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Morocco cancels huge Strait of Gibraltar summer crossing plan

A previous year's operation.
A previous year's operation. / EFE
  • The Andalusian government said it was "prudent" to halt the special operation to help North Africans return home on holiday by ferry

The Moroccan government has decided to suspend what is known in Spanish as 'Operación Paso del Estrecho' (Operation Crossing the Strait).

It is a huge annual logistics exercise designed to smooth the crossing of some three million people who return to Morocco and other parts of North Africa by ferry from their homes in northern Europe for a summer holiday, before coming back again several weeks later. The postponement has come as a big relief to the Andalusian regional government.

The operation is coordinated by the Moroccan and Spanish authorities each year and the Junta de Andalucía regional government had been worried about the risks of mass road travel to Algeciras, Tarifa and other local ports during the coronavirus crisis.

The risk of contagion and new outbreaks led the Moroccan Foreign minister, Nasser Burita, to say that the extra logistical support won't be put in place. This is because there is no time to organise it as normally planning starts in April for what the Moroccans term 'Operation Marhaba'.

He added that Moroccans would be free to return home by land, sea or air, but only when borders were open, and no date has been given for that yet.

"It isn't just a simple crossing, but a series of activities that have to be put in place, so it's clear and natural that the operation as we know it will not take place," he explained.

This will be the first time that it has been suspended in the 32 years since special planning was put in place to make the mass transit across the Strait of Gibraltar throughout July and August run more smoothly.

Burita also said that strict controls would be put in place for visitors to Morocco, including a nine-day quarantine and a Covid-19 test at the start and end of confinement.

Reaction

The president of the Junta, Juanma Moreno, applauded the Moroccan decision, saying it was "prudent" and "sensible" in the light of the pandemic.

Moreno offered to fully cooperate with the Moroccan authorities as "the priority is protecting everyone's health".

Spain's Ministry of Health had also been worried about the risks of the large-scale travel plans, because of the build-up of people at the ports and on board the ferries, making it hard to observe social distancing.

The government's chief scientific spokesperson, Fernando Simón, explained that many of those travelling across Spain by road to Andalusian ports were from lower income groups and therefore more likely to be living in conditions in their home countries, such as in larger households, that encouraged the spread of the disease.