Spain wrangles with migrant laws as border pressure persists

FILE - In this May 19, 2021 file photo, migrants are surrounded by Spanish security forces on a beach after arriving at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, near the border of Morocco and Spain. A group of at least 40 migrants has attempted to swim from Morocco into Ceuta, throwing stones at Spanish police. The attempt to reach European soil came as top Spanish officials wrestled Wednesday Aug. 25, 2021 with legal issues over what to do with hundreds of unaccompanied minors who got into Ceuta from Morocco three months ago. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue, File)
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Associated Press

MADRID (AP) — A group of at least 40 migrants attempted to swim from Morocco into Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta and threw stones at Spanish police, local media reported as top officials wrestled Wednesday with what to do with hundreds of unaccompanied minors who got into Ceuta from Morocco three months ago.

Migrants trying to reach European soil swam around a fenced breakwater after nightfall Tuesday and confronted Spanish police officers, one of whom was slightly injured by a stone, local media reported.

Attempts to enter Ceuta by people from sub-Saharan Africa are not uncommon and have led to tension between Spain and Morocco over whether the government in Rabat is doing enough on its side of the border to stop them.

Both countries police a wide buffer zone around the fenced breakwater.

Cooperation with Morocco is crucial for Spanish authorities trying to hold back large numbers of migrants who mass at the border and look for chances to get across. Spain is also under pressure from migrants trying to reach its Canary Islands by boat from northwestern Africa.

Some 10,000 migrants descended on Ceuta in May by either scaling the border fence or swimming around it. Among them were hundreds of unaccompanied minors, who have been in Ceuta since then.

The head of the Ceuta regional government, Juan Jesús Vivas, said Wednesday the children are living in “inappropriate conditions,” with most housed in temporary installations but some sleeping in the street.

Officials in Ceuta, which covers about 18 square kilometers (7 square miles) and has a population of around 85,000, say they can’t cope with a large number of migrants who enter without authorization.

“The situation in Ceuta is truly unsustainable,” Vivas said during a news conference, referring to the migrant pressure on the enclave. He said Ceuta felt like it was “at the edge of an abyss” and needs “immediate solutions.”

Earlier this month, Spanish authorities began sending the minors back to Morocco, triggering an outcry from migrant rights associations that argued the returns were illegal because they were done in groups, without prior warning and without a hearing or the provision of legal counsel.

A Spanish court suspended the practice pending legal arguments by the government, which insisted the children were sent back under a 2007 agreement with Morocco for assisted returns once minors’ cases are considered.

But a court on Tuesday kept the prohibition in place, leaving officials uncertain about how to proceed.

Vivas, the Ceuta chief, met Wednesday in Madrid with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in an effort to find a legal solution to the stalemate.

He said Sánchez gave him assurances that the government will employ all its legal resources to ensure the minors are returned to Morocco. Vivas said no other possible solution is on the table.