The European Union’s only land border with Africa along the Strait of Gibraltar may be one of its shortest, but it has a long history.
In November 1975, as Francisco Franco lay on his deathbed and the Spanish government in no mood for war, King Hassan II of Morocco ordered 350,000 unarmed Moroccans to simply walk into the Spanish Sahara to claim the territory for himself. Much of the Western Sahara has been Moroccan ever since and the Green March, as it became known, has gone down in history as a symbol of the power that the movement of peoples from one spot of land to the next can have on geopolitics.
On Monday, we were reminded of that fact as Rabat once again forced a migration and humanitarian crisis at the border. Objecting to Spain’s decision to allow the leader of the pro-Saharan independence Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, to be treated in a Spanish hospital for Covid-19 as “a humanitarian gesture”, Morocco waved around 8,000 migrants into Spain. Many swam their way into the Spanish exclave of Ceuta before border controls were reinstated less than two days later.
In the 36 hours that followed, Madrid responded by deploying extra personnel and sending 5,600 people back to Morocco in a time window some campaigners deem too rapid to “allow for any kind of individual assessment or careful examination of individual circumstances.”
Many migrants are said to be returning voluntarily while some 200 unaccompanied children who are already settled in reception centres in Ceuta will be distributed across Spain’s autonomous communities in the coming days.
The EU has been quick to back Spain’s response. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said she was standing “in solidarity with Ceuta and Spain”, while the home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, emphasised the bloc’s intention to build relations with Morocco “based on trust and shared commitments.”
Morocco isn’t playing ball. Officials disagree with the EU’s support for a negotiated solution to their ongoing conflict with the Polisario Front in the disputed Western Sahara. Against this backdrop, it remains unclear whether the Spanish high court’s summons for a preliminary hearing in a war crimes case against Ghali will help to appease Rabat.
Tensions are far from over. We may be 45 years on from the Green March, but the obvious conclusion is that there is still plenty ground left to cover between Spain and Morocco.