People walk past a UN vehicle in the Bir Lahlu refugee camp in Western Sahara. File photo: Reuters
People walk past a UN vehicle in the Bir Lahlu refugee camp in Western Sahara. File photo: Reuters

Pressure to toe Morocco’s line on Western Sahara failing

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published May 31, 2021

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In the dying hours of his presidency, Donald Trump overturned decades of US foreign policy and recognised Morocco’s claim to sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for Rabat normalising relations with Israel.

Ever since then Morocco’s top foreign policy priority has been to exert pressure on European governments to follow suit.

After the US recognised Morocco’s claim to control Western Sahara in January this year, Germany called for a closed-door UN Security Council meeting to discuss the issue.

Berlin criticised Trump’s decision to recognise Morocco’s claim, and this led to a protracted dispute between Morocco and Germany, with Rabat recalling its ambassador in Berlin.

Morocco tried to send a message to other European countries that it would cost them if they criticised the US recognition or tried to reverse it.

Spain has been insistent on pushing for a UN-brokered solution to the long-running dispute over its former colony, Western Sahara.

A ceasefire deal in 1991 between Morocco and the Polisario Front representing the Saharawi people was meant to lead to a referendum on self-determination in the desert region which is home to approximately one million people.

However, despite efforts to broker a deal by the UN, talks ground to a halt in 2019.

Spain’s stance has led to a gradual deterioration in relations with Morocco.

Last year Morocco cancelled the visit of the King of Spain twice, and then cancelled the meeting of the Joint Bilateral Committee last December.

Then came the more recent diplomatic dispute between Morocco and Spain over Madrid’s decision to host the leader of the Polisario Front Brahim Ghali, who was admitted on humanitarian grounds and treated at a hospital in Northern Spain for Covid-19.

Ghali’s presence in Spain angered Morocco, which subsequently warned that there would be ‘consequences’.

The message that Morocco wanted to send to Spain and other European countries was that if they fail to listen to Morocco’s demands and change their policy position on Western Sahara, Morocco would open the flood gates and allow a surge in migration to take place from Morocco into European territory.

Morocco’s failure to co-operate in controlling the movement of migrants poses a real security and humanitarian problem for Spain which Morocco has capitalised on in the past.

Before the influx of migrants from Morocco to Ceuta (the Spanish autonomous city on the northern tip of Morocco) last week, Spain was already grappling with a surge in migrant arrivals on the Canary Islands off the Moroccan coast.

Rabat was accused of leveraging immigration as a diplomatic weapon last year in its bid to gain access to rare mineral deposits near the Canary Islands off the West coast of Morocco.

It appeared that Morocco had eased border controls, allowing more than 23 000 migrants to reach the island, a figure eight times higher than the year before.

This year the arrivals have so far more than doubled compared to the same period last year.

In March Morocco suspended repatriation flights of migrants from the Canaries.

This created a crisis for the Spanish government, and Rabat appears to have turned to the same playbook this week.

In what appeared to be retaliation for admitting Ghali for medical treatment, Morocco decided to weaponise migration once again to punish Spain.

Morocco turned a blind eye to thousands of migrants heading to Spain's Ceuta enclave in what analysts said was an attempt to pressure Madrid to recognise its sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Last week over 9 000 migrants swam or used tiny inflatable boats to cross unimpeded into the tiny territory from neighbouring Morocco, sparking a crisis for Madrid.

Approximately 2 000 - 3 000 migrants were children or teens.

Morocco has the capacity to control its borders, but observers say that Moroccan police were nowhere to be found.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had to cancel a trip to Paris and arrived in Ceuta last Tuesday, vowing to “restore order” as soon as possible.

Sánchez and Foreign Affairs Minister Arancha González Laya made multiple calls and overtures to EU states in a bid to increase pressure on Morocco.

The efforts worked, and according to government sources, several European foreign offices made public and private calls to the Moroccan government to send the message that it was not only up against Spain, but all of the EU.

EU leaders backed Spain, saying the mass incursion in Ceuta was a breach of the bloc's borders, and the European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas called for a “strong protection of our borders”.

The perception has been that what has happened in Ceuta is another example of how Morocco plays with migration as a way to pursue its own interests.

Attempts at blackmail have clearly backfired, as despite the pressure that Morocco put on Spain, González Laya said Spain was not going to change its position on the disputed territory.

This is most likely the position of many other European states as well.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.

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