Ceuta and Melilla: why does Spain own two cities in Africa?

Spanish government wants to remove ‘anti-migrant’ razor wire fences surrounding the enclaves

Spain Morocco
A Spanish policeman patrols the border fence
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Spain’s new interior minister has announced that dismantling barbed wire fences that separate the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco is among his “main priorities”.

Coils of razor blades top some of the fences that surround the two autonomous towns, which as territories of Spain form the only direct land borders between Europe and Africa. Migrants trying to reach European shores frequently try to scale the six-metre barriers, risking serious injury.

Fernando Grande-Marlaska, who became Spain’s interior minister earlier this month, has commissioned a report into finding the “least bloody possible” alternative means of preserving border security.

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But why does Spain own two towns in North Africa - and why are they so controversial?


The port town of Ceuta and its larger sister city Melilla sit around 250 miles apart on the Mediterranean coast of Africa, and their Spanish past traces back more than 400 years, Slate report.

For centuries, Ceuta and Melilla were vital port cities, offering protection for Spanish ships and acting as trading posts between Europe and Africa. In the 1930s, Spanish troops garrisoned in the two cities played a major role in future dictator Francisco Franco’s uprising against their government.

When Morocco gained independence in 1956, following more than four decades of rule by Spain and France, Spain refused to include Ceuta and Melilla in the handover.

Sovereignty issues

Madrid asserts that both territories are integral parts of Spain and have the same status as the semi-autonomous districts on its mainland, such as the Basque and Catalan regions.

However, Morocco has made numerous claims to the territories since gaining independence. In 2002, the dispute turned violent after a small group of Moroccan soldiers set up camp on the Spanish-controlled Parsley Island, 200 metres off the coast of mainland Morocco. They were forcefully removed by the Spanish navy, in a clash that heightened tensions between the two countries.

Spanish King Juan Carlos angered Moroccans by visiting Melilla in 2007. The infuriated then-Moroccan prime minister Abbas El Fassi said: “We would like to remind everyone that the two cities form an integral part of Moroccan soil and their return to their homeland will be sought through direct negotiations with our neighbour Spain.”

Morocco’s King Mohammad VI even briefly recalled his ambassador to Madrid in protest over the Spanish king’s visit to the “occupied territories”, the Daily Express adds.

Barbed wire

The controversial razor wire fences surround the entirety of both enclaves. They were first introduced in 2005, but were removed two years later after an outcry over the wounds sustained by people trying to climb them, the BBC says.

However, in 2013, Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy - who quit earlier this month - “revived the wire after waves of migrants tried to breach the country’s border, a move branded inhumane by political opponents, activists, and senior Catholic bishops”.

In Ceuta alone, 25 migrants have been treated for cuts sustained on the barbed wire so far this year. Ten of them required hospital treatment, according to the Spanish Red Cross.

“We can act before, at the point of origin, but we cannot let it get to that point,” said Grande-Marlaska this week. “It is not reasonable or acceptable to see people jumping over the fence.”

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