The Islas Chafarinas are three small islands located just 3.5km off the coast of Morocco, they have been occupied by the Spanish since 1847 with the only residents being a 190 strong military garrison. There used to be a colony of the world’s second rarest seal the Mediterranean Monk Seal living there but by 1990 they had all been murdered by fishermen for ‘stealing’ their fish.
The Alhucemas islands consist of three islands all within hailing distance of Morocco. The Penon de Alhucemas at just 200m off the Moroccan coast is the largest with a Spanish fortress housing a garrison of 30 men on it. The other two islands are Isla la Mar at 207m away and the Isla de Tierra is closer still being just 93m from its African neighbour.
Next we have Penon de Velez de Gomera; this island is so close to Morocco that in 1934 a huge storm washed so much sand between them that it created an 85m beach to connect them. It’s classed as the world’s shortest land border. A Spanish garrison is stationed on the fort that’s built on the 100m high rock. Last summer the Committee for the liberation of Ceuta and Melilla which included the local mayor managed to scale the rock and plant Moroccan flags before getting arrested. 1790 was the last time there was a military attempt to get it back from Spain. It looks like a ‘Mini-Me’ of another place that’s been in the news recently – Gibraltar.
The Isla de Perejil is uninhabited lying 250m off the coast of Morocco, about 13 km from mainland Spain with ownership disputed between the two countries. Morocco placed some Army cadets there in July 2002 to stop illegal immigrants and smugglers using the island. Spain was having none of it and a week later sent a major invasion force consisting of the Air Force, the Navy and their elite commando unit across the Straits of Gibraltar to valiantly retake the island from the terrified teenagers who gave up on the spot without firing a shot. Even the Spanish Legion got involved. The spat was deemed so important that the great warrior Colin Powell brokered a peace deal which still leaves the island disputed by both sides. The island is again empty apart from some goats with Moroccan nationality.
Melilla is part of the European Union and lies in east Morocco. It’s been won and lost by the Spanish many times since they first invaded in 1497. The last conflict ended in 1926. It is twice as large of Gibraltar, with the population of about 75,000 fiercely holding on to their Spanish identity. Melilla was where the Spanish Civil War started with a military revolt against the Republican officers in July 1936. The first concentration camp by the Nationalists was also built here and infamously the town boasts the only statue of Franco still on Spanish soil. King Juan Carlos visited in 2007 causing massive protests in Morocco. I remember Charles and Di’s visit to Gibraltar in 1981 causing a similar stir.
Then there is Ceuta; 18 miles from Gibraltar and three times the size with a population of 85,000. Invaded by the Portuguese in 1415, a treaty signed in 1668 gave it to Spain just a few years before the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 gave Gibraltar to the British. Ten thousand Moroccans cross the border each day to work there; it has a low tax regime, a strong military presence and is notorious for smuggling. Morocco wants it back but Spain ain’t budging. Sound familiar?
King Mohamed VI enjoyed the third anniversary of his reign over Morocco at the weekend and he devoted a significant part of his speech to the territories that Spain hold. A small part is quoted below –
“In this context, Morocco has continued since independence to claim the definitive cessation of Spain’s occupation of Ceuta and Melilla and usurped nearby islands in the north of the kingdom, taking the way of peaceful and civilized thinking, crystallized by the wise proposal of Hassan II of creating a joint Moroccan-Spanish reflection cell, in order to find a solution to the problem of these occupied areas.”
“But unfortunately, the Spanish counterpart has not heeded, until now, to solve the situation of these usurped lands which turned into nests where our national economy bleeds, and bases for illegal immigration and other illegal practices.”