Ceuta and Melilla: Spain's enclaves in North Africa

·6 min read
A picture taken from the Moroccan town of Fnideq shows a general view of Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta which lies on the Strait of Gibraltar on August 29, 2020.
Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta

In Morocco they call them the occupied "Sebtah and Melilah". The rest of the world knows them as the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa.

They are the only piece of European territory on mainland Africa - a political and legal reality that has never been recognised by Morocco, which has continued to demand their return, along with four other smaller territories in the Mediterranean all in the narrow strait of Gibraltar.

Last month, an exceptionally large number of migrants crossed the border in one single day - some 8,000, mostly Moroccans. It also emerged that the Moroccan guards had turned a blind eye to the breach.

The incident quickly developed into a diplomatic crisis between Spain and Morocco, prompting the Spanish government to send reinforcements to the territories and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to describe it as an "unprecedented [crisis] in recent years between the EU and Morocco".

As the crisis was unfolding, Moroccans launched a campaign on Twitter, with the slogans: "Ceuta and Melilla is not Spain" and "Ceuta and Melilla are Moroccan - end colonialism".

Spanish soldiers stand guard and intervene as migrants arrived swimming to Spanish territory of Ceuta on May 18, 2021
Spanish forces battled to curb the arrival of migrants in Ceuta and Melilla

Arab media reported on ugly scenes inside Ceuta showing angry altercations between Spanish protesters opposed to migration and Muslim women of Moroccan descent.

"These are not migrants, they are in their own country," one person tweeted.

'A classic case of European colonialism'

Subsequently it emerged that the failure of the Moroccan guards to stop the influx had not been an accident, but rather a deliberate attempt to send a warning message to Spain for hosting Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front, which campaigns for the independence of Western Sahara.

Spain, like most other countries, has never recognised Morocco's claim to the territory, and a Spanish court on Tuesday refused to order Mr Ghali's detention on charges of war crimes, saying there was a lack of evidence against him.

President of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) Brahim Ghali during the manoeuvres of the Democratic Arab Republic of Saharawi army in the fourth military region in the north-east of Western Sahara on January 6, 2019 in Mehaires, Western Sahara
Brahim Ghali sees Morocco as the colonial power in Western Sahara

But there is broad consensus in Morocco that Western Sahara is every bit as Moroccan as Ceuta and Melilla.

Talk of the status of the two cities flares up every now and then, especially in the context of illegal migration.

On the face of it, the Moroccan claim to the territory seems to make perfect sense.

The enclaves are on African soil, while Spain is in Europe. It looks like a classic case of European colonialism.

Ceuta and Melilla - a brief history:

  • 8th Century: Launchpad for Moorish conquest of Iberian peninsular

  • 15th Century: Melilla conquered by Spain

  • 17th Century: Ceuta comes under Spanish rule

  • 1956: Spain retains Ceuta and Melilla after Morocco becomes independent

A quick guide to Ceuta and Melilla

Once you scratch the surface, however, you uncover a host of competing narratives and legal complexities.

Like most territorial disputes, this one comes with a lot of emotional luggage and national pride on either side of the Mediterranean.

Reminder of Muslim 'humiliation'

Arab sources describe Ceuta as the launchpad for the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the 8th Century, an occupation which lasted for 800 years.

The ports were re-captured later in what is known as the Reconquista - the military campaign to evict the Muslims from what is now Spain and Portugal.

A map showing Melilla and Ceuta
A map showing Melilla and Ceuta

Both cities were captured by Spain between the 15th and 16th century - roughly the same time Christopher Columbus was "discovering" America and paving the way for eventual European colonization of both North and South America.

For the Muslims, Ceuta and Melilla are a painful reminder of Muslim defeat and humiliation by rising Western, Christian powers.

"It's a Muslim land no matter for how long the occupation lasts, an old wound that some think has healed, but it continues to bleed and there is no other cure than the re-conquest," is how one Arabic publication describes the sentiment.

Morocco, 1909, Moroccan prisoners lead to Fort Los Camellos, after the Melilla unrest.
Moroccan fighters fought the Spanish in 1909 around Melilla

Even the Arabic Wikipedia describes the two cities as Moroccan under Spanish control.

However, although Morocco went to war to capture Western Sahara after the Spanish evacuated the territory in 1975, its pursuit to regain control of Ceuta and Melilla has been lukewarm at best.

Crucially, Morocco failed to press its case at the UN, to include them among territories that are yet to be decolonized, also known as non-self-governing territories.

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Moroccan political scientist Samir Bennis says after independence from Spain and France, Morocco acted in good faith, assuming the issue would be resolved amicably in the future, but the Spaniards didn't respond in kind.

"On July 6 1963, the late King Hassan II [of Morocco] and General Franco [the ruler of Spain] met in Madrid's Barajas airport to address their pending territorial disputes.

"Morocco agreed to separate the issue of Ceuta and Melilla from the other territorial disagreements, pitting the two countries against each another in the UN Special Political and Decolonization Committee, known as the 4th Committee," he says.

Several people try to reach Spanish soil from the border that separates Melilla and Morocco, 21 May 2021, in Morocco.
A fence separates Melilla and Morocco - and Europe from Africa

Today, Spain rejects categorically any talk of negotiation on the two cities, and insists that they have been Spanish for more than five centuries and that they are an integral part of the Spanish state.

But Mr Bennis questions the Spanish claim on historical and legal grounds.

"From a political and administrative standpoint, for the most part of their history, these two enclaves were not considered full-fledged Spanish cities.

"Their status varied between being military fortification and open-air prisons [presidios] where shadowy people were sent to serve their sentences or were outright disposed of and kept away from the peninsula," he says

But what does international law say on the claim and the counter-claim?

"Under international law, Morocco doesn't have strong claims to Ceuta and Melilla, which have been Spanish for hundreds of years. There are significant legal and political barriers to any change in status of those territories in favour of Morocco," writes Dr Jamie Trinidad of Cambridge University in the UK.

"Politically, the fact that the populations of Ceuta and Melilla wish to remain Spanish is the most significant barrier to any change of status. The idea of Morocco taking over these cities against the wishes of their populations is almost unthinkable in this day and age," he adds.

In other words, even if there were ever a dramatic change in the balance of power and the question of sovereignty was put to the people of Ceuta and Melilla, what are the chances of them ever opting to be ruled by Morocco rather than a European democracy? It's not hard to guess.

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