Following a court in Ceuta suspending for 72 hours from Monday* the repatriation of unaccompanied child migrants who crossed into the Spanish enclave city in May, Spanish officials have been seeking to justify their policy of sending them back to Morocco, and to show that it is not breaking the law. [*Please note, the suspension is still on-going, pending further court procedures].
In May, hundreds of unaccompanied minors were among a surge of 10,000 people who tried to enter Spain’s North African enclave by scaling a border fence or swimming around it. Morocco has since taken back most of the adult migrants but specifically 740 unaccompanied minors remained.
Last Friday, Spanish authorities began sending them back to Morocco in groups of 15, triggering an outcry from human rights groups. 45 minors have already been returned. 28 organisations, including Amnesty and Save he Children, wrote to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez urging him to end the repatriations immediately. They insist the returns are illegal because they are done in groups, without prior warning and without a hearing or the provision of legal counsel.
Amnesty International has asked prosecutors to look into the Spanish government’s conduct over the young migrants’ repatriation, while Save the Children has urged Spanish authorities to assess the needs of each child and not deport them in groups. According to Save the Children data, about a quarter of the migrant children it interviewed in Ceuta had suffered abuse in their homeland.
Spain is legally obliged to care for young migrants until their relatives can be located or until they turn 18, but Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said on Tuesday that the returns were taking place under a 2007 agreement between Spain and Morocco for assisted returns, once children’s cases had been considered. Morocco had given ‘assurances’ that the minors’ rights will be respected, he said.
The interior minister said on Monday that the child migrants ‘wanted to go home’ and denied accusations by rights groups that the returns breach international law. He told the Cadena SER radio station the the return of the children from Ceuta was ‘not an expulsion’.
‘We are returning the ones that are returnable,’ Grande-Marlaska also said in an interview with Spanish public radio RNE on Tuesday. ‘They are not at risk.’
The head of the Ceuta government, Juan Jesús Vivas, acknowledged that the 2007 agreement does not set out specific rules but states that Spain and Morocco have to agree on how to proceed with returns.
Regardless of whether an individual written assessment has been made of each child, he said, for the past three months the minors who have been returned have been accompanied by qualified professionals and no child classified by them as vulnerable has been sent back to Morocco.
The mass migrant episode took place in May after Spain agreed to provide medical treatment for the Sahrawi leader heading the fight for an independent Western Sahara, which was annexed by Morocco in the 1970s. Rabat reacted furiously and recalled its ambassador in Madrid.