Written by 6:30 pm Crossing Borders

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. “Anything is better than this prison,” say the Moroccan youth.

‘My childhood was all about geopolitics. We didn’t jump rope, we jumped from one country to another.’ Laura Jimenez (38), a local fixer, guides us along the impressive 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 at the enclaves in such large numbers since April 2020. The Spanish government decided to deploy the army at the border for the first time since 2014 and the Guardia Civil is being reinforced with 400 officers , to ‘guarantee the integrity of the borders of the two cities’.

“Everything became complicated when Spain joined the European Union,” says Jimenez. A migration route emerged via the North African enclaves, the new gates of Europe. In 1993 a higher fence was built, 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, laughing.

A few minutes later, two green and white jeeps arrive at high speed and we are surrounded. Even though we have a permit to photograph the border, they interrogate us with walkie-talkie in hand and want to see our images. A few phone calls and an identity check later, we are allowed to continue our journey.

Territorial doctrine

The current fence meanders along arid hills and straight through villages, ending in the sea. On the Moroccan side, guard posts with blacked-out 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 have seen more and more heavily armed border guards and army barracks there,” says Jimenez. Normally, Morocco stops migrants in exchange for financing. “They often use violence for that.” At the end of April, there was also an attempted crossing by sixty migrants in Melilla, who were stopped by Moroccan border guards.

The border crossings between Melilla and the surrounding Moroccan villages are also deserted. Until a few years ago, thousands of traders easily crossed these junctions every day to purchase and trade goods. In March 2020, Morocco unilaterally closed the border, halting trade between Melilla and surrounding villages and causing people in the region to lose their jobs. According to Rabat to fight corona, according to the residents of Melilla to put pressure on the Spanish territories that 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 Observatory for Ceuta and Melilla, an independent Spanish think tank.

The diplomatic relationship between Spain and Morocco has 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 since. Morocco warned Madrid that good neighbors would not do this as the country considers Western Sahara 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 busy square in the old town overlooks the 17th-century fortress that was built to provide protection against the Berber tribes. There is a good fear that thousands will cross here. “Morocco just opened the gate!” an older woman shouts indignantly. At the edge of the square, groups of Moroccan young people watch attentively. They wait until customers leave their table so they can grab leftover tapas and half-full beer bottles. The waiter arrives just too late to stop two boys and chase them away.

“These Moroccan young people come to Melilla in search of a better future,” says José Alonso of the Melilla Association for Human Rights. The city is a popular crossing point because the Moroccan surrounding villages are so close to the border. In the past, young people hid in car trunks or among goods. “They have 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.’

To avoid being seen by the Guardia Civil, Moroccan young people often swim at night. ‘They have about one hour to reach the beach. If it takes longer, they will become hypothermic and sink to the bottom of the bay.’

If they do succeed, the city government often places the minors in shelters such as La Purisima, an old colonial building overlooking the city. The Spanish newspaper Público 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 May 11 the bullfighting arena in the city center has also been used as a makeshift refuge for the menores migrantes. There too, appalling living conditions await them. Many young people do not return to the overcrowded shelters at the end of the day and are forced to choose life on the street. In August 2020, Amnesty International, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) condemned the “abhorrent 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 overpopulation. The IOM and UNHCR ask the board to provide better shelter. So far, the situation in reception centers for minors remains unchanged. The local residents of Melilla are now fed up with their iconic bullring being used to house migrants.

Carlos Eccheveria is not surprised that it is mainly young Moroccans who flee their country. He states that Morocco uses the desperate economic situation of minors on the Moroccan side for their own foreign political agenda. ‘They say there: just send your boys to Europe, they will take care of them. Morocco knows that the EU, as a global advocate of human rights, has difficulty returning minors who have reached European territory.’ Echeverria emphasizes that minors who reach the enclaves often try to travel to Germany, France or Belgium. ‘So it is not just the problem of Melilla, Ceuta or Madrid, it is a European problem. These events in the enclaves should be a turning point for European migration policy in Spain.”

Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen 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 hastily visited the enclaves on Tuesday. Morocco usually reacts with outrage when senior officials or members of the royal family visit the areas and Spanish flags are displayed. In 2009, Morocco recalled its ambassador from Madrid after Spanish King Juan Carlos visited Melilla. Even now, Sanchez’s arrival at the enclaves is not popular on the other side of the border.

There has been frustration in Melilla for a long time that Madrid forgets them. Supporters and opponents of the government gather on the Plaza de España. With Spanish flags in hand, one side shouts: ‘Sanchez, you villain, mind the fence’, others chant: ‘Melilla is Spain’.

Flanked by security personnel, Sanchez promises to “restore order” at the borders. The government warns Morocco that if they intend to put pressure on Ceuta and Melilla with these deliberate actions, Spain will respond decisively and forcefully. Afterwards, a Moroccan boy speaks to us in broken French: “Anything is better than this prison.”

Last modified: June 14, 2024