Moroccans who come and go from Europe to their country for holidays will have to go via France and Italy, as they did last year

Marruecos evita de nuevo la Operación Paso del Estrecho

AFP/MARCOS MORENO - File photo, people waiting to board the ferries to Ceuta and Tangier in the port of Algeciras

In the heart of the diplomatic crisis with Spain due to the reception of Polisario leader Brahim Ghali and the passage of thousands of young Moroccans across the Ceuta border, Morocco's announcement to avoid Spanish ports again for their fellow citizens travelling from Europe to their homes this summer for health reasons and COVID-19 causes some surprise among the Spanish companies that will be affected, especially shipping companies, ports and service stations and hotels along the route from the Spanish borders with France to the ports of embarkation on the southern Spanish coast. For example, the Ceuta port would lose 1.2 million euros in port taxes alone, which it did earn in 2019, with more than 300,000 Moroccans using it. And other related businesses such as hotels and travel agencies would lose, according to some estimates, about half of their annual income.

The measure announced a few hours ago specifies that only vessels coming from France, from the port of Sete, and from Genoa in Italy will be allowed to arrive, as last year, and with the same sanitary conditions, a PCR test at embarkation and another on board.

Technical Communication

Official media consulted stress that the communication issued is exclusively technical and refers to sanitary reasons, as it was the case a year ago. They indicate that they have no information on whether this decision is, in principle, linked to the diplomatic crisis between Spain and Morocco, nor whether it should be considered as another pressure measure by Rabat, along with some migratory flows to force negotiations with the Spanish Government so that it decides to support Morocco's offer to grant broad autonomy to the Sahara under its sovereignty. An option that in December of last year was supported by President Trump's US Administration and which the new Biden Administration has not reversed. They followed in the footsteps of Morocco in resolving the 45-year-old Sahara conflict that has kept more than 150,000 Sahrawis and other sub-Saharan Africans living in inhumane conditions in the Tindouf camps, with Algeria's support for the Polisario Front. 

Coches aparcados frente a un quiosco de venta de billetes para los transbordadores con destino a Ceuta y Tánger, cerca de Algeciras, el 8 de agosto de 2013

The Moroccan Foreign Ministry issued three communications during Polisario leader Brahim Ghali's stay, expressing its great dissatisfaction with the Spanish government's decision, which had not been properly communicated or explained, and, in the third communication, stressing that the Moroccan position was that just as Morocco had done with the crisis over the Catalan independence movement in Spain, defending the territorial integrity of its neighbour and privileged partner, it was now demanding the same treatment from Spain towards Morocco's territorial integrity with respect to the Sahara.

Since Brahim Ghali's departure from Spain on 1 June, there has been no information on any possible contact, initiative or intermediation that would allow Spain and Morocco to recover the confidence and relations that existed before the crisis.

Personas esperan para embarcar en los ferris con destino a Ceuta y Tánger en el puerto de Algeciras el 8 de agosto de 2013
No Crossing of the Strait in 2020

Last year, by common agreement, the Spanish and Moroccan authorities decided to suspend the so-called Crossing the Strait Operation, known in Morocco as Operation Marhaba (welcome in Arabic) which, in the previous year, 2019, had an overall balance of 3,243,045 round trips and 760,215 vehicles, including several destinations in Algeria. The operation involves 21,000 people and represents tens of millions of euros.

The Spanish ports used were Algeciras, Tarifa, Alicante, Almeria, Malaga, Motril and Valencia for the departure journey, and the ports used for the return journey were Alhucemas, Algiers, Ceuta, Ghazouet, Melilla, Mostaganem, Nador, Oran, Tangier-Med and Tangier-Ville.

The companies affected are Balearia, Transmediterranea, Intershiping, FSR and AML (Äfrica Morocco Link).

Morocco has taken this decision in addition to closing its borders with Ceuta and Melilla more than a year ago, with the official justification of preventing infection. Furthermore, the Maghreb country had decreed the closure of flights of airlines from 41 countries until 10 June as a complementary measure to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, as of 15 June, foreign flights are returning according to two lists of countries depending on the severity of the pandemic. A zone A with less seriousness, which includes Spain, European countries and the United States, only requires a PCR test 48 hours in advance. And a zone B with countries where the situation is much more serious.

The Rabat Government has always adopted very strict restrictive measures from the moment the pandemic was first announced at the beginning of 2020, and the results are that the number of deaths has not reached 10,000. In addition, it has achieved a fairly extensive vaccination campaign among its population, with more than 5 million of its citizens vaccinated with the two doses.

Operation Crossing the Strait represents the largest movement of citizens and vehicles between two continents, Europe and Africa, between the months of June and September and requires an organisational and operational structure; a fleet plan adapted to the needs; sizing of port supply and capacities; security arrangements; social and health services; rest areas, road information, road safety and information systems.

El ministro de Asuntos Exteriores de Marruecos, Nasser Bourita, asiste a una rueda de prensa conjunta en la capital, Rabat, el 24 de enero de 2020
A complex 21,000-strong workforce

To understand the magnitude of this system, it is important to remember what is involved in organising the OPE each year. It is a complex mechanism and an example of coordination between different bodies made up of more than 21,000 people that is launched each summer to manage the largest regulated migration of the year between Europe and Africa, under the direction of the Ministry of the Interior's sub-secretariat and the coordination of the General Directorate of Civil Protection and Emergencies.

In total, 11 general directorates, four government delegations and six sub-delegations, two autonomous communities, 14 city councils and the nine ports of embarkation are involved in the OPE: Algeciras and Tarifa in Cadiz, Malaga, Motril (Granada), Almeria, Alicante, Valencia, Ceuta and Melilla. On the human side, members of the State Security Forces and Corps, the General Directorate of Traffic, State Ports, medical staff, translators and Red Cross workers.

The aim is to ensure maximum fluidity in boarding and the safety of travellers, who in 2019 had seven shipping companies with 34 vessels and a huge health and social deployment.