Recent influxes of sub-Saharan migrants passing from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta highlight the Moroccan government’s refusal to cede control over Western Sahara.
Over the course of three days in February, about 900 people crossed the Ceuta border fence – almost as many as the total number of crossings in all of 2016. Situated on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast, but under Spanish control, the port city is one of the EU’s two land borders with Africa, making it among the most accessible points of entry to Europe.
The Moroccan government typically controls immigration across this border, blocking many from continuing onto Spain. In fact, the EU depends on Morocco to police these migrant flows. So why are so many migrants suddenly getting through?
Spanish journalist Ingacio Cembrero believes Morocco is intentionally allowing the migratory passage, in order to pressure the EU to respect Morocco’s territorial control over Western Sahara.
The EU does not have a coherent position on Western Sahara’s legal status. This is likely an attempt to maintain positive relations with Morocco, while also refraining from blatantly supporting the Moroccan government’s colonialist control over Western Sahara. This tenuous position worries Morocco, which fears eventual European support for the territory’s independence.
Dubbed “Africa’s last colony,” the Western Sahara was controlled by Spain until the 1970s , when the Spanish government ceded its authority to Morocco and Mauritania. The protracted occupation led to the establishment, in 1973, of the Polisario Front, an independence movement claiming to represent the indigenous Sahrawi people of Western Sahara. Mauritania withdrew from the territory in 1979, after being pushed out by the Polisario, but Moroccan troops remained.
After many years of fighting between the Polisario and Moroccan government, an UN-brokered truce in 1991 promised a future referendum on Western Saharan independence. This referendum never materialized, however, and Morocco still controls about two-thirds of the territory today.
In its continuing push for independence, the Polisario Front began attacking EU-Morocco free trade deals through a series of lawsuits, at the end of 2016. Claiming that the trade deals fund and prolong the Moroccan government’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara, the lawsuits challenged Morocco’s imposed sovereignty over the region.
While the European Court of Justice “nominally sided with Morocco” in a December 2016 decision, it also acknowledged Western Sahara as territorially distinct from the country. The court decision stipulated that EU trade deals with Morocco do not apply to products obtained from the occupied territory. For instance, minerals mined in the Western Sahara or food products grown in the territory cannot be labeled and sold as Moroccan.
Notwithstanding this decision, Morocco seems to be successfully dodging the issue of Western Sahara’s sovereignty, internationally. This includes its recent efforts to rejoin the African Union (AU)
Morocco initially left the African Union in 1984 after the AU recognized the Polisario as the rightful government of the Western Sahara. For years, the kingdom preferred to remain outside the AU as a non-member state, in order to avoid the issue of territorial control over Western Sahara. At the end of last year, however, King Mohammed VI used his regional economic clout to lobby for readmission. The king toured the continent negotiating numerous investment agreements with other states in exchange for inattention to Western Sahara at the AU.
Once readmission had been secured, Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad announced Morocco’s commitment to developing the Western Sahara. Positioning the region as Morocco’s bridge to Africa, King Mohammed VI has planned infrastructure projects intended to reestablish Western Sahara as Moroccan Sahara, essentially an inextricable part of the kingdom.
While the EU may be trying to facilitate Saharan independence, however indirectly, Morocco remains firmly committed to its neo-colonial territorial interests and may maintain enough regional influence to realize its agenda on the Western Sahara.