Moroccan police have raided a migrant camp near the Spanish enclave of Melilla, dismantling hundreds of makeshift homes Tuesday amid a nationwide campaign to grant residency to thousands of undocumented migrants in the North African country.
Some 600 migrants who caught wind of the impending raid stormed the 20-foot fence surrounding Melilla in an attempt to cross from Morocco to Europe, Spanish authorities said. At least 35 migrants managed to scale the fence and make it over the other side, according to the AFP.
The police operation against the migrant camp came one day after officials announced that 65 percent of migrant applications — roughly 18,000 — to Morocco had been approved in the first year of a recently implemented immigration policy.
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Tens of thousands of undocumented migrants currently live in Morocco, many of them hoping to make it to Europe through one of two Spanish enclaves, Melilla and Ceuta, located on the north coast of Africa. At the end of 2013, Morocco's king announced that those migrants would be allowed to apply for residency in his country.
Many sub-Saharan migrants have made long and sometimes dangerous journeys to Morocco for a chance to cross over into Europe. Mount Gurugu, a mountain overlooking Melilla is the penultimate stop for those who stay in camps and wait for an opportunity to jump the fence. Other migrants opt to make a perilous sea crossing to try and bypass border guards.
Last year, an unprecedented number of migrants attempted to cross into EU countries, often on dangerous and unseaworthy boats across the Mediterranean, many of which sink. Since 2000, more than 27,000 migrants and refugees have died trying to cross into Europe.
On Wednesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that as many as 300 migrants were feared missing after two boats capsized off the coast of Libya.
In 2014, the Moroccan government opened a number of processing offices in major cities to process the applications of an estimated 30,000 undocumented migrants across the country.
"There are tens of thousands of people who do not have papers," minister in charge of migration affairs, Anis Birou, said in January of that year. "This process aims to give them the same rights and duties as Moroccan nationals, to help them integrate into society."
In order to obtain legal status, undocumented migrants must prove they have either lived in Morocco for five consecutive years, are in possession of a two-year employment contract, or are married to a Moroccan citizen.
Migrants who are granted residency will have access to education, health care and will be able to work in Morocco without needing a work permit, Birou said. Those who had their applications rejected may appeal the decision.
According to the government, Senegalese nationals filed the highest number of residency applications, with 6,600 requests, followed closely by Syrians, who submitted 5,250 applications. The government has also said that all of the 10,178 women and children who applied were granted residency.
After Morocco's new immigration policy was revealed, Anke Strauss, Chief of Mission for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), welcomed what he described as a shift from "the security-focused approach" to a more "human rights-based approach" to migration.
Speaking to IRIN, an agency focusing on humanitarian news, in February 2014, Strauss also noted that Moroccan-perpetrated human rights abuses against migrants seemed to be on a downward trend across the country, except for around the Spanish enclaves.
Since Morocco passed its new migration law, police have stepped up arrests near the border towns of Ceuta and Melilla, even as they relaxed their grip inland.
A Cameroonian migrant told IRIN how migrants were being forcibly relocated to other parts of Morocco.
"They arrested us and brought us to Rabat," he said. "It's not like they ask you where you want to go; they don't give you any choice."
Morocco has signed a number of bilateral treaties with European countries agreeing to beef up security at the border. Morocco and Spain are both party to a "readmission" agreement, which allows for the immediate return of migrants at the Spanish-Moroccan border.
But once the migrants make it across to Europe, International law prohibits deportations "on the spot," and most immigrants are taken to increasingly over-saturated welcome centers. There, they are sheltered, identified, and have their cases reviewed — including possible appeals for asylum.
VICE News' Alice Speri contributed to this report.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray