Stark reality for migrants seeking better life in Spain

From all over Africa, people try to scale fences into Spanish enclaves in Morocco

Ibrahim, from Ivory Coast: “We’ve got it into our heads that we have to get to Europe, however difficult that might be.” Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe

Ibrahim, from Ivory Coast: “We’ve got it into our heads that we have to get to Europe, however difficult that might be.” Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe


Twenty feet up a tree, Ibrahim seems to have little regard for his safety as he reaches out at full stretch and snaps off branches for firewood. But since leaving his native Ivory Coast three years ago, this 18 year old has been in many more dangerous situations.

He is gathering the wood for the camp he and others from his country live in on the Moroccan mountain, Gourougou. Covered in forest and often shrouded in low cloud, Gourougou looks down on to the North African coast, just a few miles away. On that same coastline, within sight of the mountainside camp, is the Spanish city of Melilla, which represents the dream of these Africans: to reach Europe.

“We’ve got it into our heads that we have to get to Europe, however difficult that might be,” Ibrahim says, as he stacks the firewood into a large bundle. “This is no way to live,” he adds, referring to the camp.

Migrants from across sub-Saharan Africa are living up here. Many of them have been doing so for months, waiting for the right moment to descend en masse in the night, evade Moroccan security forces and scale the six-metre-high double border fence, which is crowned with flesh-ripping razor wire. Once over it, the law says they have reached Spain and cannot be sent back. Ibrahim says he has tried to climb it about 10 times, only to be thwarted on each occasion by Moroccan soldiers, who he says beat him brutally before he could escape back to the mountain.

The camp itself is made up of tents improvised from plastic sheets. Several small fires are smoking, some with battered cooking vessels over them. In some of the other African camps nearby there are women, but here there are only men and boys, all from Ivory Coast. Some are in their 20s, but many are teenagers.

Close to tears
Ibrahim left his country when he was 15, and he crossed Mali and Algeria by car and bus to reach Morocco. Back home, his parents and five siblings are depending on him reaching Europe and sending money back. But he is close to tears as he explains why he still has not contacted them since leaving.

“I can’t talk to them yet, because I don’t have anything,” he says. “I don’t want to tell them that I still haven’t got [to Spain]. I haven’t got the courage, you see, because if I called them now, it would only make them suffer even more.”

Ibrahim and the others in the camp are hungry for news. They want to know the results of recent Champions League football games and developments in Spain’s political debate about immigration.

Many of the migrants here say they were among those who made an attempt to cross the border just a few days earlier. Several made it to the top of the fence but, after being spotted by Spanish and Moroccan security forces, they stayed up there for six hours, fearing they would be sent back to Morocco. That is exactly what happened: on reaching Spanish territory they were escorted back to the Moroccan side. In the camp, the migrants’ frustration is compounded by injuries they say they suffered falling off the fence or being beaten by Moroccan and Spanish border guards.

The sending of migrants back over the border without going through the due legal process has drawn criticism from human rights groups and Spanish politicians, although Madrid insists that, technically, this never takes place.

Juan Antonio Delgado, spokesman for the equivalent of the Spanish Civil Guard’s labour union, the AUGC, says the ambiguous nature of the law governing the border area is to blame. Although security has been tightened along the border, he says the lack of clear guidelines for those patrolling it means they are often unsure how to carry out their duties.

“In the end it’s the civil guards that actually have to do the job, and we don’t know if we’re doing it right or not,” Delgado says. “Two or three hundred civil guards are guarding the border of Europe, the border that affects millions of Europeans.”

He adds: “When an immigrant has already travelled 3,000km, he’s going to make it into the country one way or another. It doesn’t matter if you put razor wire up, or make the fence higher, or put more police there, he’s going to try to get over.”

The Civil Guard has been under particular pressure since an incident in Spain’s other North African territory of Ceuta, on February 6th, when at least 15 migrants died trying to swim round that city’s border fence. The head of the Civil Guard first denied then admitted that agents had fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the water. Many of the survivors blamed the Civil Guard for the deaths.

The Spanish government has appealed to the EU for more help, while treating the illegal migrant challenge as primarily a security issue. Interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz recently said 40,000 sub-Saharan migrants were in Morocco waiting to cross into Ceuta and Melilla, with another 40,000 on their way from Mauritania. “We have a migratory wave of thousands and thousands of people who want to reach Spain and the EU illegally,” he said.

Several NGOs have questioned those figures and describe such language as alarmist, pointing out the number of migrants actually entering is relatively small. About 1,100 managed to climb the Melilla fence during the first 2½ months of this year, more than the equivalent period in 2013; but that figure is dwarfed by those who try to reach Spain illegally by plane.

Mohammed, an 18 year old from Mali, recently got over the Melilla fence and he has been taken into the Spanish city’s immigrant temporary stay centre, where he will remain until his arrival is formalised.

“I’m happy! I’m happy!” he says, grinning broadly. He arrived only a week ago and is still barely able to contain his excitement: “All the people who get to Spain, they’re happy.”

Although the immigrant centre is at about triple its 500-person capacity, Mohammed is impressed by how Spain is treating him. His red windcheater and trousers were donations from the centre, which also gives him a bed and food.

“Gourougou isn’t easy, it’s no good there,” he says, frowning and pointing out some migrants spend two or three years camping on the mountain.

Deserts and mountains
Having left Mali at the age of 12 with the aim of reaching Europe, his delight is understandable. The starvation and hypothermia that were a threat in the desert and mountains have vanished. When he leaves the immigrant centre, Mohammed will probably be taken to the mainland, where many other Sub-Saharan Africans who have successfully reached Spain are already.

Yet to most First World observers, their day-to-day existence hardly resembles the realisation of a dream. Many Africans earn a living standing outside supermarkets, opening the door for customers, or simply asking passersby for money.

“From our point of view, they’re doing terribly. But from their point of view, they’re doing well,” says José Palazón, of NGO Prodein, which helps migrants in Melilla. “They come from places where there’s nothing and so here [in Europe], even if they have very little, they still consider themselves well-off. And we think: ‘How can they still keep wanting to come to Europe?’”

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