Ceuta: the final step between African migrants and hope of a better life

Image credit: AFP via BBC News

TW: Mentions of physical abuse, slavery, human trafficking, and sexual violence

Around 8,000 migrants swam from Morocco to the neighbouring Spanish territory of Ceuta, situated on a small peninsula on the North African coast only last month. Soon after their arrival, many of them were sent back to Morocco under orders from the Spanish government. Although this is one of the biggest movements of migrants into Ceuta in recent decades, the story of people continuously trying to gain access to the enclave is nothing new.

Ceuta, which has been under Spanish control since the mid-17th century, is a territory surrounded by metal fencing measuring 5 miles in length that covers the majority of the border with Morocco. This 6-metre-high fence demonstrates the Spanish intent to clamp down on migration and smuggling into the enclave, an issue which has sparked fierce debate between Moroccans, Spaniards, and the wider European Union. As the European public and their governments become increasingly involved in the discussion around migration from Africa and the Middle East, Ceuta becomes an even more important choke point that both continents continue to focus more upon.

So what are the causes behind this recent crisis, and why are so many migrants making the journey to Ceuta?

A brief history of Spain and Ceuta

The history of Ceuta as a Spanish territory began in 1580 during the Portuguese succession crisis, when the Empires of Portugal and Spain would form a union. Once this union came to an end, Ceuta became a Spanish territory as part of the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668 after being under Portuguese governance prior to the union.

After hundreds of years under Spanish control, Ceuta is nowadays a city with both significant European and Arab populations. However, these two communities which account for most of the population, are largely on opposite sides of the economic spectrum. Employment is often low skilled and hard to find for Arab residents in Ceuta, and the social situation is one that has been described as an apartheid in the making.

Where do most migrants begin their journey?

With regard to recent developments over the last few weeks surrounding migration into Ceuta, one would struggle to argue as to why so many migrants are increasingly desperate to enter the city considering the inequality and lack of opportunity. However, Ceuta is not the final destination for these migrants. Instead, it is just one of the last stepping stones along their journey, which they hope will end with a better life in Europe.

Most of these people attempting to cross into Ceuta are from sub-Saharan countries such as Mali and Senegal, often fleeing from violence or seeking economic opportunity due to high poverty rates and unemployment at home. One of these migrants is Aisha Diakite, who shared her story in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Aisha fled Mali in 2018 after her parents were murdered by rebels. She has been living in extreme poverty in Morocco ever since. Aisha now faces being sent back into Morocco after swimming into Ceuta. This is the reality for thousands of other migrants who have been sent back to Morocco; returning to a life largely consisting of financial trouble and uncertainty.

Amongst the populations of these sub-Saharan states, there is a strong desire to move abroad. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre respondents whether they would move to another country if they had the opportunity. Respondents were from ten sub-Saharan countries, and at least four out of ten from each country said they would. In addition, 75% of Ghanain respondents and 75% of Nigerians said they would migrate if given the means.

The motivations to leave the sub-Saharan region are justifiable. Millions of people find themselves in situations similar to what Aisha Diakite experienced, and unrest in the area is not slowing down. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated earlier this year that violence in sub-Saharan Africa has forced around 2.9 million people to flee, with this trend expected to continue in the near future. Unfortunately, leaving such violence behind is just the first step in what can be an inhumane journey migrants have to take to Africa’s north coast.

The continued struggle across the Sahara

One common aspect of the journey that many migrants face is the violence administered by those who are transporting them. In order to organise a journey from their home to Northern Africa, where the struggle to enter Europe begins, many migrants pay a ‘middle man’ who makes contact with smugglers. Migrants are often deceived by these middle men, with the smugglers sometimes not receiving the correct amount of money. The consequences then fall solely on the migrants as they are then physically abused, something which journalist Yomi Kazeem has uncovered in a recent investigation. Kazeem spoke to ‘Andrew’, a migrant who was whipped with rubber after an issue with his payment. Ultimately, Andrew’s family paid a ransom of $2,500 to the smugglers, but had it not been for the financial resolution, Andrew would have likely been sold into the Libyan slave trade, a practice often carried out by smugglers when migrants fail to meet payment requirements.

This is just one example of the brutality that migrants face when making the perilous journey across Africa in search of a better life. Even when financing the journey goes according the plan, many migrants are still sold into slavery and trafficking along the way, with many more falling subject to violence, sexual abuse and rape.

After arriving in Morocco, what next?

After enduring the journey across West Africa, Many migrants find themselves marooned in Morocco, as making the final step into Europe has become increasingly difficult, and the proposition of returning home is rarely considered. The case to remain in Morocco has been further bolstered by an agreement made in 2018 in which the EU provided around 330 million Euros to help Morocco manage migration flows and support job creation. However, life for migrants in the country is far from ideal, with around half of all sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco working in the informal economy. As a result, these migrants are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, and often struggle to pay rent and buy food for themselves and their families.

Whilst some migrants opt to stay in Morocco for the near future, others are still determined to make it onto EU soil and therefore attempt to cross into Ceuta. This is the scenario that occurred last month, when thousands swam into Spanish territory. Spanish authorities have now sent back many of these migrants, but the escalation demonstrates the wider politics involved in the region.

Political differences between Morocco and Spain

Reports suggest that Moroccan officials deliberately loosened security on the border with Ceuta because of Spanish assistance provided to Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front. The Polisario Front is a resistance group which claims territory in the Western Sahara, a region which Morocco claims governance over, despite calls from the local population for independence. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had words of criticism for Moroccan border control, stating that the accused loosening of security on the border was “an act of defiance…the lack of border control by Morocco is not a show of disrespect of Spain, but rather for the European Union”

Morocco has responded to such claims, with Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita commenting “Morocco rejects threats which are based on cliches from the past”. Whilst this war of words between Spain and Morocco continues, the images of Spanish Civil Guard detaining migrants on the beaches of Ceuta suggest Spain’s intentions regarding such migrants. Spain has followed through with an agreement with Morocco, which allows the return of adults who cross the Moroccan-Spanish border illegally. The EU has backed the rhetoric of Spain with the European Commission’s Vice President, Margaritis Schinas stating: “Nobody can blackmail or intimidate the European Union… these tactics are not acceptable in today’s Europe”

Such scenarios demonstrate the somewhat leverage that neighbouring countries to the EU have over the trading bloc regarding migration, and the response of the EU is that of little to no tolerance. This battle of words and political squabbling fails to address the prominent issue at the heart of this crisis: the migrants themselves.

Addressing the issue at the source

The EU has in the past tried to address the root cause of migration from sub-Saharan Africa as they implemented the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). The EUTF between 2015 and 2020 provided around 4.8 billion Euros to migration and displacement programs across 26 countries. Despite these efforts, there still remains an incredibly strong incentive for hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes behind. Political instability in sub-Saharan Africa, which was largely caused by post-colonial intervention on behalf of European countries, continues to fuel Ceuta’s migrant crisis.

Migrants will not stop making the journey to Ceuta, according to a UN report which found that 93% of African migrants now living in Europe would make the same journey again. Instead of Moroccan and Spanish authorities arguing over where thousands of migrants should be and who is to blame, would increased attention to the root causes of this issue be more effective?

Increasing a civil guard presence or using border security as leverage will not resolve the issue of migrants making the perilous journey across West Africa, nor will it assist such migrants living in poverty when they arrive in Morocco. If the European Union is seriously concerned about the apparent threat of migration from sub-Saharan Africa, it should be equally concerned with what is forcing these migrants to flee their homes and families in the first place.