Migrants

Spanish Prime Minister cancels Paris trip to deal with Ceuta migrant surge

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. LA MONCLOA/AFP

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has called off a trip to Paris planned for Tuesday due to the surge in migrant arrivals in Spain's north African enclave of Ceuta. Sanchez will not attend the Africa financing summit in the French capital and will instead address the nation following a cabinet meeting.

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As many as 6,000 migrants, about a thousand of them minors, reached Spain's north African enclave of Ceuta on Monday from neighbouring Morocco, Spanish officials said, a record number of arrivals in a single day.

A spokesman for the Spanish government delegation in Ceuta said the scale of the influx, which comes at a time of high tension between Madrid and Rabat, was unprecedented and could yet rise.

The migrants reached the enclave by swimming or walking at low tide from beaches a few kilometres to the south. One man drowned on the journey.

On Monday morning, the delegation put the number of arrivals at 100, with the numbers climbing rapidly throughout the day.

Spain sends police reinforcements

Videos posted on social media showed the stream of migrants -- some wearing just beachwear but others clad in normal outdoor clothes -- setting off from rocky beachheads.

Initially, Moroccan police looked on, before moving to push back a gathering crowd of onlookers.

Spain's interior ministry said in a statement on Monday evening that "immediate reinforcements of the civil guard presence and national police" would be sent to Ceuta, totalling 200 officers.

It added that "Spanish and Moroccan authorities have recently reached an agreement concerning the return to their home country of Moroccan citizens arriving on the beach" at Ceuta, and that authorities from the two sides were in "permanent" contact.

Spain has already returned to Morocco 1,500 migrants out of the roughly 6,000 who entered Ceuta yesterday.

Diplomatic crisis over Western Sahara

Ceuta, together with Melilla -- Spain's other north African enclave -- have the European Union's only land borders with Africa, making them popular entry points for migrants seeking a better life in Europe.

Migrants try to reach the enclaves either by swimming along the coast or climbing the border fences that separate them from Morocco.

Figures published by Spain's interior ministry show that between 1 January and 15 May, 475 migrants reached Ceuta by land or sea -- already more than double the 203 that arrived in the same period last year.

Mohamed Benaissa, president of a local human rights group, said the bulk of those making it to the Spanish side were "minors, youths but also families, all of them Moroccan".

The wave of arrivals comes at a time of diplomatic tension between Madrid and Rabat after it emerged that Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali arrived in northern Spain in mid-April and is being treated in hospital for Covid-19.

The Polisario Front has long fought for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco, and analysts have warned the spat could threaten bilateral cooperation between Madrid and Rabat in the fight against illegal immigration.

Benaissa said Monday's influx "could be linked to the diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Spain".

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