Scared, hungry and homeless: Plight of hundreds of migrant children in Ceuta

Minors who fled Morocco for a better life now live in fear of attack

Migrants sleep on cardboard boxes and under a makeshift tent near Benitez beach, Ceuta. Karen Rice
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Yassine Yerrou divides his nights between the mountains in Spain's North African enclave Ceuta and a makeshift tent propped up by discarded ironing boards behind the litter-strewn breakwaters that run along Benitez beach. Mattresses are fashioned from cardboard boxes.

“I’ve got nothing at home,” said Yassine, 17, from the northern Morocco city of Tetouan. “But I don’t want to stay in Ceuta, I want to go to mainland Spain. I’m surviving on bread and any food people give me on the street.”

He and his friend Marwan Tojguani, 16, from the town of Martil in Tangier, are among hundreds of migrant children who arrived in Ceuta in May when Morocco loosened its borders, leaving Spanish officials scrambling to cope with a humanitarian and diplomatic crisis.

The boys choose not to live in the stark warehouses intended to house migrant children, instead preferring to sleep rough on the streets, in parks, mountainside or in between concrete sea defences in subhuman conditions on the beachfront.

Yahya Aarab (left), 25, from Tangier and Yassine Yerrou, 17, from the northern Morocco city of Tetouan sleep on Ceuta's sea defences. Karen Rice

Like many fearful migrant children hiding out from police in Ceuta, Marwan, who speaks only Arabic and carries his life belongings in a half-empty plastic bag, moves from one neighbourhood to the next seeking shelter, food and water, trying to avoid violent confrontations. He never spends more than a night at a time in one place.

He chose not to seek medical help when he was subjected to a recent racist attack at the hands of locals. “The suckers burned my face with a lit cigarette,” said Marwan, who was orphaned at the age of two when his parents died in a car crash in Morocco. “These men pinned me down and burned my face. They told me to get out of Ceuta. The burns are really sore but I didn’t go to hospital because I’m afraid they’ll send me back to Morocco.”

More than a month after the unprecedented influx of approximately 8,000 migrants in Ceuta on May 17 and 18, some 1,500 migrant children – some as young as 10 – continue to be ‘housed’ across three overcrowded warehouses that are not fit for purpose and are in violation of children’s rights, according to a report into the crisis by No Name Kitchen, Maakum Ceuta and ELIN.

The Tarajal warehouse, Ceuta. Karen Rice

These migrants, who are mostly aged 16 and 17, came to Spain for a better life because in Morocco there is "no life, no work, no money".

Under Spanish law, migrant children who arrive in Spain have the same rights as Spanish children and cannot be returned to their home country without their consent. However, while about 200 were relocated to other parts of Spain, many were returned irregularly, against their will and against international protocol.

These men pinned me down and burned my face. They told me to get out of Ceuta.

In the crammed warehouses, children were initially forced to urinate in plastic bottles for a week before five mobile toilets were installed but access to them is often denied; they shower outside in cold water for a maximum of five minutes; go up to 11 hours between meals consisting of water, juice and cold sandwiches; sleep on shelves and are prohibited from going outside even for fresh air. Once the migrant children are given Covid-19 tests, they are allocated to warehouses for positive or negative cases although restricted space doesn't allow for social distancing.

The report, Violations of the Rights of Children, Girls, Adolescents and Young Migrants in Ceuta, described conditions in the warehouses as a "breeding ground for serious conflict" where children routinely suffer "neglect, punishment, intimidation and violence from staff".

Marwan Tojguani, 16, from the town of Martil in Tangier says he suffered two cigarette burns to his face in an attack in Ceuta. Karen Rice

Irina Samy, a violence reporter with the No Name Kitchen charity, said the state failed to take responsibility for children living on the streets in Ceuta and outside of the child protection system at a time when their rights were being violated every day. The report said there was no external body or agency observing and evaluating what is going on in Ceuta except for the Save the Children organisation, which has five staff identifying and assessing minors in one of the warehouses. The rest of the children are helpless.

“The children on the streets are surviving on handouts outside supermarkets and petrol stations,” Ms Samy said. “They’re unaccompanied, it’s not just about their survival, it’s about their mental health too.

“They’ve experienced aggression from locals, they’ve been punched and hit, suffered black eyes and deep cuts. Their attackers have wielded knives and there have been guns.

“On the other side, they’re facing aggression from police and security. One 14 year old told us he was in a toilet in one of the warehouses and a policeman came in and hit him. It’s an abuse of power, we don’t know why it happened.

“We are working urgently to inform the minors about their rights and to teach them how to make informed decisions. They need to understand that they should report this abuse. Dignified solutions need to be found for these children. We believe the best thing that can happen is for the minors to be relocated. Until then, better spaces must be found for them. They should not be penalised for seeking a better life.”

Last month's influx of migrants into Ceuta, which has a 30 per cent unemployment rate and can trace its Spanish past to the 15th century, came amid heightened tension between Madrid and Morocco's capital Rabat over Spain's decision to allow independence leader Brahim Ghali to be treated for Covid-19 in Spain.

Ms Samy said the crisis needed a humanitarian response as opposed to a political one. Within days of the influx, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez deployed troops to patrol the border with Morocco, stationing armoured vehicles along the beach, and warned Morocco, which covets Ceuta, that it would defend “the territorial integrity of Spain with whatever means necessary”.

The crisis was stoked with a visit to Ceuta by Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish far-right party Vox, who previously called for a wall at the border to stop the flow of immigrants.

One Ceutian told The National: "Ceuta is still saturated with migrants. The locals make them hot food but others are against helping out because some of the migrants have been involved in thefts and attacks, they're a mixed bunch. Some of the older migrants have taken food off the younger ones, there's infighting.

"Ceuta is small and we don’t have the resources or infrastructure to cope, it’s terrible. They can’t stay stuck in warehouses forever.”

Both the Spanish government and police declined to comment.