Ceuta and Melilla: Spain’s African Enclaves

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Located on the Northern shore of Morocco’s Mediterranean Coast, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla have long been a cause of tension in diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

The two enclaves, though part of Spanish territory, have been granted a degree of self government as autonomous communities since 1995.

Morocco has long exerted the claim that the territories, which have been part of Spanish territory since the 15th century, should be part of its sovereign territory. Spain has long refuted this, claiming that the two territories are Spanish regions with the same status as other semi-autonomous regions on the Spanish mainland.

These opposing claims have sometimes led to confrontation between the two countries. In 2002, Spanish and Moroccan forces clashed with each other over the status of the Islet of Perejil (Parsley Island) off the coast of Ceuta. This was following Spanish forces being sent to evict Moroccan troops from the island.

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The island had been occupied by a Squadron of the Royal Moroccan Navy, who had set up camp there and raised the Moroccan flag. Although Morocco claimed that the soldiers were placed on the island as part of a military operation, Spain accused the African country of invading its territory. Morocco also reasserted its claims to sovereignty in 2007, when then King of Spain Juan Carlos visited the territories.

While both Ceuta and Melilla represent the only land borders between Europe and Africa, and as a result they are important ports and logistics centres, the conditions within the enclaves are in many ways worse than on the Spanish mainland.

The native populations of Ceuta and Melilla have historically suffered from high unemployment, as both port cities attract traders and low paid workers from Morocco, who cross the border into the Spanish territories each day to earn a living. Latest figures show the total rate of unemployment in Melilla as 27.2% across the population and 31.4% in Ceuta, compared to only 16.7% across Spain as a whole.

Both enclaves have also come under increasing pressure as they have become a gateway for migrants from African countries travelling into Europe to seek a better life.

Human rights organisations, Spanish political parties including the left wing Podemos, and the European Union (EU) have all criticised the Spanish government’s treatment and deportation of illegal immigrants, who manage to cross the heavily fortified border and enter the territories. In 2017, the Spanish government admitted in writing that some immigrants who were temporarily expelled from the short-term detention centres in Ceuta; they had been left in the streets with no other options.

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Migrants who have been caught attempting to cross the fortified barriers on the borders between Morocco and the Spanish territories have also been immediately returned to Moroccan territory in the past 4 years. This practice was legalised under a new security law passed by the governing right wing Partido Popular (People’s Party) in 2014, in spite of assertions from the Council of Europe and NGOs that the practice violates migrants’ right to claim asylum.

In 2015, the Spanish government rejected a proposal by the United Nations which would have created an independent organisation to supervise the treatment of migrants in the enclaves. At the time, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said that the right of a country to protect its own borders was linked to a country’s sovereignty, and that as such Spain could not allow independent control of the border between its enclaves and Morocco.

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Deputy Editor 2017-18, International Editor 2015-17. Languages graduate interested in Latin America, world news, media and politics.

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