Posted on June 10, 2021

Morocco ‘Weaponized’ Migration to Punish Spain. That’s More Common Than You Think.

Kelly M. Greenhill, Washington Post, June 1, 2021

On May 17, more than 6,000 people swam, floated or scaled a pair of 32-foot-high border fences to cross from Morocco into neighboring Ceuta, an eight-square-mile Spanish-owned city on Africa’s northern coast. Critically for those seeking to enter, Ceuta is inside European Union territory. According to Spanish authorities, it was the largest single-day influx of unregulated migrants in the country’s history. At least 2,000 more followed the next day.

This wasn’t an accident. Apparently, Morocco engineered this mass cross-border movement to punish and coerce Spain. Video footage appeared to show Moroccan border guards opening fences to the Spanish enclave and allowing people through.

Nor was this unusual. Strategically engineered migration is far more common than most people realize. At any given time, somewhere in the world, leaders inside or outside governments are likely manipulating migrants and/or refugees to pursue political, military or economic objectives. Here’s what we know.


When governments or others “weaponize migration,” they manipulate or exploit the movement of people — or threaten to do so — to achieve a strategic objective. Morocco unleashed a migrant surge on Spain in retaliation for Spain’s decision to admit Brahim Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, for medical treatment. The Polisario Front is a separatist movement battling Morocco for Western Saharan independence.

In the days before opening the border, Morocco indicated that it was planning an “appropriate response” to Spain’s decision to admit Ghali. After the border was again sealed, Morocco’s ambassador to Spain warned that the crisis could worsen, depending on how Spain deals with Ghali going forward. With this, Morocco signaled it wants not just to punish Spain’s decision to admit the rebel leader but also to influence Spain’s future actions.

As my research has detailed, governments and other non-state actors have long weaponized cross-border population movements for their own purposes. This most often entails threatening either to overwhelm a target’s physical capacity to accommodate a mass migration or its society’s political willingness to do so. Such threats can be surprisingly potent.

For instance, former Cuban president Fidel Castro successfully wielded this tool against the United States at least three times to extract political concessions. This happened most famously during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when 125,000 Cubans, including some who were criminals or mentally ill, were dispatched to Florida from the island nation; and arguably still more successfully during the 1994-1995 balseros crisis, when Castro again opened Cuba’s borders after the United States failed to meet his demands.  {snip}


Leaders can actively engineer migration, using the military to generate mass movements. {snip}

Sometimes threats alone are enough. Former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi repeatedly made dramatic promises to “turn Europe black” if the E.U. failed to meet such demands as lifting arms sanctions, providing military and economic aid, or ending support for domestic opposition groups. {snip}


In about three-quarters of the cases I identified, coercers achieved at least some of their objectives. In more than half the cases, coercers obtained all or most of what they sought. Weaponized migration appears to be more effective than either economic sanctions or coercive diplomacy. {snip}