What’s With Those Spanish Enclaves in North Africa?

And what’s so special about Parsley Island?

On Thursday, hundreds of African migrants stormed the fences of a heavily fortified Spanish enclave located on the coast of Morocco. Over the last few weeks, hundreds more have tried to enter the European Union at a second enclave not too far away. Why does Spain have cities in Africa?

It’s had them for hundreds of years and won’t give them up. The two enclaves—Ceuta and Melilla—have been under Spanish control for more than 400 years. Located on the African side of the Strait of Gibraltar, the cities offered protection for Spanish ships and provided posts for trading between Europe and Africa. In the 1930s, Franco launched his civil war campaign from the Spanish North African cities. When Morocco gained independence in 1956, Spain refused to give them up.


The Moroccans have long contested the ownership of Ceuta and Melilla (and a number of nearby Spanish islands). To make matters more complicated, Spain has argued that it should also own the British colony at Gibraltar—which is just across the strait from Ceuta. This apparent double standard has led to some criticism of the Spanish position: Spain responds by saying that Ceuta and Melilla aren’t “colonies” since Spaniards have been living there since before Morocco even existed.

In 2002, a dozen Moroccan soldiers planted a flag on Parsley Island, a small, uninhabited outcropping off the shore near Ceuta. Spain demanded their withdrawal on the grounds that the taking of Parsley was a threat to the enclaves. Military ships and helicopters were dispatched to defend Ceuta, and Colin Powell stepped in to defuse the situation.


Today, the Spanish enclaves are home to about 65,000 people each. Both are very poor, with high unemployment rates. Moroccan laborers and traders go in and out of the enclaves each day, but the cities also serve as relatively easy entry points for drug smugglers and African migrants hoping to get into Europe.

The illegal immigration problem only became serious in the 1990s with the loosening of borders within the EU. Since Ceuta and Melilla are officially part of Spain—they even have representatives in the Spanish Parliament—their borders in Africa are effectively the borders of Europe. African immigrants who don’t want to risk crossing the strait in fishing boats can try to sneak into the enclaves instead. (Spain has had a great deal of trouble deporting non-Moroccans who make it into the enclaves.)

Spain, Morocco, and the EU have collaborated to cut down on illegal immigration. Both Ceuta and Melilla are now surrounded by 10-foot fences studded with guard towers and movement sensors, topped with barbed wire and halogen searchlights. (Spanish authorities are in the process of raising the Melilla fence to 20 feet.)

Next question?

Explainer thanks Gregory White of Smith College.