This article first appeared in New Internationalist on October 25, 2018. Research was made possible with the support of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship of the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America.
Omar Termoul feels trapped. He submitted his asylum application eight months ago, shortly after travelling from Algeria to Spanish territory. While a decision is pending, authorities have issued his tarjeta roja, a red card small enough to fit in his pocket, which lists his name, basic information and shows a photo of a younger, fresher-faced Omar.
All asylum seekers in Spain get a similar card – and this year there are more applicants than ever. According to the International Organization for Migration, over 40,000 migrants entered Spain through mid-September, more than over the last three years combined. But Omar didn’t get his tarjeta roja in Malaga, Cádiz or anywhere else in mainland Spain. If he had, he would have been able to move around the country freely and be one step closer to his wife in France, whom he hasn’t seen in a year.
Instead, he’s in Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the African continent, squeezed between Morocco and the Mediterranean. Legally, all asylum-seekers in Spain have the right to unrestricted travel, but the law is unevenly applied in Melilla and Ceuta, Spanish outposts on the North African coast. Many migrants here exist at the neglected periphery of Europe’s legal protections and are ignored by the Spanish government amid its gestures at embracing asylum seekers who make it to the mainland.
Migrants are barred from boarding the ferries that travel from the Spanish enclaves to mainland Europe, under a policy that has been condemned by courts, human rights advocates and criticized by the European Commission’s special representative on migration in September. Many are stuck for months or even years in cities of just a few square miles, usually living in overcrowded migrant detention centres designed to be temporary.
‘They are condemned to stay here the whole time while these asylum applications are being processed,’ says José Palazón, a member of the rights-group PRODEIN. ‘Even if they have the red card they can’t move on from here. Yet if they received this red card outside of Melilla or Ceuta [in mainland Spain] they can move freely around the country,’ he said.
Due in part to borders closing elsewhere, the route into Spain is now the busiest pathway across the Mediterranean, eclipsing Italy, Greece and other countries that were once the main entry points into Europe.
Since Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s socialist government entered office in June, Spain has received praise for adopting a relatively welcoming stance towards migrants. Madrid has directed Valencia to accept boats of migrants turned away at other ports and promised to extend healthcare coverage to new arrivals, among other reforms.
But the migrants stuck at detention centres in Melilla and Ceuta feel forgotten. ‘We are like prisoners here,’ says Sabre, 25, another Algerian who has been staying at the Melilla migrant detention centre since March. ‘They don’t give us anything. We just eat and sleep, like animals.’
Carmen González-Enríquez, a senior analyst at the Spanish think tank Elcano Royal Institute, says the government’s much publicized ‘new approach’ is mostly symbolic. ‘The government’s ideology means it is more sensitive to the well-being of irregular migrants and respect for their rights. But it’s not going to translate into a markedly different policy,’ she says.
Thousands of Moroccans are allowed across the border daily to work and shop, and Carmen pinpoints this as the reason why asylum seekers living in the enclaves are subject to different rules. Special provisions of Europe’s visa-free Schengen area allow Europeans to travel to the cities of Ceuta and Melilla but stop Moroccans from getting any further without a visa. The cities exist in a sort of legal grey area, says Carmen, which strips asylum seekers of their freedom to travel to other parts of Spain. While legal advocates have fought the rules and won cases for individual migrants, they have thus far been unable to transform the broader policy.
‘The Algerians don’t leave’
Melilla’s migrant detention centre, known by its Spanish acronym CETI, is at nearly double capacity. This summer, more than a dozen people arrived per day on average, according to director Carlos Montero.
The facility’s grounds are large and colourful; it’s almost reminiscent of a primary school in places. But nearly a dozen people are crammed together on bunk beds in small bedrooms. Unaccompanied minors stay in a separate nearby facility that’s also overcapacity (the facility is closed to journalists but the EU has reported that conditions are cramped and some children sleep on mattresses on the floor).
Once a week, a few dozen migrants receive special clearance and are transferred out to mainland Spain based on their health and the amount of time they’ve been in the detention centre, says Montero. But their places are quickly filled by new arrivals.
Many migrants say they wish they had invested instead in the more perilous journey across the sea to the mainland
Montero says most migrants are stuck at his facility because there’s simply no space for them in migrant centres on the mainland, which have filled up as increasing numbers of asylum seekers reach mainland Spain via the sea.
‘There has to be a centre available to host them. The people that are arriving in those boats are occupying those vacancies,’ says Montero.
Moroccans and Algerians face additional hurdles put in place to discourage them from seeking asylum purely for economic reasons.
‘If we admitted everyone from Morocco they all would come here, and travel freely to mainland Europe,’ Montero says.
Under the law, all nationalities should have an equal shot at receiving asylum, but residents of the CETI complain that certain nationalities get special treatment.
‘These permits are granted to Tunisians, Palestinians, Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis,’ says Omar, the Algerian migrant. ‘But the Algerians don’t get to leave.’
Omar is a former policeman who was jailed for three years in a government crackdown following the Arab Spring, he says. The authoritarian Algerian government stands accused of jailing protesters and buying off critics to quell dissent, particularly during elections in 2014, when President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was re-elected for his fourth five-year term. Demonstrations are banned in Algiers and in 2017 authorities prosecuted a number of Algerians for criticizing the government. If sent back to Algeria, Omar says he would be arrested and thrown back in jail.
Between the fence and the sea
To reach Melilla, Omar travelled to Morocco and paid €1,200 ($1,400) for a fake passport that he used to walk across the border. Had Moroccan authorities known he intended to seek asylum, they likely would have prevented him from crossing, advocates say.
Those migrants who can’t afford false documents may climb the six-metre fence – topped in some places by rings of razor wire – that runs for nearly 12 kilometres around Melilla. Others pay smugglers to sneak across hidden in the undercarriage of cars. Some go via the water in small boats, making a semi-circle around the fence. Human rights activists accuse Morocco of torturing migrants who get caught trying to cross.
Despite the obstacles, these routes can be less hazardous than the boat journeys across the Mediterranean, in which at least 1,730 people have died this year.
Faced with indefinite detention in Melilla, many migrants say they wish they had invested instead in the more perilous journey across the sea to the mainland. A few who have arrived in Melilla have avoided requesting asylum and instead are hoping to sneak on to ferries headed across the sea, advocates say.
‘If we had another chance, we’d go straight there [to Spain],’ said Sabre. ‘We’d take a boat. We wouldn’t come here. Everyone has this problem.’