by Vassiliki Kaidantzi, Member of the International Relations and Foreign Affairs Research Team


The last 10 years have been characterized by a sharp rise of migrant and asylum seekers’ arrivals in the european continent. Compared to 2015, in 2021, the numbers have steadily dropped in crossings on the Eastern Mediterranean route, however a percentage of 46% year-on-year has increased in crossings on the Central Mediterranean route and the Western Mediterranean one (UNHCR). Various geopolitical dynamics in the EU’s neighborhood and beyond have generated unprecedented and growing migratory flows towards Europe. This can relate to security challenges, growing regional instability, the deterioration of the economic and social environment, poverty and unemployment, climate change, and COVID-19, which are also expected to escalate in the years to come.  

Nevertheless, the recent migratory influx in Spanish-enclave, Ceuta, in May, has spanned global attention, as thousands of refugees, specifically unaccompanied minors, have entered Ceuta, after Moroccan Government loosened its border controls for a couple of hours (BBC, 2021). The complexity of push and pull factors behind this unexpected migrant flow is of great importance, as it was not just a humanitarian crisis and a mismanagement of the Spanish Government and the EU, rather a weaponized migration incident from Moroccan Government to pressure Spain and EU over certain geopolitical disputes. The instrumentalization of people from Moroccans to reach their political goals makes this phenomenon essential for analyzing.     

First of all, I will start by indicating the details of the recent migrant crisis in the Spanish-enclave, in Ceuta and the reasons behind this unexpected movement, as well as Spain’s and Europe’s reaction upon the matter. Furthermore I will analyze the EU’s policy on refugees and the possible loops that these strategies may have, that could easily steer towards similar circumstances.  

Spain’s Recent Migrant Crisis

After several migration flows around the South European borders, on May 18th, an unprecedented flow overwhelmed Spanish Government, as more than 8.000 migrants reached the Spanish-governed enclave of Ceuta from Morocco in North Africa (BBC, 2021). A number of at least 1.500 unaccompanied minors and families, either swan around border fences or walked across at low tide. Others plugged holes at the borders in order to pass through, while others attempted to climb the fences (ALJAZEERA, 2021). At the same time, the Melilla government delegation spokesman declared that 86 migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa broke into the Spanish-enclave, located about 300km east of Ceuta, but another larger group has been blocked by Moroccan police (FRANCE 24, 2021). On the contrary, in Ceuta’s incidents, following reports and footage, it seemed to show that Moroccan Government opened its borders between Morocco and Spain, particularly in Ceuta, for 48 hours, thus allowing migrants to enter the Spanish-enclave without Moroccan authorities trying to stop them. Spanish troops have been deployed to the beach to  help border police at Ceuta’s main entry point and to increase police presence in the enclave (Ellyatt Holly, 2021). Barricades were set on fire and rocks were thrown during fighting between migrants and police.

The reasons behind this unexpected humanitarian crisis in the Spanish borders with Morocco, vary according to the contradictory aspects of the matter, for instance issues of sovereignty, geopolitics, Covid-19 and conflict zones.

Moroccan Government warned that migrants’ rights were being violated during the incidents, according to Spanish and European Law. In fact, right after their entrance in the Spanish territory, several reporters witnessed the Spanish military personnel and police officers ushering adults and children through a gate in the border fence. Even those who were registered, were pushed and chased by soldiers (Kassam Ashifa, 2021). It  also accused EU’s Migration Strategy, as rapid expulsions without giving the opportunity to migrants to apply for visas, is illegal and against International Human Rights and Refugee law, especially for the asylum seekers and the unaccompanied minors, who must remain in Spanish territories until further investigation and determination of their status (Ellyatt Holly, 2021). They also acknowledged the fact that due to COVID-19 and the closure of the borders in Ceuta and Melilla, the economic concerns have raised sharply and the livelihood for thousands of Moroccans was threatened, making the option of migration more appealing than ever. The decision of fleeing in Spain and reaching Europe occurred in request to better life conditions and economic opportunities thus escaping from daily dangers, such as war conflict zones, poverty and human rights abuses (ALJAZEERA, 2021).  

Europe acknowledged the fact that African migrants are in need of fundamental change in their daily lives, but for this latest refugee influx, it accused Morocco of instrumentalizing people to reach political goals and pressure Spain (FRANCE 24, 2021). Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez  declared that “The lack of border control by Morocco is not only a show of disrespect of Spain, but rather for the European Union” (Kassam Ashifa, 2021). European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the “EU stands in solidarity with Ceuta & Spain” and that the bloc needs “common EU solutions to migration management” (Ellyatt Holly, 2021).  

Despite the humanitarian crisis that may have caused this migratory influx, a diplomatic dispute between the countries led to this unprecedented incident, as Madrid’s decision to host a leader of Western-Saharan Independence movement, aggravated their relations across the Mediterranean sea. Specifically, the Polisario Front Leader, Brahim Ghali, has been receiving medical treatment for COVID-19 in northern Spain since mid-April. The Polisario Front is an independence movement that claims territory in the Western Sahara region, an area that Morocco claims it belongs to (Knipp Kersten, 2021). It is believed that Moroccan authorities deliberately reduced the number of military forces on this heavily guarded piece of land, after Ghali was taken in Spain. 

Simultaneously, Spain’s act to treat Ghali, concerned Moroccan’s claim to sovereignty over the Western Sahara region. Nonetheless, it has affected Moroccan authorities’ decision to punish Spain, by weaponizing migration influx in Ceuta, thus forcing Spain to change its policy on the Western-Sahara region (Knipp Kersten, 2021). In fact Morocco hoped for an international recognition of its claim over Western Sahara, after former US President Donald Trump, recognized in December 2020 Moroccan Sovereignty over the region, which was seen as a part of a deal in which Morocco established diplomatic relations with Israel. However, certain European countries such as Spain and France opposed to this recognition. Specifically, Germany had been critical of the Trump Administration’s decision and called a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the matter (Torreblanca Ignacio José, 2021).    

The tensions over Western-Sahara region date back to the beginning of the 20th century. It’s bordered by Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. The territory, which consisted of a nomadic population, was under Spanish occupation from 1904 until 1975. At the same year, Morocco and Mauritania stepped in and occupied most of the Western Sahara, which leached into an armed conflict between the Moroccan authorities and the western liberation movement (Polisario Front) which fought for independence from Morocco. In 1988, both Morocco, the Polisario Front and Spain agreed to a United Nations Settlement Plan, which led to the 1991’s Referendum in the Western – Sahara, which would determine the independence of Sahrawis (West-Saharan Refugees) or their integration into Morocco. The 1991 ceasefire has mostly been held up until today. The region is divided in two fronts; the Polisario’s which aims to establish an independent state in the Western-Sahara, the so called Saharan Democratic Republic (DARS), which is currently recognized by 50 states, including its neighbor Algeria, a host of  thousands of Sahrawis, as well as African Union, and it’s described as a non-self- governing territory. On the other side, the Moroccan Controlled territory consists of more than 70% of mineral deposits (Human Rights Watch Report, 1995).

Finally, another main reason behind this migratory crisis, continues to be the issue of sovereignty over the Ceuta and Melilla Spanish enclaves – European Territories on the African Continent. According to Morocco’s claims, both the enclaves have been illegally occupied by Spain. First of all, Ceuta and Melilla are cities located on the African continent bordered by Morocco and the sea. Both cities are the historical products of Spanish conquest and their fortified nature can be traced back through history (Bellagamba Alice, Dünnwald Stephan, Gaibazzi Paolo, 2017). Melilla was the first to fall under Spanish rule in 1497, and Ceuta, which had been seized by Portugal in 1415, was transferred to Spain under the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668. Both towns had been long standing epicenters of the conflict between Mediterranean Powers (Saddiki Said, 2017). Spanish Strategy aimed at separating the controlled enclaves in North Africa from Moroccan Territory, and in the 1990s’, with in-part funding from the EU, started building walls and fences, which would work as defensive fortifications and territorial boundary markers, stating the relationship between state, sovereignty & territory (Bellagamba Alice, Dünnwald Stephan, Gaibazzi Paolo, 2017). Indeed, the fences around the enclaves are a literal reminder of the cultural, political and economic barriers that remain to be overcome between Europe and its Mediterranean Neighbors. These Spanish movements seek to divide the communities which are characterized of supreme differences, such as cultural misunderstandings between Muslim and Western worlds.  From the Moroccan side, this was marked by doubt and suspicion, anticipating a potential Islamic threat and reflecting the expression of rejection of this occupation, which has neither officially nor popularly been recognized as a Spanish enclave (Saddiki Said, 2017).

EU’s Policy & Strategy on Refugees

Since 2009, more than 3.4 million irregular migrants-asylum seekers or economic migrants, without a visa or confirmed asylum status entered the European Union. As numbers peaked in 2015, some EU leaders and observers worried that the migration crisis was an existential threat to the EU itself. Migration sparked debates upon social integration, culture, values, security and national identity. Member states were not able to agree on important steps like a common asylum policy to distribute refugees among countries, calling into question the effectiveness of EU institutions and leadership.

Therefore, the EU along with its member states have intensified the efforts to establish an effective, humanitarian and safe European migration policy. The key developments in the work of the European Council since 2015 included the activation of the integrated political crisis response (IPCR) arrangements, which provides concrete tools to help coordinate the political response to a crisis by bringing together key actors (European Council, June 2021). Furthermore, the EU developed a concept of “flexible solidarity”, where member states would take divergent approaches to accept asylum seekers, using different criteria in making asylum decisions, as the governments were failing to agree on a common policy. In that context, it constructed a European Asylum system (CEAS), which set only common minimum standards for the treatment of asylum seekers. The need for a progressive legislative agenda, pursuing a file-by-file approach and moving forward on those individual legislative proposals where there is broad agreement among member states, can break the present deadlock (Barslund Mikkel, Lucke Matthias, Ruhs Martin, 2019).

Another principal policy in Europe’s Strategy for migrants, is the return policy and the readmission agreements. It’s actually based on the return directive that sets clear, transparent and fair rules for returning illegally staying non-EU nationals. The readmission agreements are based on EU’s negotiations with third countries, and until today, the EU has concluded 18 agreements with 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific Countries (European Council, May 2021). Likewise, the collaboration with third countries to cut off transit routes, includes the blocking of migration out from transit and source countries to the EU and aims to create “disembarkation platforms”. For instance, to address the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the EU fostered its relations with African Governments such as Libya, which stands as the main departure point for most of the migrant boats. Unfortunately, while this approach has decreased migrant flows out of Libya, it has also kept them trapped in camps, where they were subject to human rights abuses. (European Council, June 2021). The EU should reopen legal routes for people seeking asylum , so as to prevent future humanitarian crises.

Moreover, the use of EU Budgets to support refugee integration, has always been one of top strategic movements of the EU towards migration flows. However, the cost of social services is never enough. Also, the lack of costs for emergency response, has a great impact on the public finances of EU countries. For instance, Germany stands out both as a main recipient of asylum requests as well as one of the first countries to offer huge economic aid for the handling of such a crisis (Bordignon Massimo, Moriconi Simone, Bruegel, 2017). The proposed EU 2021-2027 budget allocates 11.3 billion euros to support member states with the living costs for migrants, in an attempt to better manage the unexpected migration influx. The problem of this tactic stands in the slow-moving integration of refugees into the workforce, due to language barriers, mismatches between their skills and discrimination from the local community. Usually, their integration takes more than five years, leaving them unemployed and in need of care from the governments. The EU should create an adaptable and appealing working environment for migrants and locals too (Ries Charles, Culbertson Shelly, 2018).

On the basis of the Schengen Agreement and according to European Policies concerning the externalization of EU Migration Management, common EU Borders can no longer be considered simply as geographical issues, rather they are located where the management strategy begins. Hence, Africa’s sub-Saharan countries have become the EU’s external borders and Ceuta & Melilla represent the de facto southern frontier of the EU (Saddiki Said, 2017). According to that, the EU’s final strategy consists of strengthening the external borders through Frontex’s rapid border intervention and additional technical assistance (European Council, June 2021). Regarding the incident on the Spanish-enclave, Ceuta, the EU has expressed its support for Spain, although the latest attempt of thousands of migrants entering the European territory has served only to emphasize the porousness of the EU’s borders and a lack of a unified EU action on migration.


Concluding, behind Spain’s latest refugee crisis, a diplomatic rift regarding issues of sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla and of geopolitics over the Western-Sahara conflict unveiled, after analyzing the whole frame of the incident. Humanitarian causes, such as COVID-19 global crisis, economic uncertainty and better living conditions, compromise only a small percentage of the real motives behind this unexpected migratory influx. The use of people for political pressure on Spain and EU by the Moroccan Government was deemed unacceptable, yet simultaneously the immediate illegal expulsion of refugees back in Morocco  has also violated refugees’ human rights. From her side, Europe is held responsible for letting this crisis unfold this way. More collective support from European countries and bodies is imperative, as it is also its responsibility along with member states to avoid similar future crises. All European asylum and migration policies should be multidimensional in a sense that they require multiple policy decisions, on different aspects of the overall policy package at the same time, in order for them to successfully work. Responsibility should be shared among countries and international instruments in order to refrain from future migrant flows.



Saddiki Said (2017), World of Walls. The Structure, Roles and Effectiveness of Separation Barriers, Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, Chapter 3, p. 57-81.

Bellagamba Alice, Dünnwald Stephan, Gaibazzi Paolo (2017). EurAfrican Borders and Migration Management. Political Cultures, Contested Spaces, and Ordinary Lives, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, Chapter 3, p.63-81.

European Instruments

European Council (last updated June 2021), EU Migration Policy. Accessed on June 4th 2021. Available here

European Council (last updated May 2021), How the EU manages migration flows. Accessed on June 4th 2021. Available here

Torreblanca Ignacio José (May 2021), This time is different: Spain, Morocco, and weaponised migration, European Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed on May 25th 2021. Available here

International Instruments

Human Rights Watch Report (October 1995), Keeping it Secret. The United Nations Operation in the Western Sahara. Vol. 7 No. 7. Accessed on May 25th 2021. Available here

UNHCR, Operational Data Portal, Mediterranean Situation. Accessed on May 6th 2021. Available here

Academic Papers & Articles

Bordignon Massimo, Moriconi Simone, Bruegel (March 2017), The case for a common European refugee policy, Bruegel. Accessed on May 25th 2021. Available here

Barslund Mikkel, Lucke Matthias, Ruhs Martin (2019), Rethinking EU migration and asylum policies: Managing immigration jointly with countries of origin and transit, MEDAM (Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration) Assessment Report. Accessed on May 27th 2021. Available here


ALJAZEERA (May 2021), Death and despair as African migrants arrive in Spain, Accessed on May 25th 2021. Available here 

ALJAZEERA (May 2021), What’s behind the migrant crisis between Morocco and Spain? Accessed on May 26th 2021. Available here 

BBC News (May 2021), Migrants reach Spain’s Ceuta enclave in record numbers. Accessed on May 25th 2021. Available here 

Ellyatt Holly (May 2021), Spain and Morocco in diplomatic crisis after 8,000 migrants enter Spanish territory, CNBC. Accessed on May 26th 2021. Available here

FRANCE 24 (May 2021), Spain deploys an army in Ceuta to patrol the border with Morocco after migrants swim ashore. Accessed on May 26th 2021. Available here

Kassam Ashifa (May 2021), Spain accuses Morocco of ‘show of disrespect’ for EU in migrant row, The Guardian. Accessed on May 26th 2021. Available here

Knipp Kersten (May 2021), Why is a crisis unfolding in Ceuta?, DW. Accessed on May 26th 2021. Available here

Ries Charles & Culbertson Shelly (December 2018), This Is How Europe Dealt With Migration, The National Interest. Accessed on June 6th 2021. Available  here