Several thousand migrants reached the Spanish exclave of Ceuta in North Africa by swimming along the coastline in the Mediterranean Sea from the Moroccan town of Fnideq, local media reported on Monday.
Authorities in Ceuta, with a population of about 85,000, have been overwhelmed by the influx of people. The land border with Morocco is blocked by a 10-metre-high double metal fence that’s hard to scale.
But Moroccan police reportedly did not intervene as at least 5,000 people swam almost 2 kilometres across, Spanish and Moroccan media reported. Most were reportedly Moroccans.
At least one migrant drowned, the Ceuta newspaper El Faro reported.
The Moroccan government is reportedly annoyed that Spain allowed the entry of Brahim Ghali, secretary general of the Polisario Front movement, which seeks the independence of North Africa’s disputed Western Sahara. Ghali has been treated for coronavirus since April.
The Spanish daily El Pais wrote that never before had so many people come to Ceuta at once.
It spoke of a “highway on the sea.” Most of the people who arrived are men, but there are also women and families.
According to unconfirmed media reports, migrants from countries south of the Sahara also headed for Ceuta in the city of Tangier. The Spanish government sent 200 additional police officers to the exclave.
The authorities in Ceuta were overwhelmed by the new arrivals.
“On Sunday there were about 70 people in the reception centre for illegal migrants. I don’t know what to do with the people or where to put them,” El Pais quoted a local official as saying.
A total of 128 Moroccans swam to Ceuta in a smaller exodus late last month. Most of them were sent back to Morocco.
It is expected that most of Tuesday’s arrivals will also be repatriated.
Morocco took over Western Sahara in 1975 after Spain withdrew from the region and claims the area as part of its territory.
The breakaway Polisario Front seeks the territory’s independence.
Complicating matters is the fact that former US president Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. Since then, tensions have increased between Morocco and European countries that criticized Trump’s decision.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR says that a total of 416 migrants have been counted in Ceuta since the start of the year.