By Ahmed Eljechtimi
FNIDEQ, Morocco (Reuters) - As migrants crowd along a coast road in Fnideq intent on crossing into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, the Moroccan town's Masira Khadra market stands largely empty - a visual contrast summing up a state of crisis.
Fnideq once thrived on its links with nearby Ceuta, importing goods that townspeople often smuggled across the border to sell in Masira Khadra's small shops, until Rabat took action against the illicit trade last year.
"We are open, but we have no customers," said Hassan Lakhal, standing near his blanket shop.
Sold as a measure against tax dodgers and, some say, also partly aimed at hurting Ceuta's economy, Morocco's crackdown was followed by its closure of the border when the coronavirus hit.
Now, with business trips by Moroccan customers also curtailed by COVID-19 curbs, Fnideq's economy is devastated too. Many shops and restaurants are closed and the prevailing mood is increasingly desperate.
"This year our occupancy rate has not exceeded 4%," said Abdellah Bakkali, manager at the Senator hotel where most guests are in transit through Ceuta.
He says revenues have dropped 95% since the border closed.
Blanket shop owner Lakhal has two sons who crossed into Ceuta this week, along with thousands of others, when Morocco appeared to relax the frontier controls in a move widely linked to a row with Spain over Western Sahara, a region Rabat claims sovereignty over.
In the town's streets, that dispute and the window of opportunity it triggered has combined explosively with resentment at since re-tightened border controls.
Hundreds of migrants clashed in Fnideq after dark on Wednesday with riot police, throwing stones and setting a motorbike on fire.
The variable security presence at the border reflects the paradox that Morocco faces in dealing with Ceuta and a second enclave, Melilla – zones its frontier guards protected from mass migration for years while simultaneously demanding that Spain give them up.
Morocco increased efforts to stop migrants reaching Spain in 2018 and, in return for cash assistance, cutting the number of illegal crossings.
Rabat views the enclaves, held by Spain since the 16th century, as colonial relics, though they are a lower priority than seeking global acceptance for its rule in Western Sahara, challenged by the Algeria-backed Polisario.
'THEY SAID THEY WERE GOING TO LUNCH'
When border controls appeared to ease on Monday - interpreted as retaliation for Spain's decision to host the Polisario leader - thousands of locals decided to cross.
Lakhal, the Masira Khadra blanket shop owner, said his 12-year old had disappeared on Monday and he assumed he was among around 1,500 minors now being held by Spanish authorities.
"His brother, who is 17, has crossed into Ceuta three times to look for him," he said, adding that he wanted his younger son back "as soon as possible".
Nearly half of Masira Khadra's shops appeared to have closed for good. Some merchants still trading said their businesses had depended on cheaper prices they could offer by bypassing customs duties on smuggled items.
The closed border has also hit local craftsmen, who could enter Ceuta without a visa and often did work there.
Younes, who makes metal doors and windows, said two of his workers had left on Monday. "They said they were going to lunch. Then I learnt they had crossed and are staying with relatives in Ceuta," he said.
As news spread that the crossing was easier, people flocked to Fnideq, including migrants from elsewhere in Africa.
"We are waiting until night to try crossing," said Adam Farouq, 17, sitting with two teenage girls after they had travelled from Rabat.
Hassan, 35, from Ivory Coast, said he had come to Fnideq, swum across the bay to Ceuta, and was immediately caught by the Spanish army and returned to Morocco.
"I'm exhausted and have to get some food and sleep. Then I'll wake up in the night and try again," he said.
(Reporting by Ahmed El Jechtimi, writing by Angus McDowall; editing by John Stonestreet)