Morocco stops 3 migrant boats, arrests 40 on border fence

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Moroccan authorities said Monday they have stopped boats carrying 117 sub-Saharan migrants from crossing to Europe and arrested 40 people trying to scale a fence into Spain's North African enclave of Melilla.

A Moroccan military official told The Associated Press that the navy prevented three boats from sailing Saturday across the Mediterranean. It was unclear where the migrants onboard were taken.

Meanwhile, a police official in the northern Moroccan city of Nador said 40 migrants were arrested Sunday while storming a razor-wire fence into Melilla.

Another group of 52 migrants managed to cross into Spain, in what Moroccan authorities called the biggest border-crossing attempt on Melilla since October.

Clashes left seven security officers and two migrants injured on the Moroccan side, and they were transferred the Nador Provincial Hospital, the official said.

Both officials were not authorized to be publicly named according to government policy.

Moroccan authorities have been stepping up security against migrants in recent months, after Spain became the leading migration entry point to Europe last year. Migration pressure is also rising during the spring and summer months.

At least 250 migrants were arrested from their homes in Nador or while attempting to cross by sea last month, according to the Moroccan Human Rights Association.

Migrant arrivals to Spain last year eclipsed those to Italy and Greece, with some 60,000 migrants arriving in Spain, almost all of them by sea. Since then, the EU and Spain have increased aid and cooperation with Moroccan authorities.

Human rights experts, however, warn that outsourcing Europe's border control to North African countries creates a risk of human right violations. Amnesty International last year denounced a Moroccan crackdown on sub-Saharan migrants, including alleged mass roundups and expulsions without due process.

Meanwhile, a fishing boat capsized Monday while illegally carrying eight Syrian refugees to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said. It said that Lebanon's navy detained three of the Syrians when they returned to the coast and that the other five are still missing. Lebanon is host to the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, with about 1 million Syrians.

Overall, the migrant flow to Europe has fallen sharply since 2015, when as many as 1 million entered the continent.