprised Moroccans lodging in private accommodation or with family or friends.
Authorities in Melilla estimate that nearly 300 Moroccans are staying at a local mosque, the V Pinto hostel, and the Plaza de Toros homeless shelter, where Red Cross staff found the body of a Moroccan woman on May 14.
Moroccans stranded abroad
Rabat’s move to repatriate its citizens stranded in the two city enclaves came as a breath of fresh air and a ray of hope for the over 30,000 Moroccan citizens who found themselves stranded abroad after Morocco suspended air, land, and maritime cross-border travel in late March as part of its efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Moroccan citizens trapped in the city enclaves and scattered across the globe have been calling on the government in Rabat for months to facilitate their repatriation. Though the Moroccan government has worked with diplomatic missions from foreign countries to repatriate their citizens, there has been no movement in the pledged operation to bring Moroccans home, other than the 200 Moroccans who crossed the Melilla border this weekend.
Spanish news outlet EFE reported that as of May 12, Morocco had helped 84,449 stranded tourists to return home through the provision of 532 special flights.
The repatriation flights came in response to the requests from foreign tourists, while calls from thousands of Moroccans stranded abroad in reportedly dire conditions appear to have gone unanswered.
With the end of Ramadan looming ever closer, Moroccans stranded abroad are more desperate than ever to return home. The operation to return citizens from Melilla and Ceuta came as a spark in the darkness, bringing hope that, with its success, similar operations would follow quickly. The pause in repatriations comes as another blow.
Cooperation and communication will be key to negotiations in the coming days, all the marooned Moroccans and their families can do now is wait and hope that the authorities in Ceuta, Melilla, and Rabat can put aside their differences in this extraordinary time of global crisis.