Podcast: Understanding Spain’s migrant & refugee crisis in Ceuta and Melilla: Interview with Jon Iñarritu MP

Ben Wray, Bella’s European Feature Writer, speaks to Jon Iñarritu MP about the extreme events in Ceuta over the past week, and why the question of Western Sahara independence is critical to this crisis.

While the world’s eyes have been focused on Gaza for the past week, a major crisis erupted at the other side of the Arab world, on the border between Morocco and Ceuta & Melilla in the north-western corner of Africa.

From Monday [17 May] to Wednesday, the Moroccan authorities relaxed its border controls and let people enter into Ceuta, a Spanish exclave on mainland Africa. Between 8-10,000 migrants and refugees, many of whom are children, rushed the border, including diving into the sea and swimming round the high fence which divides Morocco from Ceuta. A smaller number entered Spain’s other African exclave, Melilla. Three migrants have died trying to make the journey, while many more have found themselves sleeping on the streets and in abandoned buildings.

In a panic, Spain’s first action was a police and military response, with pictures of migrants being beaten and tear gas fired at the border crossing. Spain summarily deported 5,600 of those who had crossed over the border back into Morocco, without any individual assessments. Mass expulsions are illegal under Spanish and international law and have been widely condemned by human rights groups. Nonetheless, Spain’s response has been backed by the EU, with the European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas stating: ”Nobody can intimidate or blackmail the European Union.”

Morocco’s relaxation of border controls was a calculated move to apply pressure onto Spain and the EU over the country’s territorial control of Western Sahara, a nation which was previously under Spanish colonial rule until 1976, at which time it was annexed by Morocco. The Moroccan Government’s actions were ostensibly instigated as pay-back to Spain for allowing a Western Saharan independence leader to receive medical treatment in the country, but is likely to have more to do with trying to seize on a deal agreed with the United States in December which accepts Moroccan control of Western Sahara, despite a UN resolution backing the Saharaui peoples right to self-determination.

To explore all this and more, Bella Caledonia spoke to Jon Iñarritu MP, the international relations spokesperson in the Spanish Parliament for EH Bildu, the Basque pro-independence left coalition. Iñarritu has been speaking in parliament this week demanding a humanitarian response to the crisis from the Spanish Government.

We discuss: 

  • The Spanish Government’s response to the crisis (1:31)
  • The EU’s migration and refugee policy (10:51)
  • Trump’s deal with Morocco, the Brahim Ghali situation and the importance of supporting the right of Western Sahara to self-determination (16:39)
  • Ceuta and Melilla: should Spain have territories on the African continent? (27:53)
  • The extreme-right narratives emerging in Spain in response to the crisis (33:18)


Bella Caledonia · Ben Wray interviews Jon Iñarritu MP



Bella Caledonia: What is your view of the Spanish Government’s handling of this crisis?

Jon Iñarritu: First of all, just to explain the background, Ceuta and Melilla are two Spanish towns, but they are situated in North Morocco, in African territory. They are two European cities in the North of Africa.

In recent years we have seen a lot of people try to enter into Europe via Ceuta and Melilla. For this reason, the Spanish Government in 2004 built a high fence, five or six metres high, close to the style of fence that Mr Trump built in the border with Mexico.

In the past years we have seen sub-Saharan people trying to arrive to the fence, and according to the United Nations the majority of them are potential asylum seekers because of the conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. But the Spanish police has always refused to permit these people to apply for asylum.

The European Union and Spain are paying states like Morocco and Turkey to manage this problem of migrants trying to arrive in Europe. And they pay them to do the things that they don’t want to do. The EU is always talking about human rights and international law, while paying a country like Morocco to do the things that they don’t want to be seen and don’t want to do.

This week, we saw nine or ten thousand people arriving to Ceuta. Not only asylum seekers, but also economical migrants; people who want to get to Europe to improve their economical situation, because we must taken into account the impact of the pandemic on the economic crisis in Morocco has been very big. They are not just trying to get to Ceuta, but also to France and Belgium, because they have relatives and families and also because many of them speak French.

And this week we saw Moroccan police officers open the doors of the fence and helping thousands of them to arrive to Ceuta. And it’s dramatic because the majority of them don’t have any kind of possibility to pay for better conditions, and we are seeing these people sleeping in the streets, sleeping in old factories. Many of them are minors and have special protections under Spanish law, and we are seeing that the Spanish Government doesn’t know how to manage this problem.

We say: ‘Okay, we agree that it is a problem to know how to manage thousands of people entering a very small city at the same time’. But the problem is that the government’s response is just what the extreme right commanded. Vox, the party of the extreme right, asked the government to send the army and to expel these people directly to Morocco, and finally, on Thursday, we saw the Spanish Government sending the army and expelling these people directly, without identification, without respect for the Spanish law and legal procedures. It’s very sad, but we are seeing the Spanish Government is doing the same as what the extreme right asked them to do.

EH Bildu are saying something that is easy to understand: we know it is a problem to manage the situation, but it is a humanitarian problem. And humanitarian problems have to be solved using humanitarian answers. We are listening to the Spanish internal affairs minister speaking about the respect of borders, but Morocco didn’t send the army, they didn’t send soldiers, its people; asylum seekers, minors, people who want to improve their lives. This problem has to be solved using humanitarian tools.

BC: You’ve mentioned the EU’s refugee and migrant policy, and how it tries to prevent refugees from reaching European waters and land using states like Morocco and Turkey as buffer states between the EU and the refugee crisis. Has this crisis in Ceuta exposed the weaknesses and dangers of that policy, and how it can lead states like Morocco and Turkey to use the leverage they have over the EU to exploit the situation for their own interests?

JI: I totally agree. The European Union and member-states are using Morocco and Turkey like buffer states, and Morocco and Turkey are responding in the same way; using the power they have to negotiate with the European Union.

The first measure of the Spanish Government was to approve €30 million to help Morocco to manage illegal immigration. But at the same type they are using the crisis to blackmail the European Union over the Western Sahara issue and other issues. It is unacceptable. They know what the EU wants, and they know how to pressure, blackmail and threaten the EU authorities. They know that it is related to immigration, and it’s not the first time. This time Morocco’s actions are connected to the medical treatment of Brahim Ghali, the Polisario leader, in a Spanish hospital in Logroño. But in the past it was for other reasons. The Morocco authorities know how to pressure Spain and the EU.

I think that the solution is related to humanitarian tools. If there are not legal ways to ask for asylum at embassies and consulates. If there are not legal ways to come to Europe to work – and in some areas and some countries in the EU they need these workers – then we will see this happen. We have seen throughout history that it is impossible to close borders. We see in this moment that people are dying in the Mediterranean Sea; I have to mention here Libya, because they are also paying Libyan authorities to prevent migrants and asylum seekers reaching Europe.

I think we have to open legal procedures, so people can ask for asylum in origin countries; in embassies, in consulates, in the European Union delegations. To open procedures to come to the EU to work legally without taking any risk with their lives.

BC: The Western Sahara question is critical to this crisis. In December last year, then US President Donald Trump struck a deal with Morocco whereby they would recognise their claim over Western Sahara, which has been occupied by Morocco since 1976, and in return Morocco would have better relations with Israel. The new US President Joe Biden has made no indication of reversing Trump’s policy, and Morocco earlier this year called on the EU and Spain to back Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. Is Morocco exploiting the refugee and migrants issue to pressure the EU and Spain to get in behind the US’ new position?

JI: I think that is one of the reasons. It’s clear that Morocco is using bad ways to try to pressure the EU to follow Mr Trump’s decision. We saw in December that the US recognised the claim of Morocco to Western Sahara. That changed the position of the US, because before it supported UN resolutions to respect the right of Western Sahara to self-determination. I think it is clear that it was the price of Morocco to implement new relations with Israel. Because Mr Trump was trying to improve the relationship between Arab countries and Israel; like UAE and the other gulf states. The price was that the US recognised the territorial integrity of Morocco including Western Sahara.

After that we saw Morocco blackmail and threaten Germany due to its recognition of the rights of Western Sahara. Morocco’s actions now were ostensibly related to the medical treatment of Mr Ghali in Spain, but I think it’s clear that they are trying to pressure the EU countries to recognise that Morocco controls Western Sahara and finish the disputed conflict between Western Sahara and Morocco, recognising that Morocco has the right to control this land.

BC: You have mentioned the situation of Mr Ghali, who is the leader of Polisario Front, which seeks independence for Western Sahara. I have read an article in El Pais arguing that Morocco has not gained anything diplomatically from their actions, but on Wednesday, Spain’s High Court served Ghali in hospital with a summons for a preliminary hearing in a case against him for alleged war crimes. That happened during the peak of the crisis in Ceuta. So it appears to be no coincidence, and that suggests Morocco have gained something from this situation.

JI: I agree. First of all, they receive on Thursday – one day after they closed the border again – €30 million. It’s not so much but it’s money; Spain is paying more money to Morocco one day after this event.

Secondly, as you mentioned, on Wednesday the Spanish Court for special crimes decided to ask Mr Ghali to go to the court to explain about some accusations. At university we studied that in modern states we have separation of powers [between legal and political], but it is clear that in the same day that it’s public that Morocco tried to blackmail Spain by opening the gates and creating this situation in Ceuta, this special court decided to ask Mr Ghali to go to the court. It’s no coincidence. It’s clearly a state position to try to calm Morocco; they are getting money, they are saying ‘okay we are trying to bring Mr Ghali to court’.

Morocco is not a democratic state but they are not idiots. They know perfectly how to apply pressure. Morocco has seen that they can really stress the Spanish administration by opening the gates of the borders, and it has shown what is happening in North Africa with the managing of migrants and also of minors by Moroccan authorities.

BC: There have been protests in Bilbao in recent days in support of Western Saharan independence. How important is it for a pro-Basque independence coalition like EH Bildu to support a movement for independence in a former Spanish colony like Western Sahara?

JI: In EH Bildu we are supporting all the stateless nations; all of them that are asking for their self-determination right. In this case, Western Sahara was a Spanish colony, we were under the same state, and for this reason we have a special connection with the Saharan people. At the same time, we have an important community of Saharans in the Basque Country.

We have a special connection with them, we support them and we express our solidarity with the Saharan people constantly. And we have a special team or group dedicated to this inside of EH Bildu, not only supporting all of the nations around the world who are asking for freedom, but especially in this case with the Western Saharan issue.

BC: In terms of Ceuta and Melilla, it is curious when you listen to the discussion of this crisis on the news and they are talking about Spanish borders and how Spain’s borders are the EU’s borders, but of course this is all happening on the African continent. What do you think about that all these years after the Spanish Empire, Ceuta and Melilla are still part of the Spanish state, in fact they have representatives in the same Congress that you sit in?

JI: It is not an easy issue, because it is clear that Ceuta, Melilla, and also some small uninhabited islands to the north of Morocco are under Spanish sovereignty. Morocco is asking for the sovereignty of these places; sometimes they speak also about the Canary Islands, but as you can see on a map, they are to the south of the Moroccan coast.

It’s true as you mentioned that it is an inheritance of the Spanish imperial history, but at the same time it’s true that there is not an indigenous people who are asking for self-determination rights, which we could support in that case. If one day the Ceuta and Melilla people ask for their self-determination right, we will respect that of course.

But it’s funny for me, the last years we see the Spanish Government asking for their territorial integrity taking into account the rock of Gibraltar. It is true that Gibraltar is one of the 17 cases that appears in the UN list of territories without self-government, and they have the right to their self-determination. But the Spanish Government is always asking for Gibraltar, which has been part of the United Kingdom for three centuries, because of a war and because of the Utrecht agreement. It is constantly in the Spanish media that they are speaking about Gibraltar, but at the same time as you see on a map they are close; Ceuta, Melilla and Gibraltar are in the same area. And maybe you say ‘okay maybe Ceuta and Melilla…’ and they say ‘No! No! No! Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish cities! Gibraltar also is Spanish!’ So it’s impossible to debate.

But it’s true also in this moment no one in Spain is speaking about this, because the people in Ceuta and Melilla feel Spanish for centuries. It’s also true that Morocco is asking for these cities and that they are in Africa, but there is no debate in Spain about the possibility of giving up these cities. It is weird and strange to see this situation, but EH Bildu don’t have a position about that. It’s a Spanish territory, and the majority of people there feel Spanish and want to continue to be Spanish, and we respect that.

BC: You have been in the Spanish Congress this week and have heard the right-wing narratives of Vox and PP about this crisis, which seems to be dominating the media debate in Spain. Vox has talked about an “invasion” of Spain and not one child refugee should be accepted into Spain. Is there a danger that this crisis pushes politics more to the right in Spain?

JI: Not only in Spain, we are seeing across the European Union how the extreme right – the xenophobic, racist position – is being normalised. Nowadays it is possible to read in the newspaper xenophobic, racist positions that ten years ago you couldn’t find. Maybe Mr Le Pen or something like that, but it was very marginal. Nowadays, we see how in Hungary, France, Austria, Italy, people from government or from important parties can express clearly a racist position. It’s very dangerous.

I think the media has to prevent these narratives and explain what is really happening. Because these messages help normalise the extreme-right political parties. Vox is a party which is affecting the Popular Party, which is the second party in Spain and defending in theory democratic positions and conservative positions but not racist positions. But now you see how they are using these events against migrants, against minors, against Moroccans. The we see the Spanish Government sending the army to deal with a humanitarian problem, and expelling people directly without making any assessment of asylum seekers, of minors, of people with special conditions. Finally, the Spanish Government did what the extreme right wanted them to do.

It’s for this reason that it is dangerous because they are normalising some messages and some ideas that are very, very dangerous for the European Union.

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    Thanks Ben. A lot of depressing information in there. Twa muckle colonial *****.

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