The move comes after more than 6,000 migrants swam from the North African country into Spanish enclave of Ceuta, deepening a diplomatic spat between Rabat and Madrid.
Spain has deployed its military to the Moroccan border after thousands of Moroccans took advantage of their government's relaxed border controls to swim or paddle in inflatable boats onto European soil.
Live footage on Spain’s public broadcaster TVE showed dramatic scenes of soldiers carrying children in their arms and Red Cross personnel helping migrants who were emerging from the water exhausted and cold. One unconscious woman laid on the sand before she was carried away on a stretcher.
The sudden influx of migrants has deepened the diplomatic spat between Rabat and Madrid and created a humanitarian crisis for Ceuta, the Spanish city of 85,000 that lies in North Africa on the Mediterranean Sea, separated from Morocco by a double-wide, 10-metre (32-feet) fence.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez canceled a trip to Paris, where he was to attend a summit on international aid to Africa, to turn his focus to the crisis with Morocco.
By Tuesday morning, at least 6,000 sea-soaked people had crossed the border into Ceuta since the first arrivals began early Monday, the Spanish government said, including 1,500 thought to be teenagers. The number getting in appeared to have slowed but didn't stop Tuesday as Spain deployed additional police and soldiers to the border.
READ MORE: Record number of migrants reach Spain's Ceuta enclave in one day
'Great quantities of people' wait to enter
“It’s such a strong invasion that we are not able to calculate the number of people that have entered,” said Juan Jesus Vivas, the president of Ceuta, an autonomous city of about 20 square kilometres.
“The army is in the border in a deterrent role, but there are great quantities of people on the Moroccan side waiting to enter,” he told Cadena SER radio.
One young man drowned on Monday and dozens have been treated for hypothermia. The arriving adults were being transferred to Ceuta’s main soccer stadium as they waited to be returned back to Morocco while those thought to be minors were sent to warehouses run by the Red Cross and other groups.
Several military armoured vehicles parked on Tuesday at Tarajal beach in Ceuta, where the border fence leads to a short breakwater extending into the sea.
In a video shared by a Spanish police union urging authorities to provide more reinforcements, anti-riot officers behind the border fence were using shields to protect themselves from stones being thrown by people in Morocco.
Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said authorities had processed the return of 2,700 migrants by midday Tuesday and that the rest would follow soon because Morocco and Spain signed an agreement three decades ago to return all those who swim into the territory.
It was unclear if that applied to unaccompanied migrants under 18, who are usually allowed to remain legally under the tutelage of Spanish authorities.
My statement in the #EPlenary on the situation in #Ceuta Spain.— Ylva Johansson (@YlvaJohansson) May 18, 2021
Morocco is an important partner for the European Union across many areas & issues, not least effective and orderly migration management.#MigrationEU @UE_au_Maroc @MarocDiplomatie pic.twitter.com/Yypb58Ar7s
The European Union’s top migration official – Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson – described the incidents as “worrying,” and she called on Morocco to prevent people from setting out in the first place.
“The most important thing now is that Morocco continues to commit to prevent irregular departures, and that those who do not have the right to stay are orderly and effectively returned,” Johansson told members of the European Parliament.
“Spanish borders are European borders. The European Union wants to build a relationship with Morocco based on trust and shared commitments. Migration is a key element in this,” she said.
Neither Moroccan authorities in Rabat nor Moroccan officials in the north have commented on the situation or responded to queries by The Associated Press.
READ MORE: Ceaseless deaths at sea point to shortcomings in EU migration policy
Visa for medical treatment
Morocco's loosened border watch came after Spain decided to give a visa for medical treatment to the chief of a militant group that fights for the independence of Western Sahara. Morocco annexed the sprawling region on the west coast of Africa in 1975.
Morocco’s Foreign Ministry has said Madrid’s move to assist Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front that has fought Morocco, was “inconsistent with the spirit of partnership and good neighbourliness” and vowed there would be “consequences.”
Vivas, Ceuta's conservative regional president, said residents were in a state of “anguish, concern and fear.” He linked the sudden mass arrival to Spain's compassionate assistance to Ghali.
READ MORE: Western Sahara's Polisario Front attacks Guerguerat border area
The Spanish government itself, however, officially rejects the notion that Morocco is punishing Spain for a humanitarian move.
“I cannot envisage that putting the lives of young people and minors at risk is in response to a humanitarian issue, I simply cannot conceive it,” Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said late on Monday on the radio.
The prime minister’s office said the government was supporting residents in Ceuta “to ensure their safety and guarantee public order under any circumstances.”
“My priority at this time is to restore normalcy in Ceuta,” Sanchez wrote in a tweet. “Its citizens must know that they have the absolute support of the government of Spain and the utmost firmness to ensure their safety and defend their integrity as part of the country.”
Sanchez was also facing a political storm at home, with the far-right Vox party blaming the migration crisis on the government's “inaction" and sending its leader on a quick visit to Ceuta.
READ MORE: Over 18,000 child migrants have vanished in Europe
Ceuta and Melilla as a gateway
Many African migrants regard Ceuta and nearby Melilla, another Spanish territory, as a gateway into Europe.
In 2020, 2,228 chose to cross into the two enclaves by sea or by land, often risking injuries or death. The year before the figure hit 7,899.
On Tuesday, another 80 African migrants also crossed into Melilla, 350 kilometres east of Ceuta, by jumping over the enclave’s double fence.
Morocco scored a diplomatic victory last year when the previous US administration under Donald Trump recognised Rabat’s sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara to pave the way for normalising relations between Israel and Morocco.
Will recent clashes reignite the Morocco-Western Sahara conflict?