Spain to reopen Morocco land borders after two-year Covid closure

Crossings will be initially limited to residents of the Schengen zone and their family members

A guard tower overlooking the border fence encircling Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta, which lies on the Strait of Gibraltar, surrounded by Morocco. AFP
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Spain will re-open land borders between the northern enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and Morocco next week after more than two years of closure.

The borders were closed due to Covid-19 restrictions and tensions between Spain and Morocco.

The reopening will start gradually from May 17, Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told reporters on Thursday.

Crossings will be initially limited to residents of Europe's passport-free Schengen area and their family members. They will be expanded to cross-border workers by the end of the month.

The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla sit on the northern shores of Morocco's Mediterranean coast. Together they form the EU's only land borders with Africa.

Thursday's announcement came as Madrid and Rabat are working to mend relations after a months-long spat, mainly over migrants coming from Morocco.

The two cities have long been a flashpoint in the diplomatic relations between both countries.

Madrid asserts that both territories are integral parts of Spain. The two cities were granted self-government and regarded autonomous in 1995.

Tensions soared in the summer of last year after thousands of migrants crossed into Ceuta from Morocco through land borders and the city’s main maritime entry point in the south. Spain then deployed troops to restore order and sent back a large number of migrants to Morocco.

The European country says it will deal firmly with illegal crossings and crack down on people smuggling gangs.

Before the pandemic, Ceuta and Melilla used to attract traders and workers as local economics depend on the cross-border movement of goods. Most of the migrants are said to be from Morocco.

In 2021, nearly 20,000 people illegally crossed into Europe on small boats, an increase by 60 per cent compared to 2020, according to the latest statistics from the European Commission.

Spain’s decision to open the borders of Ceuta and Melilla with Morocco also comes after signs of a thaw in relations over Western Sarah, a former Spanish colony claimed by Morocco in 1976.

On March 18, the Spanish government announced publicly and for the first time its support to a 2007 initiative taken by Morocco to grant the disputed Western Sarah autonomy.

It described the Moroccan plan as the “serious and credible” effort taken so far to resolve the dispute.

That decision was a reversal of Spain’s longstanding position of neutrality on the region, a sparsely populated desert area situated on the northwest coast of Africa.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI, centre, with Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, second left, Crown Prince Moulay Hassan, second right, Prince Moulay Rachid, the king's brother, right, and Morocco's Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch, left, before an Iftar meal at the King Royal residence in Sale, Morocco, in April 7. Royal Palace/AP

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI decided then to send back the Moroccan ambassador to Spain 10 months after she was recalled and hosting Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in an April visit to Rabat.

Morocco administers around 80 per cent of the 266,000 square kilometres of the sparsely populated desert region with the remainder held by the Algerian supported the self-declared Sahrawi Arab Republic founded by the Polisario Front.

The Polisario waged a guerrilla war against Moroccan troops until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

Rabat is offering to grant Western Sahara autonomy, while Polisario is demanding a referendum on full independence.

The breakaway state is not recognised by the UN and Morocco’s claim to the region is supported by a number of Arab and African states.

Updated: May 13, 2022, 7:01 AM