Melilla is one of two autonomous cities of Spain, on the Morocco–Spain border. It has an area of 12.3 km2 (4.7 sq mi). It was part of the Province of Málaga until 14 March 1995, when the Statute of Autonomy of Melilla was passed.

Melilla is one of the special member state territories of the European Union. Movements to and from the rest of the EU and Melilla are subject to specific rules, provided for inter alia in the Accession Agreement of Spain to the Schengen Convention.

As of 2019, Melilla had a population of 86,487. The population is chiefly divided between people of Iberian and Riffian extraction. There is also a small number of Sephardic Jews and Sindhi Hindus. Regarding sociolinguistics, Melilla features a diglossia between the official Spanish (strong language) and Tarifit (weak language).

Melilla, like Ceuta and Spain’s other territories in Africa, is subject to an irredentist claim by Greater Morocco.

The original name (currently rendered as Rusadir) was a Punic language name, coming from the name given to the nearby Cape Three Forks. Addir meant “powerful”. The name creation is similar to that of other names given in Antiquity to outlets along the north-African coast, including Rusguniae, Rusubbicari, Rusuccuru, Rusippisir, Rusigan (Rachgoun), Rusicade, Ruspina, Ruspe or Rsmlqr.

Meanwhile, the etymology of the current city name (dating back to the 9th century, rendered as Melilla in Spanish) is uncertain. An active beekeeping location in the past, the name has been related to honey; this is tentatively backed up by two ancient coins featuring a bee as well as the inscriptions RSADR and RSA. Others relate the name to “discord” or “fever” or also to an ancient Arab personality. The current Riffian language name of Melilla is Mřič or Mlilt, which means the “white one”.


Flag of Melilla

The flag of Melilla consists of a pale blue background with the city’s coat of arms in the centre. The flag is adopted on 13 March 1995 when Melilla became an autonomous city of Spain.
The coat of arms of Melilla is that of the Ducal House of Medina Sidonia, whose titular funded the military operation that seized Melilla in 1497.

The crown is topped by a turret, with a male figure throwing a dagger (Guzmán el Bueno, ancestor of the first duke) in chief. The top part of the coat of arms reads Præferre Patriam Liberis Parentem Decet (It is seemly for a parent to put his fatherland before his children), also a nod to the Guzmán el Bueno’s role during the 1296 defence of Tarifa on behalf of Sancho IV of Castile. The supporters are the Pillars of Hercules and read Non Plus Ultra (Nothing further beyond).



Ancient history

It was a Phoenician and later Punic trade establishment under the name of Rusadir (Rusaddir for the Romans and Russadeiron (Ancient Greek: Ῥυσσάδειρον) for the Greeks). Later Rome absorbed it as part of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana. Rusaddir is mentioned by Ptolemy (IV, 1) and Pliny (V, 18) who called it “oppidum et portus” (a fortified town and port). It was also cited by Mela (I, 33) as Rusicada, and by the Itinerarium Antonini. Rusaddir was said to have once been the seat of a bishop, but there is no record of any bishop of the purported see, which is not included in the Catholic Church’s list of titular sees.

Middle Ages

As centuries passed, it was ruled by Vandal, Byzantine and Visigoth bands. The political history is similar to that of towns in the region of the Moroccan Rif and southern Spain. Local rule passed through a succession of Phoenician, Punic, Roman, Umayyad, Cordobese, Idrisid, Almoravid, Almohad, Marinid, and then Wattasid rulers.

Modern times

During the 15th century, the city subsumed into decadence, just like most of the rest of cities of the Kingdom of Fez located along the Mediterranean coast, eclipsed by those along the Atlantic facade. Following the completion of the conquest of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, their Secretary Hernando de Zafra started to compile information about the sorry state of the north-African coast with the prospect of a potential territorial expansion in mind, sending field agents to investigate, and subsequently reporting the Catholic Monarchs that, by early 1494, locals had expelled the authority of the Sultan of Fez and had offered to pledge service.
While the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas put Melilla and Cazaza (until then reserved to the Portuguese) under the sphere of Castile, the conquest of the city had to wait, delayed by the occupation of Naples by Charles VIII of France.

Juan Alfonso Pérez de Guzmán

The Duke of Medina Sidonia, Juan Alfonso Pérez de Guzmán promoted the seizure of the place, to be headed by Pedro de Estopiñán, while the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon endorsed the initiative, also providing the assistance of their artillery officer Francisco Ramírez de Madrid during the operation.
Melilla was occupied on 17 September 1497 virtually without any violence as it, located on the border between the Kingdom of Tlemcen and the Kingdom of Fez, and as a result, it had been fought over many times and so had been left abandoned.
No big-scale expansion into the Kingdom of Fez ensued, and, barring the enterprises of the Cardinal Cisneros along the coast in Mers El Kébir and Oran (in the Algerian coast), and the rock of Badis (this one in the territorial scope of the Kingdom of Fez), the imperial impetus of the Hispanic Monarchy was eventually directed elsewhere, to the Italian Wars waged against France, and, particularly since 1519, to the newly discovered continent across the Atlantic.

Melilla was initially jointly administered by the House of Medina Sidonia and the Crown, and a 1498 settlement forced the former to station a 700-men garrison in Melilla and forced the latter to provide the city with a number of maravedíes and wheat fanegas.
The Crown’s interest in Melilla decreased during the reign of Charles V. During the 16th century, soldiers stationed in Melilla were badly remunerated, leading to many desertions.
The Duke of Medina Sidonia relinquished responsibility over the garrison of the place on 7 June 1556.

During the late 17th century, Alaouite sultan Ismail Ibn Sharif attempted to conquer the presidio, taking the outer fortifications in the 1680s and further unsuccessfully besieging Melilla in the 1690s.

One Spanish officer reflected, “an hour in Melilla, from the point of view of merit, was worth more than thirty years of service to Spain.”

Late modern period

The current limits of the Spanish territory around the Melilla fortress were fixed by treaties with Morocco in 1859, 1860, 1861, and 1894. In the late 19th century, as Spanish influence expanded in this area, the Crown authorized Melilla as the only centre of trade on the Rif coast between Tetuan and the Algerian frontier. The value of trade increased, with goat skins, eggs and beeswax being the principal exports, and cotton goods, tea, sugar and candles being the chief imports.

Melilla’s civil population in 1860 still amounted for only 375 estimated inhabitants. In a 1866 Hispano-Moroccan arrangement signed in Fes, both parts agreed to allow for the installment of a customs office near the border with Melilla, to be operated by Moroccan officials.
The Treaty of Peace with Morocco that followed the 1859–60 War entailed the acquisition of a new perimeter for Melilla, bringing its area to the 12 km2 the autonomous city currently stands. Following the declaration of Melilla as free port in 1863, the population began to increase, chiefly by Sephardi Jews fleeing from Tetouan who fostered trade in and out the city.
The first Jews from Tetouan probably arrived in 1864, meanwhile the first rabbi arrived in 1867 and began to operate the first synagogue, located in the Calle de San Miguel.
Many Jews arrived fleeing from persecution in Morocco, instigated by Roghi Bu Hamara.
Following the 1868 lifting of the veto to emigrate to Melilla from Peninsular Spain, the population further increased with Spaniards. The Jewish population, who also progressively acquired Spanish citizenship, increased to 572 in 1893. The economic opportunities created in Melilla henceforth favoured the installment of a Berber population.
The first proper body of local government was the junta de arbitrios, created in 1879, and in which the military used to enjoy preponderance. The Polígono excepcional de Tiro, the first neighborhood outside the walled core (Melilla la Vieja), began construction in 1888.

20th Century

The turn of the new century saw however the attempts by France (based in French Algeria) to profit from their newly acquired sphere of influence in Morocco to counter the trading prowess of Melilla by fostering trade links with the Algerian cities of Ghazaouet and Oran.
Melilla began to suffer from this, to which the instability brought by revolts against Muley Abdel Aziz in the hinterland also added, although after 1905 Sultan pretender El Rogui (Bou Hmara) carried out a defusing policy in the area that favoured Spain. The French occupation of Oujda in 1907, compromised the Melillan trade with that city and the enduring instability in the Rif still threatened Melilla.
Between 1909 and 1945, the modernista (Art Nouveau) style was very present in the local architecture, making the streets of Melilla a “true museum of modernista-style architecture”, second only to Barcelona (in Spain), mainly stemming from the work of prolific architect Enrique Nieto.

Transporting ore from La Alicantina

Mining companies began to enter the hinterland of Melilla by 1908. A Spanish one, the Compañía Española de las Minas del Rif , was constituted in July 1908, shared by Clemente Fernández, Enrique Macpherson, the Count of Romanones, the Duke of Tovar  and Juan Antonio Güell , who appointed Miguel Villanueva as chairman.
Thus two mining companies under the protection of Bou Hmara, started mining lead and iron some 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from Melilla. They started to construct a railway between the port and the mines. In October of that year the Bou Hmara’s vassals revolted against him and raided the mines, which remained closed until June 1909. By July the workmen were again attacked and several were killed. Severe fighting between the Spaniards and the tribesmen followed, in the Second Melillan campaign that took place in the vicinity of Melilla.

In 1910, the Spaniards restarted the mines and undertook harbour works at Mar Chica, but hostilities broke out again in 1911. On 22 July 1921, the Berbers under the leadership of Abd el Krim inflicted a grave defeat on the Spanish at the Battle of Annual. The Spanish retreated to Melilla, leaving most of the protectorate under the control of the Republic of Rif.

A royal decree pursuing the creation of an ayuntamiento in Melilla was signed on 13 December 1918 but the regulation did not come into force, and thus the existing government body, the junta the arbitrios, remained in force.

A “junta municipal” with a rather civil composition was created in 1927; on 10 April 1930, an ayuntamiento featuring the same membership as the junta was created, equalling to the same municipal regime as the rest of Spain on 14 April 1931, with the arrival of the first democratically elected municipal corporation on the wake of the proclamation of the Second Republic.

The city was used as one of the staging grounds for the July 1936 military coup d’état that started the Spanish Civil War.

In the context of the passing of the Ley de Extranjería in 1986, and following social mobilisation from the Berber community, conditions for citizenship acquisition were flexibilised and allowed for the naturalisation of a substantial number of inhabitants, until then born in Melilla but without Spanish citizenship.

In 1995, Melilla (which was until then just another municipality of the Province of Málaga) became an “autonomous city”, as the Statute of Autonomy of Melilla was passed.

On 6 November 2007, King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia visited the city, which caused a demonstration of support. The visit also sparked protests from the Moroccan government. It was the first time a Spanish monarch had visited Melilla in 80 years.

Melilla (and Ceuta) have declared the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha or Feast of the Sacrifice, as an official public holiday from 2010 onward. This is the first time a non-Christian religious festival has been officially celebrated in Spain since the Reconquista.

In 2018, Morocco decided to close the customs office near Melilla, in operation since the mid 19th century, without consulting the counterparty.



Melilla is located in the northwest of the African continent, in the shores of the Alboran Sea, a marginal sea of the Mediterranean, the latter’s westernmost portion. The city layout is arranged in a wide semicircle around the beach and the Port of Melilla, on the eastern side of the peninsula of Cape Tres Forcas, at the foot of Mount Gurugú [es] and around the mouth of the Río de Oro intermittent water stream, 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) above sea level. The urban nucleus was originally a fortress, Melilla la Vieja, built on a peninsular mound about 30 meters (98 ft) in height.

The Moroccan settlement of Beni Ansar lies immediately south of Melilla. The nearest Moroccan city is Nador, and the ports of Melilla and Nador are both within the same bay; nearby is the Bou Areg Lagoon.


Melilla has a warm Mediterranean climate influenced by its proximity to the sea, rendering much cooler summers and more precipitation than inland areas deeper into Africa.
The climate, in general, is similar to the southern coast of peninsular Spain and the northern coast of Morocco, with relatively small temperature differences between seasons.


Government & Administration

Asamblea de Melilla

The government bodies stipulated in the Statute of Autonomy are the Assembly of Melilla, the President of Melilla and the Council of Government. The assembly is a 25-member body whose members are elected through universal suffrage every 4 years in closed party lists following the schedule of local elections at the national level. Its members are called “local deputies” but they rather enjoy the status of concejales (municipal councillors). Unlike regional legislatures (and akin to municipal councils), the assembly does not enjoy right of initiative for primary legislation.

The president of Melilla (who, often addressed as Mayor-President, also exerts the roles of Mayor, president of the Assembly, president of the Council of Government and representative of the city) is invested by the Assembly. After local elections, the president is invested through a qualified majority from among the leaders of the election lists, or, failing to achieve the former, the leader of the most voted list at the election is invested to the office. In case of a motion of no confidence the president can only be ousted with a qualified majority voting for an alternative assembly member.

The Council of Government is the traditional collegiate executive body for parliamentary systems. Unlike the municipal government boards in the standard ayuntamientos, the members of the Council of Government (including the vice-presidents) do not need to be members of the assembly.

Melilla is the city in Spain with the highest proportion of postal voting; vote buying (via mail-in ballots) is widely reported to be a common practice in the poor neighborhoods of Melilla.
Court cases in this matter had involved the PP, the CPM and the PSOE.

On 15 June 2019, following the May 2019 Melilla Assembly election, the regionalist and left-leaning party of Muslim and Amazigh persuasion Coalition for Melilla (CPM, 8 seats), the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE, 4 seats) and Citizens–Party of the Citizenry (Cs, 1 seat) voted in favour of the Cs’ candidate (Eduardo de Castro) vis-à-vis the Presidency of the Autonomous City, ousting Juan José Imbroda, from the People’s Party (PP, 10 seats), who had been in office since 2000.

Administrative subdivisions

Melilla is subdivided into eight districts (distritos), which are further subdivided into neighbourhoods (barrios):

Barrio de Medina Sidonia.
Barrio del General Larrea.
Barrio de Ataque Seco.
Barrio Héroes de España.
Barrio del General Gómez Jordana.
Barrio Príncipe de Asturias.
Barrio del Carmen.
Barrio Polígono Residencial La Paz.
Barrio Hebreo-Tiro Nacional.
Barrio de Cristóbal Colón.
Barrio de Cabrerizas.
Barrio de Batería Jota.
Barrio de Hernán Cortes y Las Palmeras.
Barrio de Reina Regente.
Barrio de Concepción Arenal.
Barrio Isaac Peral (Tesorillo).
Barrio del General Real.
Polígono Industrial SEPES.
Polígono Industrial Las Margaritas.
Parque Empresarial La Frontera.
Barrio de la Libertad.
Barrio del Hipódromo.
Barrio de Alfonso XIII.
Barrio Industrial.
Barrio Virgen de la Victoria.
Barrio de la Constitución.
Barrio de los Pinares.
Barrio de la Cañada de Hidum


The Gross domestic product (GDP) of the autonomous community was 1.6 billion euros in 2018, accounting for 0.1% of Spanish economic output. GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power was 19,900 euros or 66% of the EU27 average in the same year. Melilla was the NUTS2 region with the lowest GDP per capita in Spain.

Melilla does not participate in the European Union Customs Union (EUCU). There is no VAT (IVA) tax, but a local reduced-rate tax called IPSI. Preserving the status of free port, imports are free of tariffs and the only tax concerning them is the IPSI. Exports to the Customs Union (including Peninsular Spain) are however subject to the correspondent customs tariff and are taxed with the correspondent VAT. There are some special manufacturing taxes regarding electricity and transport, as well as complementary charges on tobacco and oil and fuel products.

The principal industry is fishing. Cross-border commerce (legal or smuggled) and Spanish and European grants and wages are the other income sources.

Melilla is regularly connected to the Iberian peninsula by air and sea traffic and is also economically connected to Morocco: most of its fruit and vegetables are imported across the border. Moroccans in the city’s hinterland are attracted to it: 36,000 Moroccans cross the border daily to work, shop or trade goods. The port of Melilla offers several daily connections to Almería and Málaga. Melilla Airport offers daily flights to Almería, Málaga and Madrid. Spanish operators Air Europa and Iberia operate in Melilla’s airport.

Many people travelling between Europe and Morocco use the ferry links to Melilla, both for passengers and for freight. Because of this, the port and related companies form an important economic driver for the city.


Water Supply

Melilla’s water supply primarily came from a network of dug wells (which by the turn of the 21st century suffered from overexploitation and had also experienced a degradation of the water quality and the intrusion of seawater), as well as from the capture of the Río de Oro’s underflow. Seeking to address the problem of water supply in Melilla, works for the construction of a desalination plant in the Aguadú cliffs, projected to produce 22,000 m3 a day, started in November 2003. The plant entered operation in March 2007. The daily operation of the plant is partially funded by the central government. Relative to the Spanish average (and similarly to the Canary and Balearic Islands), the city’s population spends a comparatively larger amount of money on bottled water.

Funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Confederación Hidrográfica del Guadalquivir, works for the expansion of the plant’s production capabilities up to 30,000 m3 a day started by September 2020.



The dome of the Chapel of Santiago, built in the mid-16th century by Miguel de Perea with help from Sancho de Escalante, is a rare instance of Gothic architecture in the African continent.

Parallel to the urban development of Melilla in the early 20th century, the new architectural style of modernismo (irradiated from Barcelona and associated to the bourgeois class) was imported to the city, granting it a modernista architectural character, primarily through the works of the prolific Catalan architect Enrique Nieto.

Accordingly, Melilla has the second most important concentration of Modernista works in Spain after Barcelona. Nieto was in charge of designing the main Synagogue, the Central Mosque and various Catholic Churches.




Melilla has been praised as an example of multiculturalism, being a small city in which one can find Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists represented. There is a small, autonomous, and commercially important Hindu community present in Melilla, which has fallen over the past decades as its members move to the Spanish mainland and numbers about 100 members today. Muslims may account for roughly half the population in Melilla. The Roman Catholic churches in Melilla belong to the Diocese of Málaga.


Regarding sociolinguistics, Melilla features a diglossia with Spanish being the strong and official language, whereas Tarifit remains the weak and unofficial language, with limited written codification, and usage restricted to family and domestic relations and oral speech.

Berber native speakers are usually bilingual in Spanish, whereas Spanish native speakers do not usually speak Berber. The Spanish spoken in Melilla is similar to the Andalusian variety from Cádiz, whereas the Berber variant spoken in Melilla is the Riffian language common with the neighbouring Nador area. Rather than Berber, Berber speakers in Melilla use either the glotonym Tmaziɣt, or, when speaking Spanish, cherja for their language.

The first attempt to legislate a degree of recognition for Berber in Melilla was in 1994, in the context of the elaboration of the Statute of Autonomy, by mentioning the promotion of the linguistic and cultural pluralism (without explicitly mentioning the Berber language). The initiative went nowhere, voted down by PP and PSOE.



Trans-border relations

Melilla forms a sort of trans-border urban conurbation with limited integration together with the neighbouring Moroccan settlements, located at one of the ends of a linear succession of urban sprawl spanning southward in Morocco along the R19 road from Beni Ensar down to Nador and Selouane. The urban system features a high degree of hierarchization, specialisation and division of labour, with Melilla as chief provider of services, finance and trade; Nador as an eminently industrial city whereas the rest of Moroccan settlements found themselves in a subordinate role, presenting agro-town features and operating as providers of workforce.

The asymmetry, as reflected for example in the provision of healthcare, has fostered situations such as the large-scale use of the Melillan health services by Moroccan citizens, with Melilla attending a number of urgencies more than four times the standard for its population in 2018.
In order to satisfy the workforce needs of Melilla (mainly in areas such as domestic service, construction and cross-border bale workers, often under informal contracts), Moroccan inhabitants of the province of Nador were granted exemptions from visa requirement to enter the autonomous city. This development in turn induced a strong flux of internal migration from other Moroccan provinces to Nador, in order to acquire the aforementioned exemption.

The ‘fluid’ trans-border relations between Melilla and its surroundings are however not free from conflict, as they are contingent upon the ‘tense’ trans-national relations between Morocco and Spain.

Border security

Following the increasing influx of Algerian and Sub-Saharan irregular migrants into Ceuta and Melilla in the early 1990s, a process of border fortification in both cities ensued after 1995 in order to reduce the border permeability, a target which was attained to some degree by 1999, although peak level of fortification was reached in 2005.

The Melilla’s border with Morocco is secured by the Melilla border fence, a six-metre-tall double fence with watch towers; yet migrants (in groups of tens or sometimes hundreds) storm the fence and manage to cross it from time to time. Since 2005, at least 14 migrants have died trying to cross the fence. The Melilla migrant reception centre was built with a capacity of 480.
In 2020 works to remove the barbed wire from the top of the fence (meanwhile raising its height up to more than 10 metres in the stretches most susceptible to breaches) were commissioned to Tragsa.

Morocco has been paid tens of million euros by both Spain and the European Union to outsource the EU migration control. Besides the double fence in the Spanish side of the border, there is an additional 3-metre high fence entirely made of razor wire lying on the Moroccan side as well as a moat in between.



Melilla Airport is serviced by Air Nostrum, flying to the Spanish cities of Málaga, Madrid, Barcelona, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Palma de Mallorca, Granada, Badajoz, Sevilla and Almería.
In April 2013, a local enterprise set up Melilla Airlines, flying from the city to Málaga. The city is linked to Málaga, Almería and Motril by ferry.

Three roads connect Melilla and Morocco but require clearance through border checkpoints.



Melilla is a surfing destination. The city’s football club, UD Melilla, plays in the third tier of Spanish football, the Segunda División B. The club was founded in 1943 and since 1945 have played at the 12,000-seater Estadio Municipal Álvarez Claro. Until the other club was dissolved in 2012, UD Melilla played the Ceuta-Melilla derby against AD Ceuta.
The clubs travelled to each other via the Spanish mainland to avoid entering Morocco. The second-highest ranked club in the city are Casino del Real CF of the fourth-tier Tercera División.
The football’s governing institution is the Melilla Football Federation.


Dispute with Morocco

The government of Morocco has repeatedly called for Spain to transfer the sovereignty of Ceuta and Melilla, along with uninhabited islets such as the Alhucemas Islands, the rock of Vélez de la Gomera and the Perejil island, drawing comparisons with Spain’s territorial claim to Gibraltar.
In both cases, the national governments and local populations of the disputed territories reject these claims by a large majority. The Spanish position states that both Ceuta and Melilla are integral parts of Spain, and have been since the 16th century, centuries prior to Morocco’s independence from France in 1956, whereas Gibraltar, being a British Overseas Territory, is not and never has been part of the United Kingdom.

Both cities also have the same semi-autonomous status as the mainland region in Spain. Melilla has been under Spanish rule for longer than cities in northern Spain such as Pamplona or Tudela, and was conquered roughly in the same period as the last Muslim cities of Southern Spain such as Granada, Málaga, Ronda or Almería: Spain claims that the enclaves were established before the creation of the Kingdom of Morocco. Morocco denies these claims and maintains that the Spanish presence on or near its coast is a remnant of the colonial past which should be ended. The United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories does not include these Spanish territories and the dispute remains bilaterally debated between Spain and Morocco.

In 1986, Spain entered the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. However Ceuta and Melilla are not under NATO protection since Article 6 of the treaty limits the coverage to Europe and North America and islands north of the Tropic of Cancer. This contrasts with French Algeria which was explicitly included in the treaty. Legal experts have interpreted that other articles could cover the Spanish North African cities but this take has not been tested in practice.

On 21 December 2020, following the affirmations of the Moroccan Prime Minister, Saadeddine Othmani, stating that Ceuta and Melilla “are Moroccan as the [Western] Sahara [is]”, Spain urgently summoned the Moroccan Ambassador to convey that Spain expects respect from all its partners to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its country and asked for explanations about the words of Othmani.

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