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MOROCCO

Five drown in Spain-Morocco migration bid

At least five illegal migrants drowned off the coast of northern Morocco as they were attempting to reach Spain, the Moroccan authorities said late on Monday.

Five drown in Spain-Morocco migration bid
Photo: Fadel Senna/AFP

The rescue services were alerted to the presence of a "polyester boat with a group of illegal immigrants on board that was in difficulty off the Marchica lagoon, in Nador province," local authorities were quoted as saying by the official MAP news agency.

They arrived at the scene and recovered five bodies, all male, while managing to save seven of the passengers, including four women, who were taken to hospital in Nador for treatment.

Nador lies next to Melilla, a Spanish enclave bordering Morocco on the Mediterranean coast, one of the European Union's only two land borders with Africa, along with the other Spanish territory of Ceuta to the west.

Thousands of African immigrants attempt to reach Spain every year from northern Morocco, either via Melilla or by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, often in overcrowded and makeshift boats.

In the early hours of Monday, more than 30 sub-Saharan migrants stormed the six-metre (20-foot) border fence at Melilla, five of whom managed to penetrate the territory, according to the Spanish authorities.

Last month, 11 African migrants, including three women and two children, died when their boat carrying 34 people capsized in Moroccan waters as it was heading for Spain.

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IMMIGRATION

Morocco puts brakes on migrant flow as Spain and EU pay out

The number of migrants arriving by sea in Spain has plunged with Morocco stopping boat departures since signing lucrative agreements with Madrid and Brussels, experts say.

Morocco puts brakes on migrant flow as Spain and EU pay out
Migrants climbed over the fence in Ceuta to reach Spain earlier this month.Photo: AFP

So far this year 15,683 migrants have arrived by sea, 45 percent down on the first eight months of 2018, according to Spanish interior ministry figures.   

Spain became the main entry point for migrants seeking a better life in Europe in 2018 after Italy closed its ports and Greece began sending migrants back to Turkey under a 2016 agreement with the European Union (EU).

But that is no longer the case. The most used migrant sea route to Europe is once again from the  eastern Mediterranean to Greece,  the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says.

Moroccan authorities are stopping boats from setting sail to Spain “whereas before they let them leave”, said Jose Encinas of the AUGC Guardia Civil police association in the southern region of Andalusia where most migrants
land.   

A migration expert at an international organisation, who asked not to be named, said: “Moroccan maritime police have deployed means at strategic spots, especially in the north” to curb migrant departures to Spain.

'Migration card'

Eduard Soler, a North Africa geopolitics specialist at Barcelona think tank CIDOB said “Morocco has realised that the migration card is a very effective pressure tool”.

“Times when bilateral relations between Morocco and Spain were difficult have coincided with a rise in (migrant) arrivals in Spain and when they have improved there was a dramatic drop (in arrivals),” he added.

The arrival of migrant ships in Spain had soared in the six months before Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez took power in June 2018.   

He promptly dispatched ministers to Rabat before visiting the Moroccan capital himself in November for talks with King Mohammed VI.   

A state visit followed in February 2019 by Spain's King Felipe VI abd 11 bilateral agreements were signed covering energy to cultural cooperation.   

“There was then a radical drop in the number of migrant arrivals. This does not seem like chance. Morocco decided to change its policy” said Soler.   

The number of migrant arrivals by sea fell to 936 in February 2019 from 4,104 in the previous month,  IOM figures show.   

“When Morocco wants more money, it opens the tap of immigration and when it receives money, it closes it,” said Encinas.   

Spain in August approved €32 million ($35 million) to help Morocco control illegal migration.

In July, Madrid authorised spending €26 million to supply Morocco's interior ministry with vehicles.

EU money

A renegotiated fisheries agreement between Morocco and the European Union– which was approved by the European Parliament in February on the eve of King Felipe's state visit — has also warmed ties between Brussels and Rabat.   

On a visit to Morocco on Wednesday, Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska hailed the “police cooperation” between the two countries which had led to a “significant decrease” in migrant arrivals.

Within the EU, Madrid continues to highlight “Morocco's crucial importance as a strategic partner for migration and other issues,” he added.   

The EU gave Morocco €140 million last year to help manage migration.    

“And that seems little,” Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said last week, before adding Europe should do more for Morocco.   

While Madrid praises its cooperation with Rabat, human rights groups accuse Morocco of forcibly preventing migrants form boarding boats to Spain.

By AFP's Laurence Boutreux 

READ MORE: Ceuta: 155 migrants force entry into Spanish enclave

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