Throughout this year, migratory flows have been changing so that the Western Mediterranean route, which goes from Morocco to Spain, has become the most attractive way to get to Europe. In this context, the Spanish President, Pedro Sánchez, announced last November that Morocco would receive approximately an additional €140 million ($157 million) from EU Trust Fund for Africa to support border management in the Maghreb region. However, there are some controversial points regarding the Spanish advocacy to get EU funds for Morocco in exchange of a greater migratory control, and it has also been called into question the respect for human rights in relation to the externalization of the EU borders.
The Western Mediterranean route in the center of attention
According to the European Commission, there is a decrease in the irregular arrivals of immigrants in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean routes: on one hand, flows along the Eastern Mediterranean route (the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece) have been reduced by 97% since the EU-Turkey refugee agreement. On the other hand, flows along the Central Mediterranean route (from Libya, mainly to Italy), which became the most-used route to Europe in recent years, have also been reduced by 80%.
By contrast, in 2018 a substantial increase of arrivals has been recorded on the Western Mediterranean route, with over 57,000 arrivals to the Spanish coasts crossing from sub-Saharan and North Africa through Morocco. The Western route becoming more attractive is related to the recent decreased in the Central route, which respond to a complex set of reasons as the new measures to restrict irregular migration adopted by EU Member States, the increased cooperation with Libyan Coast Guards, the dangerousness of the route and the strict migration policy of the new Italian government.
EU funds to support migration-related actions in Morocco
Morocco has become a key partner for the European Union when it comes to migration and border control policies. Since 2014, the EU has committed €232 million ($264 million) through different funds to support migration-related actions in the Maghreb country and according to the European Commission, the additional funding will bring the overall migration-related assistance to Morocco to €148 million in 2018.
“Morocco is under particular migratory pressure with flows along the Western Mediterranean increasing. This is why we are intensifying and deepening our partnership with Morocco and increasing our financial support. This funding will help to strengthen border management and the fight against smugglers together but also to improve the protection of migrants and to help prevent irregular departures by supporting economic development in the region,” said two weeks ago the EU Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos. “Shared challenges require joint solutions and partnerships, and the EU stands by Morocco,” he concluded.
Spanish advocacy on behalf of Morocco
The EU’s support to Morocco by sending more funds to control the migratory flows is an issue that matters to the Spanish Government, who has been putting pressure on Brussels to favor this decision. Pedro Sanchez has made it clear that Morocco can count on Spain when it comes to taking its demands to the heart of the European Union. Without going further, when the King of Morocco, Mohamed VI, received Pedro Sanchez in his palace in Rabat last November, the Spanish President committed himself to mediate so that the European Union provides structural funds to its neighbor country instead of just circumstantial aid to address irregular migration.
It goes without saying that there is a clear interest on the part of Spain in meeting Morocco’s demands towards the EU, especially since the number of migrants reaching Spanish soil through the African country has grown significantly this year. There is also no doubt that in order to manage the migration crisis affecting both countries, partnerships and coordinated policies are needed. But this cooperation has a price: not only it puts Spain in a delicate situation when it comes to criticizing its neighbor in terms of respect for human rights, but it also allows Morocco to take advantage of its strategic situation using border control as a bargaining chip in favor of its self-interests.
Border control as a bargaining chip
Back in February 2017, the EU Court of Justice ruled that no trade agreement with Morocco could be applied to the territory of Western Sahara since Western Sahara is not part of Morocco. As a result, Morocco issued a statement threatening to relax its control over the migratory flows if the EU would not allow it to trade with natural resources from the occupied territory of Western Sahara without considering the ruling of the EU Court of Justice.
“How do you [Europeans] want us to do the job of blocking African and even Moroccan emigration if Europe does not want to work with us?” said the Moroccan Agriculture Minister, Aziz Akhnnouch, in an interview with the Spanish press agency EFE. This is an example of how Morocco can frame its cooperation on migration in terms of its self-interest by deciding whether to control its borders or to let migrants enter to Europe.
How the externalization of EU borders put human rights at risk
In a recent publication, the European think tank ‘European Council on Foreign Relations’ (ECFR) stated that “Morocco and Spain have sought to strengthen what has long been a close working relationship, including Spain recently advocating for Morocco to receive greater support from the European Union. However, enhanced cooperation has led Spain, and by extension the EU, into uncertain waters when it comes to human rights and international law.” The think tank also highlights how “the EU risks putting undue pressure on southern neighbors like Morocco, which are already facing a host of domestic pressures, and which are likely to resort to increasingly repressive measures in their responses to migration.”
For the moment, we are already seeing the so-called “hot returns” from Spain to Morocco happen (immediate deportations without the proper time to process asylum and other requests), as well as the transfer of migrants from the north to the south of the country in very poor conditions, and the use of disproportionate force by the Moroccan authorities to prevent irregular migration in the border. A recent example was when the Moroccan Royal Navy fired on boats of migrants last September, killing one woman, without provoking serious reactions from the EU.
Efforts must now focus on preventing that the EU’s migration strategy, which seems to be heading towards the fortification and externalization of borders through agreements with third countries, lead to prioritizing border control over human rights, if we get to that point, Europe would stop being Europe.