Spain at the sharp end of migrant debate as controversial fencing draws blood
Razor wire is used to protect two Spanish cities on north African coast
Tthe border fence and a monitoring tower between Spain and Morocco in the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Photograph: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP
Despite Spain’s economic woes, the country’s lustre as a promised land for immigrants, particularly from Africa, refuses to fade. Spain and its offshore territories are a gateway to Europe as far as sub-Saharan Africans are concerned and many still risk their lives or physical wellbeing to get there.
The hazardous 14km journey from Morocco across the Gibraltar Strait to the Spanish mainland is a common route for African migrants. Another is to scale the heavily guarded six-metre-high fences that separate Morocco from the Spanish cities of Melilla and Ceuta in north Africa.
A clampdown by Spanish and Moroccan authorities helped reduce the number of those coming at the end of the last decade. But over the past year or so, ongoing economic hardship in Africa and conflicts in countries such as Mali have seen an increase again.
During the first nine months of 2013, Spanish authorities intercepted or rescued about 1,400 migrants travelling by boat. But many others are believed to have either slipped through or drowned during the crossing, which is frequently attempted in an overcrowded, tiny vessel, or even using an inflatable dinghy.
Likewise, the Melilla and Ceuta borders are seeing regular night-time attempts by groups of Africans to scale their fences. A typical case was in the early hours of January 15th, when a group of around 60 migrants got over the Melilla fence and were chased by Spanish civil guards through the streets of the city until giving themselves up. They were taken to an internment centre from where they are eventually likely to be released.
On January 22nd, a Spanish civil guard helicopter spotted about 800 migrants gathering in Morocco near the Melilla fence, in preparation for a mass attempt to cross the border. Moroccan authorities were alerted and none of the migrants completed the crossing.
However, the Spanish government’s management of the Ceuta and Melilla borders, in particular its use of razor wire, has generated controversy.
The Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero introduced the wire, which is much sharper and more hazardous than ordinary barbed wire, in 2005, when attempts by migrants to scale the fence were peaking. However, the administration removed them from the upper part of the Melilla fence in 2007 due to safety concerns.
But late last year, the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy reintroduced the razor wire in that same area. In November, interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz insisted it was “passive and not aggressive”, pointing out that similar wire is used to protect many prisons and even the European Parliament.
The head of Spain’s police force, Ignacio Cosidó, also spoke out in favour of the measure. “If we don’t have safe borders, where there is an effective control over who comes in and who leaves, then Spanish security will be enormously vulnerable,” he said.
But the razor wire has drawn accusations from political parties, charities and other organisations that Spain’s determination to protect its border is violating human rights and literally spilling blood.
An association of professionals in the justice sector warned that the wire’s installation was “incompatible with the respect for the dignity of people that is enshrined in the constitution as a basis for political and social order” and several opposition parties have called for it to be taken down.
Brussels has also voiced its disapproval: earlier this month, European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström called on Spain to consider “alternative measures” for its border security.
Television news reports and newspapers have shown the grisly injuries that the razor wire can cause, cutting through the industrial gloves and thick clothing that migrants often wear during their bids to get over the fences. Blood-stained articles of clothing are frequently left dangling on the wire after a mass attempt to scale it.
“As soon as we started climbing, the razors started cutting us,” one sub-Saharan African told El País newspaper. “I got the deepest cuts at the top of the fence, in my hands and stomach.” He said it took medical staff at Melilla hospital 12 hours to stitch him up.
Ceuta has also had the razor wire installed for several years. A Senegalese man died from the wounds caused by the wire when scaling the fence between Morocco and the Spanish city in 2009.
It is still not clear how effective the controversial wire has been in curbing illegal immigration. But many of its critics warn that no such containment measures will ever work as long as the massive economic differences between Europe and Africa remain.
“They will come via the fence or via whichever other way they can, but those who come over the fence will do so with more serious injuries or they might even die,” said Manuel Soria, of the Melilla Coalition, an opposition group in the city’s assembly. “You can’t stop hunger and poverty with razors and blood.”