As migrant arrivals surge, Spain's outposts in Africa feel the strain

Spain's territories in North Africa are now the top destination for migrants attempting to reach Europe

An African migrant in this still image from video climbs the border from Morocco to Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta, Spain, July 26, 2018.    FARO TV/REUTERS TV/via REUTERS  SPAIN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SPAIN
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The two enclaves of Spanish territory in Morocco front the Mediterranean but are surrounded by the most fortified borders in the world.

Melilla is a quaint tourist town replete with Gaudi-inspired architecture. But surrounding it four chain-link fences rise between eight and 18 feet high, several topped with razor wire. In between, taut cables and metal bars protrude from the ground at 45-degree angles, ready to break legs. Surveillance cameras and spotlights complete the defences, while doors are placed every 30 metres to expel to Morocco anyone caught while trying to illegally cross this melange of metal.

It is a scene replicated 225 kilometres northwest in Ceuta where on Thursday more than 700 migrants successfully vaulted the border fences there. Many wore little more than flipflops and sweatpants; several kissed the ground upon reaching Spanish territory.

epa06911026 Several migrants celebrate next to a Spanish policeman in Ceuta, Spanish enclave in northern Africa, after they managed to jump the border fence between Spain and Morocco, 26 July 2018. Some 400 migrants reached Spain in a mass jump of the Spanish border early morning despite the holding operation by Spanish and Moroccan security forces. More than a dozen of Spanish Civil Guard officers and five migrants were injured as security force sources said that the migrants acted violently.  EPA/REDUAN
Migrants celebrate next to a Spanish policeman in Ceuta, Spanish enclave in northern Africa, after they managed to jump the border fence between Spain and Morocco, 26 July 2018. EPA

This year, the migrant trail to Europe has swung decisively away from Greece, Turkey and Italy to the western Mediterranean region. More migrants have reached Spain in 2018 than any other EU country, and last month, more than all other European countries combined.

The draw of Melilla and Ceuta is clear for migrants and refugees. Once they set foot in either territory, they've reached the European Union and fall under the protection of Europe's migration laws. For many, scaling the fences surrounding these territories is preferable to risking drowning at sea or paying thousands of dollars to smugglers.


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Twenty-five-year-old Zuhair Abdelsamad hopes that now he's reached Melilla, life will improve dramatically. A labourer from Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, Abdelsamad managed to get in 10 days earlier using a method increasingly common among Arab migrants. "I rented a Moroccan passport from a smuggler for €500 (Dh 2,140). The first two times I was caught at the border, detained overnight and sent back; they knew it wasn't my passport. But when I tried a different border crossing it worked," he says. The Moroccan passport he used to enter to Melilla is owned or was perhaps lost by someone from Nador province, the sole Moroccan region whose residents can enter Melilla visa-free. Once Abdelsamad successfully crossed the border he says part of the deal was to hand the passport back to the smugglers who will use it again and again.

Recent years have seen thousands of desperate people from North and sub-Saharan Africa descend on Melilla. Last year more than 4,800 illegal migrants entered the city and in January 200 people stormed Melilla's southern border fence. Though North Africans make up a significant number of migrants, the majority are from Guinea, Ivory Coast and Gambia, according to the UNHCR. Countless more live in the forested hills surrounding Melilla, surviving without running water, electricity or shelter, waiting for the right moment to cross.

More than 22,000 people have reached Spain from Morocco so far this year, double the number for the corresponding period in 2017, in part due to smugglers ferrying migrants on speedboats. The threat of drowning is still acute: At least 21 refugees died off Melilla's coast in February after the boat carrying them broke up in heavy seas, while more than a fifth of the 1,504 people who have died on the Mediterranean so far this year drowned while attempting to reach Spain. Fearing death on the open seas, others have tried boarding ferries leaving for mainland Spain hidden in trucks and cars; some have suffered serious injuries in the process.

Ceuta and Milella
Ceuta and Milella

Despite the uptick, there's little authorities can do to alleviate the crisis. The EU and the government in Madrid have thrown tens of millions of euros at improving border security, with questionable success. On Friday, Melilla's mayor, Juan Jose Imbroda, addressed growing concern among locals that more migrants will be detained in holding centres on the 12.5-square-kilometre territory. Building more internment camps for foreigners, he said, would only serve to keep more migrants in the enclave. Temporary migrant reception centres in Melilla and Ceuta have already been forced to accommodate hundreds more migrants than they can cater for.

Thursday’s mass border breach in Ceuta resulted in “unprecedented violence”, the Guardia Civil said; with migrants hurling faeces and skin irritants, and using home-made flamethrowers against guards. Sixteen migrants and ten police officers were hospitalised following clashes.

Many locals were outraged by the violence. With unemployment rates in the territories already ranking among the highest in the EU, right-wing groups are finding receptive audiences.

And while Spain has been lauded internationally for agreeing to accept the 630 migrants aboard the Aquarius who were turned away from Italy and Cyprus last month, Madrid has been criticised for continuing to enact forced deportation of migrants to Morocco.

A golfer hits a tee shot as African migrants sit atop a border fence during an attempt to cross into Spanish territories between Morocco and Spain's north African enclave of Melilla October 22, 2014. Around 400 migrants attempted to cross the border into Spain, according to local media. Picture taken October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Jose Palazon  (SPAIN - Tags: SPORT GOLF SOCIETY IMMIGRATION TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)  BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE - GM1EAAN1CDU01
A golfer hits a tee shot as African migrants sit atop a border fence in Spain's north African enclave of Melilla October 22, 2014. Reuters

Back in Melilla, the smell of freshly-cut grass wafts along the border fence. It comes from the golf club, which in 2014 gained notoriety for an iconic photo of migrants sitting atop the border fence as golfers in the foreground enjoy a round of golf. A man watering his small crop of vegetables on a patch of land just metres from the border says he rarely sees people jumping the fence because it normally happens at night. Yet as recently as last Friday, four migrants successfully breached the fence in broad daylight, according to Melilla Hoy, a local newspaper.

Further down the road that runs alongside the border, Zuhair Abdelsamad is spending his evening cooking fava bean soup outside the gates of Melilla's state-run temporary migrant holding centre, where he lives pending his asylum claim being processed. While an application is being assessed, asylum seekers are issued with a temporary registration card that allows them to remain but not work, and is valid only in Melilla or Ceuta.

At night he shares a tent with his two brothers and 30 other people. "I have cousins in Toulouse, France; my plan is to move there to work," he says. "In three or four months, hopefully, I think I will be processed and let go to Spain and then France."

He sits down on a piece of timber next to his brothers, who've taken over stirring the soup. They may still be thousands of kilometres away, but they've never been more convinced of reaching a new life in France.