When Moroccan border guards leave their post

On Monday night, more than eight thousand (North) African migrants swam into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in North Africa. Migration pressure is also increasing in the other enclave of Melilla. “Morocco has opened the door,” the Spanish residents complain. ‘Everything is better than this prison’, say the Moroccan youth.

“My childhood was all geopolitical. We didn’t jump rope, we jumped from one country to another.’ Laura Jimenez (38), a local fixer, guides us along the imposing border fences that separate Melilla from Morocco. The situation around the border has been very tense in recent days. More than eight thousand migrants swam together into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and there was also a successful crossing in Melilla.
The attempt Monday night was the first organized crossing of the border to the enclaves in such large numbers since April 2020. The Spanish government decided for the first time since 2014 to deploy the army at the border and the Guardia Civil is being reinforced with 400 officers. , to ‘ensure the integrity of the borders of the two cities’.
“Everything got complicated when Spain joined the European Union,” Jimenez says. A migration route was created through the North African enclaves, the new gates of Europe. In 1993 a higher fence was added, in 2005 the current six meter high fences with tear gas nozzles, thermal cameras and sensors. The Spanish Guardia Civil is aware of every movement at the border. “Sometimes they call the Moroccan army because they see something moving on the other side. Usually it concerns a group of goats’, says Jimenez with a laugh.

A few minutes later two green and white jeeps arrive at high speed and we are surrounded. Although we have a permit to photograph the border, they interrogate us with walkie-talkie in hand and want to see our footage. A few phone calls and an identity check later, we can continue our journey.
Territorial doctrine
The current fence meanders along barren hills and through villages, ending in the sea. On the Moroccan side, guards with tinted windows tower above the barbed wire. Since 2018, the EU has given Morocco more than 343 million euros to guard the European external border. A lot of money and with good reason, because European migration policy at the external borders is based on cooperation with countries in the region such as Morocco. “Since then, we’ve seen more and more heavily armed border guards and army barracks there,” Jimenez said. Normally, Morocco stops migrants in exchange for funding. “They often use violence for that.” At the end of April, there was also a crossing attempt by sixty migrants in Melilla, who were then stopped by the Moroccan border guards.
The border crossings between Melilla and the surrounding Moroccan villages are also deserted. Until a few years ago, thousands of merchants easily crossed these hubs every day to buy and trade goods. In March 2020, Morocco unilaterally closed the border, causing trade between Melilla and surrounding villages to come to a standstill and people in the region to lose their jobs. According to Rabat to fight corona, according to the inhabitants of Melilla to put pressure on the Spanish territories, which Morocco has claimed for decades. “Melilla and Ceuta are Spanish cities in North Africa, which in itself is a disgrace to Morocco’s territorial doctrine,” said Carlos Echeverria of the Ceuta and Melilla Observatory, an independent Spanish think tank.
Diplomatic relations between Spain and Morocco have reached a boiling point in recent months. At the end of last year, Moroccan Prime Minister El Othmani reiterated that Ceuta, Melilla and Western Sahara are Moroccan territories. The President of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic, Brahim Gali, was admitted to a Spanish hospital in April and has been in the country ever since. Morocco warned Madrid that good neighbors won’t do this, as it considers Western Sahara to be Moroccan and does not recognize Gali as head of state.

“Europe will take care of your boys”
The successful crossing is talk of the town on the terraces of the local cafeteria on the Plaza de las Cuatro Culturas. The bustling square in the old town overlooks the 17th-century fortress built to protect against the Berber tribes. The fear that thousands will make the crossing here is a good thing. “Morocco just opened the gate!” an elderly woman shouts indignantly. Groups of Moroccan youths watch attentively on the edge of the square. They wait for the customers to leave their table so that they can snatch some leftover tapas and half-full beer bottles. The waiter arrives just too late to stop and chase two boys.
“These Moroccan youth come to Melilla in search of a better future,” said José Alonso of the Melilla Human Rights Association. The city is a popular crossing point, because the Moroccan surrounding villages are so close to the border. In the past, young people used to hide in car trunks or between goods. “They’ve been trying to swim into Melilla since the border closed. Last week, four more bodies washed up on the beach here. In reality, there are probably more who don’t make it.”
In order not to be seen by the Guardia Civil, Moroccan youths often swim at night. “They have about one hour to reach the beach. If it lasts longer, they become hypothermic and sink to the bottom of the bay.”

If they succeed, the city government often places the minors in shelters such as La Purisima, an old colonial building that overlooks the city. The Spanish newspaper Público already revealed in 2019 that the children there face problems such as drug use, overcrowding, unsanitary bathrooms, lack of food, shelter and hot water, abuse and even sexual assault. Menores migrantes or “menas”, as they are called, were also housed in the Temporary Immigrant Reception Center (CETI) on the outskirts of the city, and since 11 May, the bullfighting arena in the center of the city has also been used as makeshift refuge for the migrant menores. There, too, appalling living conditions await them. Many young people therefore do not return to the overcrowded reception centers at the end of the day and are forced to choose a life on the street. Amnesty International, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) condemned in August 2020 those “abominable living conditions” of minors. The organizations emphasize that the corona crisis has only made the situation worse. Amnesty International urged the Spanish government to speed up transfers to the mainland to combat overcrowding. The IOM and UNHCR ask the board to provide better reception. So far, the situation in reception centers for minors remains unchanged. Locals in Melilla, meanwhile, are fed up with their iconic bullfighting arena being used to house migrants.
It is not surprising to Carlos Eccheveria that it is mainly young Moroccans who flee their country. He argues that Morocco is using the hopeless economic situation of minors on the Moroccan side for their own foreign political agenda. There they say: send your boys to Europe, they will take care of them. Morocco knows that, as a global defender of human rights, it is difficult for the EU to return minors who have reached European territory.” Echeverria emphasizes that minors who reach the enclaves often try to travel on to Germany, France or Belgium. “So it’s not just the problem of Melilla, Ceuta or Madrid, it’s a European problem. These events in the enclaves should be a turning point for European migration policy in Spain.”
Meanwhile, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, expressed support for the enclaves and Spain. Von der Leyen emphasizes the need for European policy solutions for migration, but also the need for cooperation with key partners in the region such as Morocco.

“Anything is better than this prison”
The Spanish prime minister canceled a trip to France and visited the enclaves in haste on Tuesday. Morocco usually reacts incensed when senior officials or members of the royal family visit the areas and Spanish flags are flown. In 2009, Morocco recalled its ambassador from Madrid after Spain’s King Juan Carlos visited Melilla. Even now, Sanchez’s arrival at the enclaves on the other side of the border is not to the liking.
Melilla has long been frustrated that Madrid is forgetting them. Proponents and opponents of the government gather in the Plaza de España. With Spanish flags in hand, one side shouts, “Sanchez, you scoundrel, mind the fence,” others chant, “Melilla is Spain.”
Flanked by security personnel, Sanchez vows to “restore order” at the borders. The government is warning Morocco that if they intend to put pressure on Ceuta and Melilla with these deliberate actions, Spain will respond with determination and force. Afterwards, a Moroccan boy addresses us in broken French: ‘Everything is better than this prison.’

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