Morocco intends to keep the borders of Ceuta and Melilla closed until autumn

The Spanish authorities claim to know nothing about Rabat's decision
Image of the ticket offices at Ceuta's maritime station in mid-March

PHOTO/SONIA MORENO  -   Image of the ticket offices at Ceuta's maritime station in mid-March

Morocco intends to keep the borders of Ceuta and Melilla closed until autumn and to establish a strict border thereafter, according to a report in the newspaper El Español. Rabat's intention is to take advantage of the health crisis generated by the coronavirus epidemic to stifle atypical trade on both borders and, with it, the economy of the two Spanish cities. About 60,000 people are engaged in the unregulated transport of goods from Spanish cities to the neighbouring country, according to the digital media. 

The Moroccan decision was taken by the head of the administration Saad Eddine El Othmani and the ministers of Health and Interior, Khalid Ait Taleb and Abdelouafi Laftit, and announced to the Spanish government through diplomatic channels and liaison offices, according to the article in El Español. Meanwhile, the Spanish government claims to know nothing about Rabat's plans. This Thursday the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arancha González Laya, admitted to not knowing anything about the border between the two autonomous cities remaining closed until autumn, as echoed by El Faro de Melilla. The minister, however, announced that she would be looking into the matter.  

The president of Ceuta, Juan Vivas, had already asked the Spanish government on several occasions in recent weeks to keep the Tarajal border closed beyond the end of the state of alert in order to avoid future contagion resulting from the free movement of people. Morocco has gone further and faster. 

The Moroccan authorities hope that the tightening of the two borders will push the citizens of their country living in the surrounding areas who had been engaged in this atypical trade to engage in other economic activities in their regions - mainly Tetouan and Nador.

On 13 March, Morocco decreed the closure of its maritime and land borders with Spain. However, the two Spanish autonomous cities became the exit route for hundreds of citizens of our country during the days following the Rabat decision. The borders with Ceuta and Melilla were closed and opened several times in order to allow the departure of Spaniards and other foreigners trapped on Moroccan soil.

On the other hand, between the two cities more than a thousand Moroccan citizens - about 500 in Melilla and 700 in Ceuta, according to the newspaper El Pueblo de Ceuta - are waiting to cross into their country after the borders were closed. The case of these people is similar to that of the approximately 20,000 Moroccans stranded in different countries - mainly European - who cannot return to their country as a result of the border closure. 

Last Sunday, the President of Ceuta, Juan Vivas, called upon the President of the Government, Pedro Sánchez, to make the central Executive responsible for the people who are stranded in his city (at present they are sleeping in sports centres, garages, mosques, private homes and even in the municipal cemetery).Likewise, Vivas assured after his on-line meeting with Sánchez and the rest of the regional presidents that his administration has been forced to allocate 70% of the funds that the State allocates to the autonomous city to attend to emergency situations related to irregular immigration.

The tension on both borders is not new. Morocco has ended its atypical trade with Ceuta and Melilla. This was confirmed last February by the director general of the Moroccan Customs. Rabat's strategy is already affecting the economy of the two Spanish cities. And it may be further aggravated in the coming months by the foreseeable fall in the number of Moroccan middle-class tourists visiting both cities. It is also affecting the many people who have been engaged for years in atypical trade on the other side of the border. 

The situation will certainly also have an impact on the upcoming Operation Strait Crossing (OPE). If the crossings remain closed, maritime traffic will be affected: Moroccans returning to their country this summer will have to use the Algeciras-Tangiers or Almería-Nador routes. "We are not just talking about cutting 30,000 entries a day through Beni Enzar. We are talking, for example, about the asphyxiation of the hotel industry in Melilla, which is supplied with Moroccan goods and customers. We are also talking about the definitive closure of shops in our city; about torpedoing Operation Strait Passage, without which the shipping companies would suffer economic damage that would lead them to ruin. We spoke about the fact that for the Minister of Foreign Affairs of our country the plans of our main commercial partner and border neighbour are not a priority", writes Tania Costa this Friday in the pages of El Faro de Melilla. 

"The coronavirus is the perfect excuse to close border crossings and force the illegal inhabitants of Nador to return to the inland towns from which they came because if there is no contraband they have no work and no food [...] In the hypothetical case that this were to happen, our city would find itself between a rock and a hard place because Madrid, even if it wanted to, could not continue to maintain an excessive civil service structure in a city of 13 square kilometres," the columnist concludes. 

As far as the state of the epidemic in both autonomous cities is concerned, the situation is significantly better than in most of Spain's territories. In Ceuta, 125 cases and 4 deaths have been recorded to date, while in Melilla 116 positive cases and 2 deaths have been recorded. According to the Spanish Minister of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda, José Luis Ábalos, the main reason for the good data is the closure of the connections with the Peninsula.