Spain deployed troops, military trucks and helicopters in its North African enclave of Ceuta on Tuesday after thousands of people crossed over from Morocco, one of the largest movements of migrants reported in the area in recent years.

More than 8,000 migrants, including nearly 2,000 minors, arrived on the beaches of Ceuta on Monday and Tuesday, mostly swimming or aboard inflatable boats, according to the Spanish authorities, who said that Spain had already sent back 4,000 people.

The sudden arrival of thousands of people in Ceuta — more than had attempted the crossing in all the rest of the year so far — comes amid a deepening diplomatic spat between Spain and Morocco over the hospitalization in Spain of the leader of a rebel group that has fought for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco.

Videos broadcast on Spanish television on Tuesday appeared to show Moroccan border guards opening fences to the Spanish enclave. While Morocco has warned of “consequences” for harboring the rebel leader, it was not immediately clear if the spike in migration was linked to the diplomatic dispute.

The sudden arrival of migrants has created a humanitarian emergency in Ceuta, a Spanish autonomous city of 80,000 residents off the tip of Morocco.

Spanish television showed military trucks stationed on beaches, and law enforcement officers carrying children in their arms, distributing blankets, providing water and evacuating others who had arrived in the area, many of whom appeared cold and exhausted.

Advertising

Children could be seen shivering on beaches and some were covered with safety blankets. At least one person died during the crossing, according to Spanish and European officials.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain said on Twitter on Tuesday that his priority was to “get the situation back to normal” in Ceuta.

“We’ll be firm to guarantee your safety in face of any challenge,” Sánchez said in an address to the city’s residents later on Tuesday.

About 200 additional law enforcement troops were sent to control Spain’s border, in addition to the 1,100 troops stationed in the area, according to the Spanish government, in response to the apparent relaxation of border controls from the Moroccan authorities.

Sánchez said the collaboration between the countries should “be based on the respect of mutual borders.”

The European Union on Tuesday echoed Sánchez’s remarks.

“The most important thing now is that Morocco continues to commit to prevent irregular departures, and that those that do not have the right to stay are orderly and effectively returned,” said Ylva Johansson, the EU’s commissioner for home affairs.

Advertising

“Spanish borders are European borders,” Johansson added, calling the arrivals “unprecedented” and “worrying.”

Human rights organizations have warned against the use of excessive force against the migrants and condemned the return of more than 2,700 of them.

“These kinds of summary expulsions mean people have no chance to apply for asylum or make other claims to remain in Spain,” said Judith Sunderland, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia.

The Spanish authorities said they were not summarily returning minors, yet Sunderland questioned whether Spain may have sent back children or vulnerable people, given the speed with which the authorities had deported nearly half of those who had crossed the border.

The arrivals in Ceuta this week echoed an influx of migrants on the Canary Islands that has also tested the Spanish authorities, with more than 20,000 people coming from Senegal, Morocco and other African countries last year. More than 850 people died while trying to reach the islands in 2020, according to a report by the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration with the coronavirus pandemic having likely forced more migrants to migrate through that route.

“Many of those trying to reach the Canary Islands came from Senegal and were forced to leave because of the impact of the pandemic on fishing in particular,” said Julia Black, a project officer at the organization’s Global Migration Data Analysis Center and the report’s author.

Advertising

Until this week, around 4,800 people had crossed the Western Mediterranean to Ceuta, Melilla or mainland Spain so far this year, according to government figures, and 106 have died while attempting the crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration. At least 126 have died while trying to reach the Canary Islands.

The arrivals in Ceuta come against the backdrop of growing tensions between Spain and Morocco over the hospitalization in Spain of the leader of the Polisario Front, a separatist movement that has been fighting for Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco.

Moroccan officials have reacted with anger over the news that the leader, Brahim Ghali, had been hospitalized with COVID-19 in Spain under an alias. The Moroccan foreign ministry said this month that the authorities would “draw all consequences” from Spain’s “premeditated” decision to treat Ghali.

Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, said in a radio interview Monday that Ghali’s hospitalization was a humanitarian response to “a person who was in a very, very fragile health situation.”

She added that Moroccan officials had told their Spanish counterparts that the sudden rise in migrant crossings was not the result of a disagreement over the hospitalization.

Estrella Galán, the director general of CEAR, a Spanish group that helps asylum-seekers and refugees, said Morocco was using migration as leverage against Spain.

But she added that Morocco’s move was the consequence of the EU’s decision after the refugee crisis of 2015 to rely on greater control of migration by countries outside the bloc.

“This is what happens when we convert other countries into gendarmes of our own borders,” Galán said.