© Reuters. Spanish soldiers help Moroccan citizens at El Tarajal beach, near the fence between the Spanish-Moroccan border, after thousands of migrants swam across the border, in Ceuta, Spain, May 19, 2021. REUTERS/Jon Nazca
By Mariano Valladolid and Ahmed Eljechtimi
FNIDEQ, Morocco (Reuters) -Hundreds of migrants braved tightened security to try to force their way into Ceuta on Wednesday, as Spain pressed on with the expulsions of thousands who had swum or climbed into its North African enclave over the past two days.
Around two-thirds of the roughly 8,000 migrants who made it to the enclave – and who Spanish authorities said included unaccompanied children as young as seven – have been expelled, the interior ministry in Madrid said.
Many who were sent back said they were determined to head for Ceuta again and, as dense afternoon fog descended, hundreds of young men made a fresh attempt to approach the roughly six-metre-high metal border fence before being repelled by Moroccan police.
Others entered the water and began swimming towards Ceuta’s beach a few hundred metres away.
On the northern tip of Morocco across from Gibraltar and with a population of 80,000, the enclave has periodically been a magnet for refugees seeking a quick way into Europe, but its popularity has waned in recent years as Moroccan authorities cracked down on border traffic.
“I am not losing hope. I have friends in Ceuta where I can stay till I get a chance to cross to Spain,” Souhail Abbadi, a man in his 20s from Tangier in northwest Morocco, told Reuters.
“…We are ready to swim or jump the fence… We hope Moroccan authorities will not prevent us.”
Earlier in the day, Spanish police and soldiers escorted long lines of Moroccans and other mainly sub-Saharan Africans through a gate back into Morocco.
“We were given juice and a cake that is all,” said one migrant, who gave his name as Mohamed from Ait Melloul in southwest Morocco, after Spanish soldiers sent him back as soon as he arrived.
He and many other returnees gathered in the Moroccan border town of Fnideq, where they said they were receiving no aid.
‘WHAT DID SPAIN EXPECT?’
Of the thousands of migrants still in Ceuta, many were children. They included some as young as seven and some without families, said Spain’s Social Rights Minister Ione Belarre.
“We are working to address the issue of children who have come alone…They are seven, eight or nine years old,” she told broadcaster TVE.
“Many of them did not know the consequences of crossing the border. And many of them want to go back. So we are working to make that possible. “
Separately, Reuters TV footage showed hundreds of teenagers being processed at a warehouse where Red Cross officials gave out food and drink.
Ceuta’s leader Juan Jesus Vivas has accused Rabat of initially failing to patrol its side of the border properly, possibly in retaliation for Spain’s discreet admission of a Western Sahara independence leader for hospital treatment.
Morocco’s minister of state for human rights, El Mustapha Ramid, suggested late on Tuesday that Rabat was justified in relaxing border controls after Polisario Front rebel leader Brahim Ghali entered Spain.
“What did Spain expect from Morocco, which sees its neighbour hosting the head of a group that took up arms against the kingdom?” he said in a Facebook (NASDAQ:) post.
“Morocco has the right to lean back and stretch its legs.”
Madrid said it had taken a humanitarian decision to allow in Ghali, whose movement seeks independence for Moroccan-run Western Sahara.
In a further development, Spain’s high court summoned Ghali to appear on June 1 for a preliminary hearing in a war crimes case against him, a court document seen by Reuters on Wednesday showed.
Ghali declined to sign it, the document said, and a source close to the investigation said he might seek to claim diplomatic immunity under an Algerian passport.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez did not link events in Ceuta to Ghali’s situation, calling Morocco a friend of Spain.
Nevertheless, Rabat recalled its ambassador to Madrid for consultations, said a senior Moroccan diplomatic source who declined to be named, adding that relations with Spain needed a moment of “contemplation”. Moroccan authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
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