Madrid - Morocco has turned a blind eye to thousands of migrants heading to Spain's Ceuta enclave in order to pressure Madrid to recognise its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, analysts say.
Some 8,000 migrants have since Monday swum or used tiny inflatable boats to cross unimpeded into the tiny territory from neighbouring Morocco, sparking a crisis for Madrid.
The surge in arrivals comes after Rabat expressed anger last month over Spain's decision to admit the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, to a Spanish hospital to be treated for Covid-19.
The Algeria-backed Polisario Front has long fought for Western Sahara's independence from Morocco. A desert region the size of Britain, it was a Spanish colony until 1975.
In a strongly worded statement, Morocco's foreign ministry accused Spain of admitting Ghali under a false identity without informing Rabat and warned of repercussions for ties between the countries.
Moroccan authorities saw the hospitalisation in Spain of Ghali, "the leader of their main enemy," as a "very hostile decision", said Irene Fernandez-Molina, an international relations professor at the University of Exeter.
Rabat is also using the Ghali affair as a "pretext" to pile pressure on Madrid to follow Washington's lead and change its policy on Western Sahara, "which is the top issue always for Moroccan foreign policy," she added.
In December the United States under former president Donald Trump became the first Western country to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara in exchange for Rabat's normalisation of relations with Israel.
- 'Strong card' -
The "expectation of Moroccan authorities since" then has been that other Western nations would do the same, said Feranandez-Molina, an expert on the Western Sahara conflict.
"In the case of Spain, Morocco has a very strong card to play which is migration control," she told AFP.
Before the influx of migrants to Ceuta, Spain was already grappling with a surge in migrant arrivals on the Canary Islands off the Moroccan coast.
Last year more than 23,000 migrants reached the archipelago, a figure eight times higher than in 2019, interior ministry figures show.
And this year, the arrivals so far have more than doubled the number for the same period in 2020.
Spain has tried to appear neutral on the Western Sahara issue. It maintains a solution to the issue can only come from an agreement brokered by the United Nations.
Spain's foreign ministry has said it allowed Ghali in for "strictly humanitarian" reasons.
Ignacio Cembrero, a Spanish journalist seen as an expert on the Western Sahara, said Spain's position is important to Morocco because "it is the former colonial power" in Western Sahara.
"And its voice in the United Nations, even if it is not on the Security Council, would always be listened to," he told AFP.
- 'Very sensitive' -
Morocco in March already suspended its repatriation flights of migrants from the Canaries, Cembrero said.
Mohamed Benaissa, the head of the North Observatory for Human Rights in the Moroccan border town of Fnideq, said Monday's influx "could be linked to the diplomatic crisis between Morocco and Spain" over the Western Sahara.
Isaías Barrenada, an international relations professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, said Morocco had sent a "strong message" by allowing the migrant surge in Ceuta.
"The message is: 'without Morocco's cooperation in the control of migrants, Spain has a problem so Spain should listen to Morocco's demands'," he told AFP.
Spanish security forces try to push back migrants arriving in Ceuta
"Spain, like any other European nation, is very sensitive to this type of pressure because it has an internal political cost."
After calling off a trip to Paris, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez arrived Tuesday in Ceuta, vowing to "restore order" as soon as possible.
Eduard Soler, a North Africa expert at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, said Morocco has a long history of "using the migration card to exert pressure on Spain".
"It is not as if Morocco does not have the capacity to control its borders. Morocco decides to be more or less strict in the control of its border depending on the status of its relationship" with Spain, he added.
By Daniel Silva