The striking paradox of the towns of Ceuta and Melilla, being Spanish enclaves on African soil, is unmistakable to anyone who looks at the world map. The movement of tectonic plates millions of years ago set them as part of the African continent, yet Spain considers the issue indisputable and refuses any calls for dialogue over the future of the towns. How did the story of Ceuta and Melilla begin and what foreseeable prospects are there for a just resolution to one of the oldest burning, yet dormant conflicts in the world?

The conquest of Ceuta and Melilla dates back to the years 1415 and 1497 respectively, when the spirit of the Crusades was still at its zenith and imposing religion was the main incentive behind war, exploration, and conquest. Ceuta was seized by the Portuguese under the command of Prince Henry of Portugal who set out on August 21, 1415 on a crusading expedition that resulted in the fall of the town. This victory of which “heavens felt the glory, and the earth the benefit”[1] was acclaimed in Christendom and seen as God’s sign of satisfaction and pleasure at the “toil they [Crusaders] had undergone in His service.”[2] Ceuta’s great mosque was, therefore, immediately converted into a cathedral where a bishop was also appointed. Portugal formally transferred Ceuta to Spanish rule in 1668 under the Treaty of Lisbon, following the end of the Iberian Union in 1640.

cueta melilla map

Map showing Ceuta and Melilla (via InfoMigrants)

Melilla has been under Spanish occupation since 1497, when it was subdued by Pedro de Estopiñán, envoy of the Duke of Medina Sidonia. During this era, struggle over territorial control between Muslims and Christians was very intense. The wars of Reconquista, that started with the Battle of Cordova in 718, refer not only to the recovery of Spanish territories that had fallen under Muslim sway during the Umayyad Caliphate but also to expansionist ambitions that later led Spain and Portugal to distant lands in Africa, the Americas, and the Indies. The desire to establish the supremacy of the Catholic faith – through military force – in these places was also a big driving force.

In addition to Ceuta and Melilla, Spain also continues to occupy a number of tiny islands and rock formations on the Mediterranean coast such as the Chafarine Islands (las Islas Chafarinas), Badis Peninsula (Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera), Nekor Island (Peñón de Alhucemas), and the Parsley Island (la Isla Perejil or Laela). Like Ceuta and Melilla, these rocks and islands are integral parts of the geography and history of Morocco, yet Spain is unyielding on their Spanishness, considering them plazas de soberanía (literally meaning Spanish sovereign places) not colonies.

Morocco, however, has never officially or popularly recognized the Spanishness of Ceuta and Melilla nor the other occupied rocks and islands. Following its independence in 1956, Morocco introduced the issue of Ceuta and Melilla to the UN General Assembly and officially announced its claim for the two towns in 1961. The United Nations, however, does not consider them as colonies on the grounds that Spaniards have been living there for time immemorial. This argument is apparently very weak, especially in the face of geographic, ethnographic, and historical data that strongly confirm the Moroccanness of the enclaves.

Morocco has never officially or popularly recognized the Spanishness of Ceuta and Melilla nor the other occupied rocks and islands.

In January 1987, the late King of Morocco Hassan II proposed setting up a joint “committee of experts” (una célula de reflexión) combining Moroccan and Spanish intellectuals to discuss the future of Ceuta and Melilla, and the possibility of their non-violent return to Morocco’s sovereignty. This proposal, however, received no official response from the Spanish government which had no intention to initiate any negotiations with Morocco over the future of the enclaves. The then-Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar told journalists that he “did not consider the situation of Ceuta and Melilla to be a problem.”[3] In his speech on the occasion of his accession to the throne on July 30, 2002, Morocco’s current King Mohamed VI revived his father’s proposal of a “committee of experts,” but again it fell on deaf ears.

“Morocco has not stopped, since its independence, demanding Spain to end its occupation of Ceuta, Melilla, and the neighboring islands usurped in the north of the Kingdom, following the wisdom and the peaceful civilized approach embodied in the wise proposal of our father, His Majesty King Hassan II, may God bless his soul, to establish a joint Moroccan-Spanish committee for reflection and contemplation to find a solution to these occupied territories. However, we unfortunately have not yet found a listening ear on the Spanish side to settle the situation of these usurped outposts that have turned into centers for the depletion of our national economy and sites for clandestine immigration and all illegal practices,”[4] the new King said.

On October 7, 1988, Morocco’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Abdellatif Fillali, addressed the UN General Assembly in New York, renewing Morocco’s claim for the two towns and calling on the UN to end their Spanish occupation. Fillali vehemently stated: “It is imperative to resolve the dispute concerning the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and other small Mediterranean islands under Spanish occupation, in order to prevent this anachronistic situation – a consequence of earlier times – from threatening the essential harmony which should prevail over the relations between the two countries situated on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar.”[5] Abdellatif Fillali, Morocco’s Foreign Affairs Minister, would reiterate the same claim to the enclaves when he spoke at the UN General Assembly in September 1995, but to no avail as Spain dismissed any calls for dialogue.

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The Future of Ceuta and Melilla

Cueta Melilla

The enclave of Ceuta has been under Spanish occupation since 1668.

After his historic victory against the Spanish army in the Battle of Annual on July 22, 1921, Moroccan liberationist and head of the resistance movement in the Rif, Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim El Khattabi, led his army in chase of the retreating Spanish soldiers all the way to Melilla. He would then have been able to expel the Spanish from it, but he issued an order to his army of tribesmen to stop and not enter the city for international, political, and military considerations; an order that he later regretted as he wrote in his memoirs:

“I strongly appealed to all the inhabitants of the west Rif, to my soldiers, and to the new battalions that had recently arrived, not to shed any prisoners’ blood or mistreat them. At the same time I urged them, and with the same emphasis, not to occupy Melilla so as not to provoke international complications. I regret this bitterly.  It was my greatest mistake.”[6]

Today, as the Muslim community in both enclaves is steadily growing as the Muslim birth rate is “double or triple the Spanish average,” Spain is faced with challenges related to cultural rights. This community, whose vast majority is unsatisfied at the Spanish presence in the enclaves and considers it occupation of their native land, exerts ongoing pressure on the Spanish government to ensure equal rights with cristianos (Christians) for the Muslims in the enclaves. Social and economic inequalities and the remarkable divisions between the Christians and Muslims in the enclaves are maintained and perpetuated by Spanish rule, according to many Spanish and international observers.

As the Muslim community in both enclaves is steadily growing as the Muslim birth rate is “double or triple the Spanish average,” Spain is faced with challenges related to cultural rights.

“Social inequalities between both communities, measured through levels of education or income, are considerable. . . . The socioeconomic marginalization of a good part of the population of Moroccan origin reinforces the cultural distance between both groups and, as a consequence, diminishes the chances of social integration,”[7] says Carmen González Enríquez, a senior analyst specializing in migration and public opinion at the Elcano Royal Institute, a Spanish think tank institute.

The enclaves also burden Spain by serving as the main illegal African immigration gates to Europe, annually attracting thousands of would-be illegal migrants from Sub-Saharan and North African countries. Spain’s policy in this regard is considered inhumane and ineffective, relying primarily on the militarization of the enclaves and the installation of electrified and razor-wire fences around them; a policy reminiscent of obsolete colonial practices at times when other more inclusive and comprehensive measures can be taken.

Morocco, whose vast borders are open to Algeria and Sub-Saharan Africa, has become a border patrol station for Spain and the European Union; a role that Morocco is no longer willing to play according to a recent statement by Morocco’s head of government, Mr. Saad Eddine El Ottmani. El Ottmani also reminded Spain of its occupation of the enclaves and stressed that “it is necessary to open a discussion [with Spain] about the issue.” As expected, Spain summoned Morocco’s ambassador to Madrid, to question her about El Ottmani’s statements.

The impasse concerning the future of Ceuta and Melilla seems unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, with Morocco strongly holding on to its claim for the towns and Spain unwilling to provide any concessions. This status-quo strains the relationship between the two countries every time the issue is brought up by Moroccan officials, or whenever the Spanish king or other high-ranking Spanish government officials decide to visit the enclaves. This, however, does not mean that the relations between the two countries are at their worst. Morocco and Spain signed the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness, and Cooperation on July 6, 1991, in the presence of the late king of Morocco Hassan II and the Spanish King Juan Carlos. Spain is also the second most important economic partner for Morocco after France. This mutual multifaceted interdependence between the two neighbors is not likely to be jeopardized by the disagreement over the enclaves, though hope in the non-violent return of the towns to Morocco’s sovereignty under new geopolitical conditions will always be alive for Moroccans.


[1] C. Raymind Beazley, “Prince Henry of Portugal and the African Crusade of the Fifteenth Century” in The African Historical Review, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Oct., 1910), p. 13.

[2] Ibid., p. 19.

[3] El Pais, March 24, 1994.

[4] Translation by author.

[5] Peter Gold, Europe or Africa? A contemporary Study of the Spanish North African Enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, (Cambridge: Liverpool University Press, 2000), p., 13.

[6] Quoted in: Jamil Hamdaoui, al-Mokawama bi Mintaqat al-Rif: Mohamed Ben Abdelkarim al-Khattabi Onmodajan (Alukah, 2016), p. 15.  (Translation by author)

[7] CarmenEnríquez Ceuta and Melilla: “Clouds over the African Spanish Towns: Muslim Minorities, Spaniards Fears and Morocco–Spain Mutual Dependence,” in The Journal of North African Studies, (2007) 12. 219-234. 10.1080/13629380701220469.