CEUTA, SPAIN, (AFP):- A steady trickle of migrants were attempting to cross by water into Spain’s north African enclave of Ceuta on Wednesday, after a record 8,000 people managed to make the crossing this week.
With Spain vowing to “restore order” along the border after the unprecedented influx, scores of soldiers with truncheons and riot shields were deployed along the beaches as a Guardia Civil vessel hovered just off shore to stop anyone trying to cross.
Spain has stepped up diplomatic pressure on Rabat to curb the influx, which comes against the backdrop of soaring tensions with Morocco over Madrid’s decision to provide medical treatment for the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement, who has been seriously ill with Covid-19.
Tensions escalated further on Wednesday as European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas said the continent “won’t be intimidated by anyone” after the migrant surge.
In a veiled reference to Rabat, Schinas said on Spanish radio that Europe would “not be a victim of these tactics”.
Amid the diplomatic tit-for-tat, people continued to gather on the Morocco border with Spain Wednesday.
As the sun rose, a handful of people were swimming to reach the Spanish side, their slow progress carefully watched by dozens of soldiers deployed along the beach with riot shields and batons, according to an AFP correspondent on the scene.
There was no immediate confirmation of how many had managed to cross but those who made it to the shore were immediately picked up by soldiers and escorted to where medics were offering help, although few appeared to need it.
None appeared to be hurt although some appeared exhausted by the effort.
They were then frogmarched back to the border fence where they were sent home.
– ‘Viva Espana’ –
Although the distance between African territory and Europe technically involves a swim of barely 200 metres, many tried to push beyond the nearest beach to avoid the waiting troops.
“Viva Espana” yelled one repeatedly, before starting to call for help in increasingly panicked tones to a nearby rescue boat.
Through the border fence, large crowds of hundreds of people were massed on the neighbouring Moroccan beach.
Sharp cracks rang out as tear gas canisters arched through the air leaving a trail of smoke as they landed on the beach.
By the border post on the Spanish side, a group of some 50 Moroccan youngsters, many of them teenagers, hung around aimlessly, waiting to be sent home.
Few were wearing masks and most seemed to speak only Arabic, with just a token few words of Spanish.
One slept on a stone bench, covered by a red blanket, a tray of half-eaten food at his feet, his hard-won dream of reaching Europe about to end as the heads of dozens more hopefuls bobbed in the water.