29th Sep 2023

A year after EU's €500m Morocco package, what has changed?

  • The Morocco/Ceuta border, photographed in 2018 (Photo: EUobserver)
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One year ago, on 15 August, 2022, the European Union stated it would increase its funding to Morocco by €500m, as part of their renewed commitment to strengthen their cooperation against irregular migration in July of the same year.

The decision came after Morocco and Spain mended diplomatic ties following years of stagnation, mainly due to the Western Saharan issue. That was a period during which the lack of clear cooperation at borders served as a reminder to Spain and the EU of the importance of the north African country: in May 2021, 6,000 people crossed the land border in Ceuta on a single day as Moroccan guards stood by without reacting.

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  • A detention centre in Morocco (Photo: EUobserver)

In February 2023, seven months after the cooperation between Spain and Morocco was reaffirmed and more European funding was allocated to strengthening anti-migration efforts from the Moroccan side, the Spanish government seemed satisfied. It published a statement saying that the number of irregular arrivals had decreased by 69 percent.

But, what has really changed in a year after that triple cooperation and funding agreement? And, what are the consequences these have had in people risking their lives to reach Europe?

Less arrivals, more dead and missing

Neither EUobserver nor sources from the Migration Policy Institute have been able to find budget spending information for the increase in European funding.

Publicly, it has not been specified what specific projects this funding has gone towards. However, Helena Maleno, founder of the NGO Walking Borders, has a clear perspective.

"What we have seen in this period is that the €500m are invested in increasingly militarised and violent migratory controls against migrants" Maleno tells EUobserver.

"We have witnessed boats that Moroccan forces have shot at on their departure, [...] there has been an increase in the mortality rates of the boats that have left. The Spanish state speaks of a decrease in the rate of arrivals, but the deaths have been equal or even exceeded those of the previous period."

In fact, information provided by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) confirms that the last two years have been the deadliest on record of border fatalities of people trying to reach Spain. In the first seven months of 2023 alone, 1,221 dead and missing people have been recorded, a number close to the total of 2022. And this year still has more than four months to go.

Francesca Fusaro, who monitors the situation at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta with the NGO No Name Kitchen, shares a similar testimony. "The truth is that we have had a very hard winter, almost every day we found bodies of Moroccans on the beach, always very young, who had tried to cross swimming" she confesses. "We have spent months finding bodies almost daily."

She also does not know for sure where the new funding to prevent migration is going to, but claims that Moroccan guards have become harsher: making impossible the land route and leading migrants to swim from further distances, and more likely to die.

Border externalisation practices are now the norm

The outsourcing of border management to non-EU bordering countries, also known as border externalisation, is what we are seeing in Morocco. If it is now reaching a peak of violence (like the one witnessed during the Melilla massacre in June 2022, when 37 people died), this practice is not new.

"For years, European leaders have failed to reach an agreement to reform their common asylum system" Camille Le Coz, associate director of the Migration Policy Institute's Europe branch, tells EUobserver. "Instead, they have turned to external partners to work out how they could help increase border controls and limit the number of migrants reaching EU territory".

"The most recent example is the agreement EU reached with Tunisia, which includes a wide range of measures, from boosting returns from Tunisians without the right to stay in the EU to legal pathways for Tunisian workers and the return of third-country nationals from Tunisia" Le Coz adds, drawing on another recent example which has followed Morocco's path, but there are more.

"The EU previously reached agreements with Egypt, Libya, Turkey, and also countries in the Western Balkans. These deals vary in nature but are driven by the same rationale: limit the number of migrants arriving in Europe" she states.

Farewell to Ceuta and Melilla's Schengen exception. Hello smart borders

This willingness to limit the number of non-European citizens entering the continent has even led Spain to neglect some legal responsibilities under the Schengen agreement with respect to its enclaves in Morocco.

"The cities of Ceuta and Melilla are not part of the Schengen area, by virtue of the special regime in force since Spain joined the Schengen area" Mouati, international relations expert and responsible for cooperation programmes between Spain and Morocco, points out to EUobserver. "But there is a tacit agreement between the Spanish government and the Moroccan government to limit the access of Moroccan citizens without visas to these cities".

As Mouati explains, Ceuta and Melilla constituted an exception under the Schengen agreement whereby access to the two cities was allowed to citizens residing in the neighbouring provinces of both Tetuan, in the case of Ceuta, or Nador in the case of Melilla.

Following a temporary closure of the border because of the Covid pandemic, and an extension motivated by diplomatic stagnation as scandals related to the Polisario Front came up, the nature of the border cities changed forever.

"It is known that the EU has increased funding in recent years to build a 'smart border', which would function as an airport, with controls and scanners for the bodies entering, facial recognition…" Fusaro, from No Name Kitchen, adds.

For Eduardo de Castro, former president of the autonomous city of Ceuta, "the border with Morocco should be like that of any other country outside the European Union".

It's a logic that ignores the particular nature of these two cities, which used to see the crossing of 20,000 people and 3,000 vehicles daily before 2020 for work and family purposes, and one that Fusaro considers only paves the floor for a 'false reopening': "In the end, it is a reopening only for those who have a red passport and those who have a Schengen visa".

A year after €500m promise, what is there to learn?

Although Spanish interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska might be right in stressing that "Spain is the only country of first entry in the EU to record a decrease in its migratory routes" thanks to its cooperation with Morocco, we have seen how the number of dead and missing has risen, as well as how Europe becomes less accessible to those fleeing from hardship.

For activist Maleno, who was prosecuted in Morocco for helping people risking their lives in embarkations, "these are not packages that, as they sell, want to control migration, these packages only serve the business of the states".

Elaborating on this point, Maleno argues that these are business packages of large companies investing in the migration control industry, "many of them being European arms sales companies that make a very important political lobby in Brussels" — a tactic confirmed by a Cambridge University investigation into the arms lobby's undue influence over migration policies.

But these packages also seem to serve as a mechanism to keep the European Union's image of an accepting and welcoming institution committed to democracy and human rights.

As analyst Mouati puts it, "unfortunately, sometimes Europe washes its hands of the situation and it is other countries that have to assume the consequences of tragedies that are the result of the lack of a clear, realistic and global vision of the migratory phenomenon".

For Le Coz from the Migration Policy Institute, the EU is right that it needs to work with third countries to better manage migration, however, she thinks that "doing so requires migration partnerships that are more balanced and reflect the need of migrants, host communities, as well as communities of origin. Thus, migration cooperation should involve legal pathways, facilitating remittance transfers and other engagements of diaspora groups, as well as providing shelter to populations in need of international protection".

Especially at a time when conflicts in different parts of the world are forcing populations to leave, when economic shocks have led many to search for work opportunities abroad, and when the World Bank estimates that 216 million people across six regions will need to migrate internally by 2050; what Maleno encourages states to pursue are "policies of life".

Avoiding agreements such as the one announced one year ago today between Spain, Morocco and the European Union, which she claims to consist of "policies of securitisation and of death".

Author bio

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in the Middle Eastern and North Africa, environmental matters, and migration at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for The New Arab, Al Jazeera, Oxfam Intermón,, and others.

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