Blog post by Prarthana Sen, a Research Intern for the Observer Research Foundation and a Master’s graduate in Political Science from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.


According to Spain’s Ministry of Interior, the country currently hosts around 13,000 child refugees, among whom 68% hail from Morocco, while other arrivals are from countries such as Ivory Coast and Algeria. Significant numbers of Moroccan minors between the ages of 5-17 have been trying to make their way to Spain via the coastal Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, their gateway into Europe.  


It is important to note, however, that Spanish authorities are not aware of all arrivals, as many young refugees resort to hiding out in fear of border control authorities. There have been several reports of abuse, as revealed via investigations conducted by non-governmental organisations and other international bodies like Human Rights Watch, where institutions that have been entrusted with protecting minors turn out to be the very source of abuse.  


Incidents of police brutality have been reported at border areas, where children trying to cross the border have been beaten up by border patrols. Forced displacements have resulted in many children going missing over the years, and the ever-increasing refugee flows occurring during the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a commensurate increase in the number of missing children.  


Reasons for Forced Displacement


Moroccan Economy in Doldrums 


Data reveals that when it comes to the gap in the GDP per capita between both sides of the border, whereas the Spanish GDP per capita stood four times higher than that of Morocco’s in the 1970s, that differential had risen phenomenally to 13 times in 2006. The Covid-19 pandemic has added further duress, pushing more than a million Moroccans to abject poverty as unemployment rates skyrocketed with the economy closing down.  


The coronavirus-induced recession also went on to batter the tourism industry, the revenue of which decreased by 25%. This is considered to be the second-most important sector in the Moroccan economy, following agriculture. While the agricultural sector is the main driver of Morocco’s GDP, low levels of rainfall and pandemic restrictions have added to the vulnerabilities of the agricultural sector.  


Such economic setbacks and bleak prospects have led hundreds of minors to swim all the way to the Spanish enclaves, attempting to pass through Mediterranean breakwaters.  


Soured Ties 


Ties between Spain and Morocco turned sour after Spain granted entry to Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali for his Covid-19 treatment in April 2020. The Polisario Front and the Moroccan government have been at loggerheads for several decades over the phosphate-rich Western Sahara region. The very fact that Ghali was granted access in Spain was something that did not sit well with the Moroccan government.  


Moroccan authorities expressed their discontentment by revealing that there would be ‘consequences’. Reports suggest that as far as 2000 minors made their way to the enclaves in May 2020, and Spain felt that this was because Moroccan authorities purposely lessened their border controls in retaliation to Spain harbouring Brahim Ghali.  


Child Abuse in Morocco 


Morocco has displayed a poor performance with regard to human rights. There is rampant sexual abuse of children within the country and laws for penalising paedophiles remain far from effective. Child labour is also common on Moroccan farms, also reflecting high school dropout rates. Child abuse in Morocco has led to an exodus of child refugees to Spanish enclaves, in search of a safe and secure haven with better opportunities for the future.  


The involvement of NGOs like Save the Children has led to concerning revelations about child abuse that has occurred in Morocco. The NGO collected testimonies of 350 minors who were exposed to criminal trafficking networks and forced marriages, as well as labour exploitation and sexual violence in Morocco.  


The Way Forward


Since both countries are party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, collaborative efforts building upon this shared foundation could help both countries fulfil their commitments under the Convention. For this, Spain and Morocco have to work on their strained ties if they are to coordinate on humanitarian grounds.  


The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child looks into performance of those states that are party to this Convention, and the Committee in its latest findings in 2020 proposed reforms to Spain’s age determination procedures after the Committee found that the country’s assessment procedures had violated children’s rights. For example, there have been cases where Spanish authorities have been found registering minors as adults without following any sort of age assessment procedure.  


Further, reports have indicated that large numbers of minors who have arrived in the Spanish enclaves unaccompanied by adults have been relocated in shelters serving as quarantine facilities, but that many children have opted to slip out of such shelters and have complained of deplorable living conditions, preferring to sleep out in the streets instead. This has made the repatriation of child refugees more difficult as children go missing and are left to fend for themselves.  


NGOs in Spain have called for changes in the country’s immigration laws for several decades, with a central aspect of the demands being the issuance of work and residence permits for young migrants. The lack of access to such permits has led child refugees to often fall into poverty and face legal hurdles once they attain the age of 18. In 2021, a landmark reform was passed by Spanish government authorities on the 19th  of October, which aims to benefit around 15,000 young migrants at present, but there is a lot of ground that remains yet to be covered for resolving this decades-old issue.  


With regard to steps that have been taken up to guarantee protection to the displaced children, it was only recently that bodies such as the Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes (SJM) began offering legal counselling services to child refugees in Melilla. There is need for more active involvement on the part of government bodies, such as the city councils in both countries, for supporting child refugees.  


Active involvement could involve steps such as guaranteeing age determination procedures that are child-friendly and do not violate the rights of children. Since many of these children have been victims of abuse, special care must be taken to ensure their welfare. It is also imperative that councils take up family tracing measures, such as mass tracing where pictures of children are displayed on billboards; case-by-case tracing where searches are carried out in those places where children were last present with their families; and other methods. City councils must ensure that quarantine facilities have proper living conditions for children, discouraging them from going missing by providing them safe shelter until their families can be contacted and they are repatriated. Also, councils can serve as the regulating body for work and residence permits, to ensure that they reach the target beneficiaries on time and the minors can sustain themselves after attaining the age of 18.      



The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.