Foreign PolicyResearchKnocking at the Walls of Ceuta and Melilla: Irregular Migration and the Political—Security Nexus

The establishment of a permanent body for border security between Morocco and Spain, whose tasks include the management of irregular migration, is necessary to ensure the effectiveness and stability of cooperation.
Said Saddiki Said Saddiki14/06/202486437 min

The establishment of a permanent body for border security between Morocco and Spain, whose tasks include the management of irregular migration, is necessary to ensure the effectiveness and stability of cooperation.



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Executive Summary

The specific geographical location of Ceuta and Melilla made them at the same time: a favorite destination for irregular immigrants dreaming of the European Eldorado and one of the top priorities of the externalization of EU migration and asylum policy. Despite the huge amount of money and efforts that have been spent on EU migration policy, its effectiveness remains controversial. The establishment of a permanent body for border security between Morocco and Spain, whose tasks include the management of irregular migration, is necessary to ensure the effectiveness and stability of cooperation.



The geographical location of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, as de facto European cities, made them a favorite destination for irregular immigrants dreaming of the European Eldorado,  mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, who most of them entered Morocco from its Eastern neighbor, Algeria. With the exception of some unaccompanied minors, the two cities no longer tempt the Moroccans for two reasons:[1] First, until the 2021 – 2022 diplomatic crisis, inhabitants of Moroccan provinces, Tetouan and Nador, adjacent to Ceuta and Melilla had been exempted from visa requirements and could cross back and forth the enclavesborders[2]. Second, if Moroccans overstay the visa or enter the enclaves irregularly they can be simply deported under the readmission agreement[3] signed between Morocco and Spain in 1992. However, for non-Moroccan immigrants, they find themselves on “European soil” as soon as they enter the two enclaves and they are rarely deportedto Morocco, except in very limited cases.

Given the specific situation of Ceuta and Melilla, as they are de facto European cities and geographically located in North Africa, they have always been one of the top priorities of the externalization of EU migration and asylum policy.

In recent years, the influx of immigrants has become more disturbing to the Spanish authorities, especially in times of political misunderstandings between Morocco and Spain, as happened in the Parsley Island crisis[4] of 2002 and the diplomatic crisis of 2021-2022[5]. In the last crisis, 8000 people, mostly minors, stormed Ceuta when Morocco temporarily suspended border controls with this enclave on May 17 and 18, 2022.[6] This confirms the importance of Morocco not only in controlling irregular migration in the southern Mediterranean, but also in securing EU borders.

Spain uses various means to prevent migratory flows from entering Ceuta and Melilla, the most important of which are: border fencing and militarization, and bilateral and regional cooperation. However, despite all these security and cooperative mechanisms, they have not been able to stop the influx of immigrants,[7] who are constantly trying by various ways to reach the two enclaves.


Fencing and Militarization of Enclaves’ Perimeters

Spain is one of the first countries in the world to build anti-immigration walls. The fencing of perimeter of Ceuta was started in 1993, while the first fence on the perimeter of Melilla dates back to 1996.[8] Since that time, the Spanish authorities have been strengthening and equipping these fences with high-tech security systems. Despite the fortification and militarization of the perimeters of Ceuta and Melilla, the number of irregular immigrants who reached the two cities by land increased in 2021 by 13% compared to 2020. In 2021, 1845 irregular immigrants entered by land in the two enclaves, while in 2020, only 1712 who arrived. These data do not include the entry of irregular immigrants to Ceuta that occurred on May 17 and 18, 2021,[9] when Morocco temporarily suspended monitoring the perimeter of Ceuta. There are two major factors that may explain to some extent this slight increase in the number of irregular immigrants to the two cities during 2022: First, the effects of Covid19 on the Moroccan economy, where many African immigrants began to get frustrated with their stay in Morocco, and second, the political crisis between Morocco and Spain that affected relatively their cooperation in border security.

Despite its important role in confronting irregular immigration, Morocco has not been able to prevent the continuation of migratory flows for many reasons, especially the absence of cooperation with Algeria, through which most of sub-Saharan immigrants cross into Morocco. In 2003, Morocco adopted a comprehensive migration law[10] to control the new waves of migration as well as to fulfill its commitment to the EU. Nevertheless, Morocco has become a major transit point for thousands of African immigrants waiting for the opportunity to enter Ceuta and Melilla, or to cross by boat to mainland Spain. From time to time, they carry out mass storming of the fences of the two enclaves using makeshift ladders. Sometimes dozens of them can reach the two cities, but these attempts always result in serious injuries,[11] and sometimes death.[12]

The fences of Ceuta and Melilla not only manifest the de facto border between Spain and Morocco, but also they exemplify “a complex amalgamation”[13] of attractions and repulsions. Moreover, these first fences that were built after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as they reflect the concerns of the EU, mainly Spain, with security issues and immigration challenges, they embody the mutual distrust and suspicion that still exist between Spain and its southern neighbor. There are many historical factors that perpetuate this mutual caution between the two countries and make their relations vulnerable, including colonial legacy, long-lasting territorial disputes, underlimited maritime boundaries, and mutual perception shaped by these historical contexts. The new phase in Moroccan-Spanish relations based on an ambitious roadmap,[14] which was announced during the visit of the President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez, to Morocco on April 7, 2022, will undoubtedly contribute to overcoming or at least mitigating the negative effects of these multifaceted barriers. During this visit, the two countries agreed on a number of principles[15] that could improve their relations in the future, including: avoiding unilateral acts or faiths accomplishments, reactivating and strengthening the cooperation in the area of migration, and Spain’s recognition of the importance of the Western Sahara issue for Morocco.

Externalization under the Guise of Regional Cooperation

In recent years, the number of immigrants has significantly increased in Europe, which currently hosts around 87 million international migrants.[16]  As for irregular immigration, almost 2.37 million immigrants entered Europe with no visa from the southern shores of the Mediterranean between January 1, 1998, and September 12, 2017.[17] Therefore, in order to address the challenges of irregular immigration, which is constantly increasing, the EU adopted in the early 2000s new policies aimed at involving third countries in managing irregular migration beyond European borders.  The main origin countries of immigrants, who use Morocco as a transit point, are: Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Cameron, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Congo, Togo and Benin.[18] Sub-Saharan immigrants before arriving in the Maghreb may pass through many countries, and their trans-Saharan journey may take months or years.[19] The Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania) remain their last transit point to Europe. Therefore, in its fight against irregular immigration, the EU is interested in cooperating more with the Maghreb countries because of their location on the Southern Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. This externalization of migration control takes various forms,[20] the most important of which are: Tightening control on the external EU borders with advanced security systems such as FRONTEX; increasing cooperation with origin and transit countries by different mechanisms, including readmission agreements, and outsourcing migration management aimed at controlling immigration flows at all stages of the immigrants’ journey, not just until they reach the EU borders.

In order to effectively engage third countries, the EU adopted important decisions in the 2002 Seville summit, which concluded that any future association agreement between the EU and any country, “should include a clause on joint management of migration flows and on compulsory readmission in the event of illegal immigration.”[21] Despite the pressure exerted by EU and the support provided to non-state members, including Morocco,[22] the externalization of migration control has faced difficulties not only in engaging third countries that still hesitate to become ‘border guards’ for Europe but also in preventing irregular immigrants and asylum seekers, who are constantly looking for new ways to reach Europe, sometimes by circumventing legal procedures, such as overstaying the temporary visas. The persistence of irregular immigration flows to Spain, whether by boat from the southern shores of the Mediterranean (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) or from the Atlantic coast (southern Morocco and Mauritania) towards the Canary Islands, as well as entering by land to Ceuta and Melilla, indicates the limited effectiveness of the externalization of migration policy.



Although the EU external governance of migration made the attempt to irregularly enter Ceuta and Melilla difficult, arduous and costly, it could not stop immigrants in the countries of origin. It only gradually turned Morocco to a destination country, because a large number of irregular immigrants who can neither reach Europe nor return to their home countries often end up permanently residing in Morocco.

It is expected that the recent improvement of relations between Morocco and Spain will be reflected in their joint management of border security and irregular migration. Therefor, it is very likely that there will be greater involvement of Morocco in the EU migration strategy, in which Spain is a major player being it one of the EU countries most directly affected by irregular immigration.However, this depends on how future Spanish governments will deal with the understanding that the current government has achieved with Morocco in other economic and political affairs, especially the Western Sahara issue. As a matter of fact, irregular migration will remain an essential element in regional relations in the western Mediterranean, a factor that may enhance regional cooperation, and at the same time a factor of tension when misunderstanding and mutual distrust prevail.

Given the nature of the regional sub-system in the Maghreb, especially the constant tension in Morocco-Algeria relations, no significant success is expected for multilateral mechanisms in the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership that were previously tried. Accordingly, bilateral cooperation remains the most pragmatic framework for both Spain and Morocco to manage irregular immigration. Therefore, the establishment of a permanent body for border security between the two countries, whose tasks include the management of irregular migration, is necessary to ensure the effectiveness and stability of cooperation.



[1] Said Saddiki, “Border Fences as an Anti-immigration Device: A Comparative View of American and Spanish Policies.” In Borders, Fences and Walls: State of Insecurity?, edited by Elisabeth Vallet (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2014), pp.181-182.

[2] Since the reopening of the Ceuta and Melilla crossings in May 2022, only Schengen visa holders, EU residents, and cross-border workers can pass through the crossings of the two cities.

[4] Ministerio De Asuntos Exteriores, Acuerdo entre el Reino de España y el Reino de Marruecos relativo a la circulación de personas, el tránsito y la readmisión de extranjeros entrados ilegalmente, BOE No 100, April 25, 1990,

[4] Giles Tremlett, “Spanish Troops Recapture Parsley Island,” The Guardian, July 28, 2002,

[5] Reuters, “Morocco escalates row with Spain over Western Sahara,” Reuters, May 27, 2021,

[6] Xavier Ferrer-Gallardo and Lorenzo Gabrielli, “The Ceuta Border Peripeteia: Tasting the Externalities of EU Border Externalization,” Journal of Borderlands Studies, Vol. 37, Issue 3 (March 2022): pp. 1-2.

[7] Ministerio del Interior, Inmigración Irregular 2021, Informe Quincenal, 2021,

[8] Stefan Alscher, “Knocking at the Doors of ‘Fortress Europe’: Migration and Border Control in Southern Spain and Eastern Poland,” Working Papers, UC San Diego, October 18, 2017,

[9] Ministerio del Interior, Inmigración Irregular 2021, Informe Quincenal, 2021, op.cit.

[10] Loi n° 02-03 relative à l’entrée et du séjour des étrangers au Royaume du Maroc, à l’émigration et l’immigration irrégulières, Bulletin Officiel n° 5162 du Jeudi 20 Novembre 2003,

[11] Reuters, “Hundreds of Migrants Scale Fence in Spain’s Melilla Enclave for Second Day,” Reuters, March 3, 2022,

[12] Laura J. Varo, “Migrant Dies During Mass Border Crossing in Spanish City of Melilla,” October 22, 2018,

[13] Xavier Ferrer Gallardo, “The Spanish–Moroccan Border Complex: Processes of Geopolitical, Functional and Symbolic Rebordering,” Political Geography, Vol. 27, Issue 3 (March 2008), pp. 301-321.

[14] Kingdom of Morocco, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Joint Statement Adopted at the End of Talks between HM King Mohammed VI, President of Spanish Government Pedro Sanchez,” op.cit.

[15] Kingdom of Morocco, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Joint Statement Adopted at the End of Talks between HM King Mohammed VI, President of Spanish Government Pedro Sanchez,” April 7, 2022,

[16] International Organization for Migration, World Migration Report 2022,

[17] International Organization for Migration, Four Decades of Cross-Mediterranean Undocumented Migration to Europe: A Review of the Evidence (Geneva: IOM, 2017), p.9.

[18] Driss El Ghazouani, “A Growing Destination for Sub-Saharan Africans, Morocco Wrestles with Immigrant Integration,” Migration Policy Institute,  July 2, 2019,

[19] International Organization for Migration, Irregular Migration from West Africa to the Maghreb and the European Union: An Overview of Recent Trends (Geneva: IOM, 2008), p.17.

[20] Said Saddiki and Meryem Lakhdar, “Open Internal Borders and Closed External Borders in the EU,” In Open Borders: In Defense of Free Movement, edited by Reece Jones (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2019), pp.172-174.

[21] Council of the EU, the Presidency Conclusions of the Seville European Council (21-22 June 2002),

[22] European Commission, “Western Mediterranean Route: EU reinforces support to Morocco,” December 14, 2018,

Said Saddiki

Said Saddiki

Said Saddiki is currently a professor of international relations at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University, Fez, Morocco. He served as professor at Al-Ain University of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi, UAE, from September 2012 to July 2019. He is the author of six books, including “World of Walls: Structure, Roles and Effectiveness of Separation Barriers” (2017) and “The State in a Changing World: Nation-State and New Global Challenges” (in Arabic) (2008). He has received a number of international awards and grants, including Fulbright Visiting Scholarship, Research Fellowship at the NATO Defense College in Rome and the Arab Prize in the Social Sciences and Humanities. He is currently interested in separation border barriers, foreign policy analysis, the Western Sahara dispute and Moroccan political issues.

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