Morocco begins repatriation of citizens stranded in Melilla

Around 200 repatriated Moroccans will be subject to extensive screening upon their return, then quarantined at hotels and student accommodations in Saidia and Nador.

RABAT – Morocco began Friday the repatriation of its citizens who have been stranded in the Spanish enclave of Melilla for two months after Rabat's closure of its air, land and sea borders as part of the country's stringent measures to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Around 200 repatriated Moroccans, including elderly, women and children, will be subject to extensive screening upon their return and then will be quarantined at hotels and student accommodations in the cities of Saidia and Nador before joining their relatives.

The move came one day after a Moroccan woman was found dead in public toilets in Plaza de Toros of Melilla.

The second repatriation phase will include some 300 Moroccan nationals. However, dozens of Moroccans remain stranded in the other Spanish enclave of Ceuta.

The “Residentes de Ceuta” (Ceuta residents) association quoted some sources from Morocco’s customs as saying that the 135 Moroccan nationals who are currently confined to the "La Libertad" pavilion will also return home before the celebration of Eid al Fitr.

"The repatriation will be done in the coming days, hours," President of the association Abdelmalik Mohamed told Ceuta Actualidad.

Hours after Melilla’s action, Ceuta authorities issued a statement threatening to close the La Libertad sports centre unless the Moroccan government repatriates its citizens.

“The City Government does not rule out the possibility of closing the La Libertad sports centre as a resource for extraordinary and temporary accommodation, provided that sanitary and legal reasons allow it,” said the authorities in a statement.

Ceuta President Juan Vivas has entered into a heated argument with Madrid over the cost of maintaining stranded Moroccans which he said was the responsibility of the central government.

Morocco closed on March 13 its borders with Ceuta and Melilla as well as suspending its air and sea links with Spain to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over 22,000 Moroccan nationals have so far contacted Morocco’s various diplomatic representations, according to the ministry's data. Most of them are stuck in France, Spain and Turkey.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said last month that the repatriation operation must be done in the best conditions without risk for the beneficiaries themselves, nor for their country, but failed to unveil a timeline for their return.