Migrants Flock into Spanish Africa Enclave in Record Numbers

A stream of migrants crossed the border from Morocco to Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta unimpeded early Tuesday, adding to what Spanish officials say is an unprecedented influx at a time of high tension between Madrid and Rabat.

At least 5,000 migrants, about a thousand of them minors, slipped into Ceuta on Monday, a record for a single day, Spanish authorities said. 

The migrants reached the enclave by swimming or by walking at low tide from beaches a few kilometres to the south. Some used inflatable swimming rings and rubber dinghies. 

In the early hours of Tuesday, hundreds more men and women of all ages flocked to the Fnideq border post to try their luck at the crossing.

They walked down a path to the beach in their dozens, before running towards Ceuta along the coastline, as a handful of Moroccan policemen watched on without intervening.

"I saw on Facebook that it was possible to cross the border, so I took a taxi here with my friend as I can't feed my family anymore," 26-year-old Ouarda, from the neighbouring town of Tetouan, told AFP. 

"I'm not scared -- I'll either die or I'll cross," the unemployed, divorced mother-of-two said. 

One man drowned trying to swim across, Spanish officials said on Monday. 

Videos posted on social media showed dozens of migrants -- some wearing just beachwear but others clad in normal outdoor clothes -- setting off from rocky beachheads.

Some people also tried to go over the mountain that overhangs the beach. 

"They stopped me from getting through, but I'm going to try again," said one 26-year-old jobseeker. 

In the small town of Assilah, 160 kilometres (100 miles away), AFP saw groups of young people walking north towards the border on the side of the motorway, with some hanging off the backs of trucks. 

- Western Sahara spat -

On Monday, after being checked by the Red Cross, the migrants were taken to a reception centre on the beach, with authorities meeting to discuss how to handle the situation given the record arrivals.

The Spanish interior ministry said  "immediate reinforcements of the civil guard presence and national police" would be sent to Ceuta, totalling 200 additional officers.

It added that "Spanish and Moroccan authorities have recently reached an agreement concerning the return to their home country of Moroccan citizens arriving on the beach" at Ceuta, and that authorities from the two sides were in "permanent" contact. 

Contacted by AFP, Moroccan authorities had yet to respond late Monday.

During the last weekend of April, around 100 migrants swam to Ceuta in groups of 20 to 30. Most were deported back to Morocco. 

Ceuta, together with Melilla -- Spain's other North African enclave -- have the European Union's only land borders with Africa, making them popular entry points for migrants seeking a better life in Europe. 

Figures published by the Spanish interior ministry show that between January 1 and May 15, 475 migrants reached Ceuta by land or sea -- already more than double the 203 that arrived in the same period last year. 

Mohamed Benaissa, the head of the North Observatory for Human Rights in the nearby Moroccan town of Fnideq,  said the bulk of those making it to the Spanish side were "minors, youths but also families, all of them Moroccan".

The wave of arrivals comes at a time of diplomatic tension between Madrid and Rabat after it emerged that Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali arrived in northern Spain in mid-April and is being treated in hospital for Covid-19. 

The Polisario Front has long fought for the independence of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that is mainly under Moroccan control.

Analysts have warned the spat could threaten cooperation between Madrid and Rabat in the fight against illegal immigration.

Benaissa said Monday's influx "could be linked to the diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Spain".

Source: Agence France Presse

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