Spain's prime minister flew to the country's North African enclave Tuesday to contain a migration crisis with neighboring Morocco after 6,000 migrants swam or walked over the border.
Spain deployed troops and extra police to repel crowds who were trying to get around security fences from Morocco into the tiny Spanish territory after a huge incursion of migrants the day before.
Videos emerged that appeared to show Moroccan soldiers opening security gates to let migrants through to the Spanish port city.
“This sudden arrival of irregular migrants is a serious crisis for Spain and Europe,” said Pedro Sanchez in a televised address to the nation before travelling to Ceuta and Melilla, another Spanish enclave bordering Morocco.
European Union leaders backed Spain, saying the mass incursion in Ceuta was a breach of the bloc's borders.
European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas called for a “strong protection of our borders.”
Experts suggested this huge influx, which included entire families, was an attempt by Morocco to pressure Spain to alter its policy toward Western Sahara, the disputed territory to which Rabat lays claim.
Morocco and Spain have been mired in a diplomatic dispute over the presence in Spain of a Polisario Front leader, whose movement has fought for the independence of Western Sahara.
The leader, Brahim Ghali, is receiving treatment at a hospital in Logroño in northern Spain, after he was diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The Polisario Front fought a long war against Morocco to win the independence of the disputed Western Saharan territory, which was a Spanish colony until 1975.
Rabat claims the territory as part of Morocco partly as it contains important deposits of phosphates, but the Polisario Front has demanded an independence referendum.
Ignacio Cembrero, a Spanish journalist who writes frequently on Morocco, said Rabat had relaxed security measures on the border with Ceuta to try to force Madrid to change its stance on Western Sahara.
“The Moroccan foreign minister, Naser Burita, said in January that Rabat wanted Spain to change its policy to support Moroccan claims over Western Sahara. This is how it puts pressure on Madrid,” he told VOA.
Spain has long maintained a solution to the dispute can only come from an agreement brokered by the United Nations.
Moroccan Foreign Minister Naser Burita asked last week whether Spain wanted to “sacrifice relations with Morocco” by failing to inform Rabat of Ghali's presence in Spain.
Analysts said it appeared Morocco was playing a familiar game by relaxing its border controls to prove a political point against its neighbor Spain.
“What has happened in Ceuta is another example of how Morocco plays with migration as a manner to pursue its own interests. The EU should not give ground faced with this pressure,” Estrella Galan, director of the non-profit Spanish Commission to Aid Refugees, told VOA.
Spain's foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, dismissed claims the arrival of thousands of Moroccans in Ceuta was linked to the row over Ghali.
“I cannot speak for Morocco, but what they told us a few hours ago, this afternoon, is that this is not due to the disagreement over Ghali,” she told Cadena Ser, a Spanish radio station. “Spain has been very clear and detailed about the (Ghali) case. It is simply a humanitarian issue.”