EU gatekeeper Morocco leverages its own interests

A migrant runs across a field in the Spanish enclave of Melilla
For years, Morocco was content to remain a transit country for migrants en route to Europe. A new deal with the EU now aims to curb numbers instead (image: Javier Bernardo/AP/dpa/picture alliance)

Morocco is intensifying its gatekeeper role in EU migration, stopping 87,000 migrants in 2023. Key to the deal is European acceptance of Morocco's claim to disputed Western Sahara

By Jennifer Holleis

Morocco is taking its role as gatekeeper of migration toward Europe increasingly seriously. According to a recent statement by the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces, around 87,000 migrants were stopped in 2023, a steep increase compared to around 56,000 between January and August 2022.

The majority were arrested near Morocco's western coastline, the army stated. From there, the Spanish Canary Islands are only around 100 kilometres away.

Between January and November 2023, however, 56,852 people also arrived on the Canary Islands via that route. This marks a record increase of 82% compared to 2022, according to a recent statement by the European Council. 

However, not all of the arrivals depart from Morocco. Many board small vessels or inflatable boats along the west coast of Africa.

In 2023, a record number of people also drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. According to the Spanish non-profit organisation Caminando Fronteras, most of the 6,618 deaths – more than double the previous year's number – occurred between Morocco and the Canary Islands,

"There are many reasons why the so-called 'Western route' is increasingly being used, above all, because the other routes are even more dangerous," explained Sonja Hegasy, vice director of the German research centre Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient.

Conditions in Libya are much harsher, for instance, as aspiring migrants are brutally pushed back and locked up in inhumane prisons. Other North African countries are not known for their soft handling of migrants either, Hegasy added.

Morocco's migration pact

In the future, Morocco's role as a European Union migration gatekeeper is likely to intensify. After no less than seven years of negotiations, Morocco and the EU finally agreed on a migration pact in December 2023.

Hans Leijtens, executive director of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, promptly paid a visit to Rabat to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with Morocco's border management authorities. "Morocco stands out as a crucial partner in Africa," Leijtens said in a statement

"It is important to stress that while the migration pact has been agreed upon, we're very far from the pact being implemented," Camille Le Coz, associate director at the Migration Policy Institute Europe, pointed out.

"It is a political agreement that will mobilise EU budgets and staff to set up the infrastructure so that the migration pact will become reality in a few years," said Le Coz.

"The equation is that the EU supports Morocco's territorial claim, and Morocco supports Europe's refugee policy," said Sonja Hegasy.

Meanwhile, Moroccan commitment was already being tested in early January 2024. On New Year's Eve, the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces intercepted and arrested around 1,100 Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Yemenis and people from sub-Saharan countries en route to the Canary Islands, as well as to Spain's North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

These two Spanish territories on the northern Moroccan coast are the European Union's only land borders on the African continent.

Sahrawi women walk through Smara refugee camp in Tindouf, southen Algeria
The Sahrawi people have been seeking Western Sahara independence for almost 50 years. Now, however, Morocco has turned the phosphate-rich region into an effective bargaining chip (image: Toufik Doudou/AP/picture alliance)

Western Sahara territory as a bargaining chip

For Morocco, "migration has been a classic pressure card in its negotiations with the European Union," said Sarah Zaaimi, deputy director for communications at the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council.

"In 2020 and 2021, amid a crisis with Spain, Morocco deliberately allowed local and incoming clandestine migrants to storm the borders of the two enclaves Ceuta and Melilla, which resulted in a major panic in the EU and Madrid," Zaaimi added.

However, after around 2,000 people ran towards the border of Melilla, triggering hours of violence and at least 23 deaths in June 2022, a thaw in diplomatic relations took place between Morocco and Spain. "The situation forged the path for reconciliation between Morocco and Spain," said Zaaimi.

In addition to collaborating at the border, Spain agreed to support Rabat's autonomy over Western Sahara – a former Spanish colony largely annexed by Morocco in 1975, which has since become a popular departure point for migrants aiming for the Canary Islands.

Spain was not, however, the first state to accept Western Sahara as Moroccan. In 2020, the United States recognised the region as Moroccan as part of a "quid pro quo" for Rabat's normalisation of diplomatic relations with Israel.

Since then, numerous African consulates have been established. The Gulf states have also supported Rabat's claim on the phosphate-rich region with infrastructure and energy investments.

Moroccan claims on Western Sahara are not recognised by the United Nations and the occupation remains illegal under international law.

Western Sahara is also home to the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, which represents the local Sahrawi people. The Sahrawi have been fighting for their independence for around 50 years. Tensions between Morocco and its neighbour Algeria remain unresolved.

Morocco's foreign policy shift

"Morocco has enforced its political claim on Western Sahara for many decades and probably feels it is on the safe side now, so it can use its refugee policy to exert further pressure to boost domestic development," Hegasy said.

And yet Morocco would not appear to be looking for financial aid. "Recent changes in Moroccan foreign policy show that the kingdom has become much more confident, even aggressive," Atlantic Council's Zaaimi said.

"I find it very hard to believe that Morocco is using migrants to leverage development aid, as the kingdom proved in the way it managed the recent earthquake crisis," she added.

Last September, when a devastating earthquake destroyed parts of Morocco and killed almost 3,000 people, Morocco declined most foreign aid.

"Morocco now favours sovereignty over its old colonial relationships and dependency dynamics with the EU, especially with Rabat diversifying its partners beyond Western countries to include the United Arab Emirates, China, Saudi Arabia, even Russia, Latin America and others," Zaaimi said.

Major investment projects, such as co-hosting the World Cup 2030 together with Portugal, plans for the "Europe-Africa Gibraltar Strait fixed link" – a tunnel under the sea between Spain and Morocco – and attracting industry have become Morocco's priority, she added.

Jennifer Holleis

© Deutsche Welle 2024