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Spain's African doorway

Guy Hedgecoe, CeutaApril 27, 2015

The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the north African coast are a land border between two continents. Every year, thousands try to reach the two cities by land and sea, as Guy Hedgecoe reports from Ceuta.

Migrants in Ceuta
Image: DW/G. Hedgecoe

It's been two years since Mohammed Sissoko left his native Conakry, in the West African state of Guinea, after his parents were killed in tribal fighting. His objective was to reach Europe and he crossed Mali, Mauritania and Morocco by land before navigating a small dingy with six other people to the Spanish city of Ceuta on the North African coast.

It was a dangerous boat journey that took him nine hours. "Some people spend days and nights on the water," he says. Mohammed is dressed in clothes that had been given to him by Ceuta's immigrant temporary stay center, at the top of a wooded hill just outside the center of the city, where he has been living for the last five months.

"I'm in Ceuta and I don't know when I'm going to leave this place," he says. "From here I want to go to Europe and see if I can continue my education. I have to have an education if I'm going to have a chance to get work."

Around 500 migrants, most of them from sub-Saharan Africa, are currently housed in the center, which is close to its maximum capacity. Technically, Ceuta is in the European Union, but these migrants usually have to wait several months for the authorities to process their legal status and either repatriate them or take them to the Spanish mainland, where their new lives will start in earnest.

Last year, an estimated 20,000 migrants tried to reach Europe via Ceuta and Spain's other city in North Africa, Melilla. With Spanish and Moroccan authorities having worked together to tighten border controls in recent years, only around 10 percent of those achieved their goal. But many thousands more continue to make the journey northward, determined to find a way of reaching Spanish soil.

Getting in

In Melilla, the most common way of trying to cross the border is by scaling a six-meter-high fence covered in razor wire. In Ceuta, the methods change, as migrants seek to dodge the attentions of the authorities.

"The most common way they come across nowadays is in cars, in hidden compartments, behind the seats or in the trunk," says Gonzalo Testa, a Ceuta-based journalist who closely follows the migration issue. "Before that, the most common way to come was by water - swimming or in small boats, toy boats, like the ones kids use."

In February 2014, an attempt by a group of migrants to reach Ceuta went horribly wrong. Around 200 sub-Saharan Africans waded into the sea on the Moroccan side of the border at a place called El Tarajal, hoping to swim round the border fence, which stretches into the Mediterranean Sea. Waiting on the shore were Spanish civil guards armed with riot gear, including rubber bullets and tear gas. Once in the water, the migrants started to panic and at least 15 of them drowned.

The cause of that panic -and the migrants' deaths - has been the subject of intense scrutiny since. In recent weeks, 16 civil guards have been investigated by a court for their alleged role in what has become known as the "El Tarajal tragedy."

The government says the migrants caused their own deaths because of the scramble in the water. But forensic evidence and contradictory statements by the head of the Civil Guard, Arsenio Fernandez de la Mesa, and the interior ministry over whether or not rubber bullets and gas were fired near the migrants, have fueled criticism of the authorities' handling of the incident. Survivors of the tragedy have even accused the civil guards of shooting directly at them in the water.

'A terrible mistake'

"They didn't shoot at the [migrants], they shot at the water," says Juan Antonio Delgado, of the Civil Guard's equivalent to a labor union. "But it shouldn't have happened. Someone gave an order and the civil guards followed it."

Delgado describes the El Tarajal tragedy as "a terrible mistake," which is symptomatic of the enormous pressure being exerted by security officials and politicians in Madrid who want to limit the numbers of migrants arriving. With only 50 or so civil guards patrolling the border between Ceuta and Morocco at any one time, Delgado adds, manpower, resources and even a clear procedure are all lacking when it comes to handling migrants.

"Improvisation is always bad," he says. "We need a law, a protocol that's clear and which gives legal guarantees to the civil guards and to the migrants."

Even then, he says, it can be virtually impossible to stop those who are trying to enter, such is their desperation to reach Europe. "Many of them have traveled thousands of kilometers to get there. Some of the women have been raped along the way. It's a very dramatic situation. So once a migrant gets there, they're determined to get across."

A cooperation crisis

At Ceuta's Red Cross headquarters, Germinal Castillo says that over the previous week, he and his colleagues have given first aid to 20 migrants. Of those, eight came by boat and the rest, he thinks, were hidden inside cars.

"I think the key to solving all of this is in international cooperation, he says. It's about working in the countries of origin [but] the European economic crisis has hit international cooperation hard."

The summer is approaching, when more migrants try to travel to Ceuta and the Spanish mainland by boat. In addition, Frontex, the EU border agency, has forecast that 2015 will see a record number of undocumented migrant arrivals in Europe. Castillo knows what to expect.

"As long as there are human beings who cannot live in decent conditions in their place of origin, logic says they will have to find those conditions somewhere else," he says.

"It's so obvious. If we have the right to three meals a day, why shouldn't they?"

Migrants in Ceuta
Human traficking is a growing problemImage: DW/G. Hedgecoe
Migrants in Ceuta
Once they reach Europe, many unskilled migrants face an uncertain futureImage: DW/G. Hedgecoe
Migrants in Ceuta
Many migrants need medical care, straining public servicesImage: DW/G. Hedgecoe