Spain, Morocco at Odds Over Medical Care for Polisario Front Leader Brahim Ghali

An influx of migrants moving into Spain from Morocco is thought to be retaliation against Madrid for providing medical care for the head of the Western Sahara liberation movement, a contested region in southern Morocco.

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said publicly Wednesday that Spain believes Morocco loosened its control control as punishment for helping Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali, which Morocco's Foreign Ministry called "inconsistent with the spirit of partnership and good neighborliness" and vowed there would be "consequences."

In a Facebook post on Tuesday evening, Moroccan minister for human rights, Mostapha Ramid, said Spain's actions were "reckless, irresponsible and totally unacceptable."

"What was Spain expecting from Morocco when it hosted an official from a group that is carrying arms against the kingdom?" he asked.

Ramid clarified to the Associated Press on Wednesday that the comments were not issued on behalf of the Moroccan government, but as a citizen and senior official upset by Spain's decision to host Ghali.

Morocco Spain
A picture taken from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on May 19, 2021 shows migrants walking near the border fence between Morocco and Spain. - A steady stream of migrants tried to swim to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, after a record influx of arrivals sent diplomatic tensions soaring between Madrid and Rabat. Antonio Sempere / AFP/Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Thousands of migrants who have become pawns in a diplomatic spat between Morocco and Spain awoke to an uncertain future on Wednesday, after sleeping where they could find shelter following their massive border breach to reach the European country's north African enclave of Ceuta.

Social services for the small city perched on an outcropping in the Mediterranean buckled under the strain after more than 8,000 people crossed into Spanish territory during the previous two days.

Exhausted by either scaling a double-wide border fence or risking their lives by swimming around a breakwater to reach a beach on the European side, many migrants spent the night in overcrowded warehouses under the gaze of Spanish police.

Spain's Interior Ministry said that it had returned more than half of the migrants. Those included some teenagers who appeared to be under 18 that Associated Press journalists saw Spanish police usher back across the border. Spanish law stipulates that unaccompanied minors must be taken into care by authorities.

"We have never seen such an arrival of this magnitude," Red Cross spokeswoman Isa Brasero told the AP. "The city has the means to take care of all the people that arrive to its shores, but you never imagine that you will face this type of situation."

While Morocco tightened its frontier controls, some people kept coming, forcing Spanish authorities to increase their criticism of counterparts in Rabat.

"This is an act of defiance," Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told Spain's Parliament, a day after he visited Ceuta. "The lack of border control by Morocco is not a show of disrespect of Spain, but rather for the European Union."

Over the decades, Spain has built a close relationship with Morocco to crack down on illegal border crossings, but also to increase economic ties and fight extremism.

"It tears our hearts out to see our neighbors sending children, even babies... (because) they reject a humanitarian gesture on our part," González Laya told Spanish public radio.

Morocco's loosened border watch came after Spain decided to grant entry for medical treatment to the chief of a militant group that fights Morocco for the independence of Western Sahara. Morocco annexed the sprawling region on the west coast of Africa in 1975.

But Moroccan lawmaker Youssef Gharbi, who serves on the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told the AP on Wednesday that the decision to allow Ghali to receive medical treatment: "was the drop that made the cup spill over."

"We cannot cooperate in various fields such as security and trade and at the same time accept a stab in the back," the lawmaker said. "In the past, Morocco stated clearly that it was against the independence of Catalonia. ... We expect Spain to behave in a positive way."

European officials supported Spain with a harsh message for Morocco in a crisis that had echoes of the dispute the EU had with Turkey over the Syrian refuge crisis five years ago.

"Nobody can blackmail the European Union," European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told Spanish National Radio.

The surge had become a trickle after Moroccan border guards enforced the frontier divided by the double-wide, 10-meter (32-feet) fence. Still, hundreds were still trying to find their way across the frontier. Spanish officers fired tear gas into the buffer zone between the countries to dissuade more crossings. Some people rowed small wooden boats to reach the beach where officers waited.

At least 5,600 Moroccans adults were returned to Morocco, in line with a decades-old agreement between the two countries to expel all those who swim across the border.

Around 2,000 minors were sent to warehouses run by charity groups. AP journalists saw unaccompanied children sleeping on the floor of a warehouse, as well as in tent beds set up by the Red Cross.

Many teenagers climbed fences and onto rooftops to try to get out of the warehouse zone controlled by police. Young Moroccans, carrying what they took with them from home in backpacks or plastic bags, wandered the city.

Many shops were closed in Ceuta, a city with a population of 85,000 and an area of 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles). City head Juan Jesús Vivas said that school attendance dropped by 60% on Tuesday with families concerned for what Vivas called "an invasion."

Among the arrivals were sub-Saharan Africans, who often migrate to flee poverty or violence at home and saw the suddenly porous border as a chance to avoid an even more deadly sea journey to the Spanish mainland.

Aisha Diakaté, 25, fled conflict in Mali between 2018 after rebels killed her parents. She ended up in Morocco where she struggled to find work and had to beg to survive.

She walked from Tangiers and then swam across the border with her small child in arms. Now, after sleeping outside a warehouse, she was crushed to hear that she could be deported.

"I swam here with my child, why are they now asking me to go? That's not right," Diakaté said.

"We have nothing. If we return to Morocco, it is just suffering."

Moroccan Migrants
A Spanish civil guard wait for migrants to arrive at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, near the border of Morocco and Spain, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Spanish officials are acknowledging for the first time that the unprecedented migrant crisis has been triggered by an angry Rabat at Madrid's decision to provide medical treatment to the militant boss of the Polisario Front. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)