The Kids Trapped on the Doorstep of Europe

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

The Spanish city of Melilla is a fortified pocket of Spain in Morocco, where young migrants from across Africa gather to attempt the dangerous crossing into the E.U.

Teaser Image Caption
"I would love for many things to change," says Ahmed, who's 17. "That they could make it easier for us to work. That they could stop mistreating us. That they respect us.”

This article first appeared in CityLab on September 5, 2018. It was produced in partnership with Univision; a version of it in Spanish was previously published here. Research was made possible with the support of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship of the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America.

The fence emerges from the ground like a metal snake zigzagging through the arid African hills, hidden behind barbed wire and watchtowers. On one side of the fence is Morocco; on the other is Spain. For the thousands of immigrants who dream of crossing it, this fence is a door to the European Union.    

Melilla is one of two cities in Morocco that are formally part of Spain. The other, Ceuta, is located right across the Straight of Gibraltar and just 14 miles from the southern coast of mainland Spain; Melilla is in the heart of the eastern region of Morocco known as the Rif, an hour from the Algerian border and more than 120 miles south of Motril, in Andalusia, the closest port in mainland Spain. The two cities represent the only land borders between the European Union and Africa.  

This part of Morocco was conquered by Spain at the end of the 16th century and then administered as a protectorate until Morocco obtained its independence in 1956. Spain, however, opted to retain Ceuta and Melilla. It’s an arrangement that Morocco has contested, but the African nation has never formally claimed the two cities. As an autonomous Spanish city, Melilla has its own president and legislative assembly. The city also acts as a tax-free port for goods coming from Europe, which end up being exchanged with Morocco through one of the four border checkpoints both nations share. As a pocket of European affluence in the middle of Morocco’s most remote coast, Melilla has become a magnet for migrants from other parts of Africa.

Accordingly, Melilla is a walled and fortified city: Its 4.5 square miles are enclosed by a perimeter of 18-foot-high fencing, three layers deep. First erected in 1998, the barrier has been enhanced with motion detection devices, watchtowers, and razor-sharp concertina wire. Still, both Melilla and its sister city have had their border fences stormed periodically by large groups of migrants. One of the largest took place in Ceuta in July, when nearly 800 people climbed the fence and jumped into the city.

Among E.U. nations, Spain is now receiving the largest number of migrants from outside Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. Between January and July of this year, 18,653 immigrants have arrived by sea to some point in the Spanish territory, while Italy and Greece have received 17,838 and 14,940 respectively. Boats and improvised rafts full of African migrants regularly land on Andalusian beaches; their numbers have doubled since 2017. One recent video that made international headlines showed a rubber boat filled with more than 50 Moroccan immigrants, including several children, landing on Spain’s southern coast as startled beachgoers watched.

Incidents like these have made Melilla a particularly tense hot spot in the relationship between the European Union and Morocco. Spain pursues a policy known as “border externalization”—it provides financial resources to Morocco to help control the waves of undocumented immigrants to the two Spanish enclaves in that country. Between 2010 and 2016, the most recent year from which data can be obtained, Spain has given around $250 million to Morocco for economic assistance, according to the Spanish Agency for Cooperation.

The United States pursues a similar policy with Mexico, which has received more than $100 million from Washington to increase surveillance on the border between Mexico and Guatemala, thus acting as the first barrier to reduce the flow of Central American migrants to the United States.  

In the Spanish case, border security is also used as a negotiation element. “Whenever there is a negotiation underway, Morocco stops monitoring the border and [uses] fence jumps as a mechanism of pressure in any negotiation it has with the European Union and with Spain,” says Jaime Pons, technical coordinator of the Jesuit Migrant Service of Spain, one of the NGOs that works most with immigrants in the Iberian Peninsula.

A Spanish Guardia Civil officer patrols the fence that separates Melilla from Morocco.

Meanwhile, behind the fences separating the city of Melilla from Morocco, life goes on for the city’s 85,000 residents, a mix of mainland Spaniards who were relocated there for military or governmental purposes and eastern Moroccans, who have a large presence in the city. With the Mediterranean on one side and the fence on the other, Melilla is a dense, crowded blend of European and North African cultures, where Spanish blends with Arabic and Berber, the local language from the Rif region. It’s also intensely segregated: In the city center, you’ll find a trove of Modernist architecture, tourist-filled beaches and tapas bars, and wealthy Spanish residents. In the hilly neighborhoods, near the fence, the less-privileged Arab and Berber population lives.

Beyond that fence lie the informal settlements and migrant camps that line the hills overlooking the city; there, thousands gather and wait for an opportunity to cross.

“I thought I was going to paradise”

Ahmed is 17; he’s from Fes, a Moroccan city 200 miles away from Melilla. But now he lives among the rocks of the city’s breakwater with three other teenagers. They have a couple of blankets, a metal pot, a frying pan, and a water jug that they refill once a day. Later tonight, in the hours before dawn, they will try to get over the fence that separates them from the Old City and the port, where they can see four boats bound for Europe.

“We are here to cross. Nothing else,” says Ahmed.

He left his home over a year ago, fueled by the promise of a better life in Europe. He has joined a wave of minors who have become the protagonists of Spain and the E.U.’s latest immigration crisis. Ahmed arrived in Melilla last year; he made it through one of the border crossings as part of a stampede of immigrants who burst into the city all at once. There are about 1,000 unaccompanied foreign minors like him living in Melilla. Most are housed in one of several prison-like shelters operated by the city, but perhaps 150 or so live on the streets.  

“I thought I was going to paradise. I thought that Melilla was a good city, that they helped people. But when I arrived it was all the other way around. It was the world upside down,” says Ahmed. “They treat you badly on the street. They treat you badly in the minors’ center. They do not give you the papers. It’s like you do not exist.”  

A group of young Moroccan migrants light a bonfire on the beach.

The flow of unaccompanied foreign minors to Melilla has been going on since the late 1990s, but has increased sharply in recent years. Between January and April of this year, Spain received 6,248 unaccompanied migrant children—more than in all of 2017—and about 1,000 of them came via Melilla. Most are from Morocco, but some are from Algeria, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Many, like Ahmed, simply ran into Melilla, stampeding through Beni Ensar, the main border checkpoint between Melilla and Morocco. Others crossed the border hidden in secret compartments inside cars and trucks, or by swimming, or with false documentation. Relatively few succeed in climbing the fence.

Upon reaching the city, these children enter the Spanish protection system. Under Spanish law, unaccompanied foreign minors can become legal residents nine months after entering state protection. But if their documentation isn’t processed in a timely fashion—which is typical—the minors can be caught in a cycle of exclusion, unable to either work or migrate to Europe. Many find themselves trapped in a bureaucratic limbo until they turn 18, when they’re expelled from the juvenile centers with their residence permits already expired or nearing expiration, without any legal representation. After that, most are swiftly deported.

“The laws are not being followed,” says Rosa García, activist and member of Harraga, an NGO that worked with unaccompanied foreign minors in Melilla from 2014 to 2017. “A child that has been in the city for nine months must have his or her first residence permit, and they do not have it. That is the biggest obstacle.”

It’s a situation with some echoes of the controversy over asylum seekers in the United States, where 37,450 unaccompanied foreign minors––most of them from Guatemala––arrived between October 2017 and June of this year, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.

Unlike Central American children who are trying to escape from organized crime and systemic violence, however, most minors in Melilla are seeking economic opportunities, not political asylum. “I came to find a life,” says Ahmed. “To work. To help my family. To look for a better future.”

A debate over “the pull effect”

In theory, migrants who have relatives living Europe could be allowed to live with them—Ahmed, for example, says he has a cousin and uncle in Marseille, France. But in practice, this isn’t always permitted: Spain does not have a family reunification policy for migrant children.

This contrasts with the U.S., where unaccompanied minors who arrived in the so-called 2014 crisis from Mexico and Central America were temporarily held by the Department of Health and Human Services and then, in most cases, reunified with a family member or a certified sponsor in the United States. The minors are held at more than 100 reception centers in 17 states throughout the country, and the average stay in these centers is 56 days in 2018, according to DHS data.

It’s a policy—sometimes derided as “chain migration”—that has attracted much controversy as the Trump administration demands new restrictions on immigration procedures. In May, it became known that the government did not know the whereabouts of almost 1,500 unaccompanied minors who had been under the protection of the U.S. authorities; a separate furor erupted when the Justice Department initiated a family separation policy, taking 2,551 children away from their parents at the U.S. border.

In Melilla, minors who arrive unaccompanied cannot be redistributed to other centers within Spanish territory. They are trapped, with the fence on one side, and the Mediterranean on the other. “We lack space and sufficient structural resources to be able to deal with this migratory pressure,” says Daniel Ventura, Melilla’s minister of Social Welfare, who is responsible for unaccompanied foreign minors who arrive in the city.

Moroccan nationals demand the opening of Barrio Chino, one of Melilla’s four points of entry. The border had been closed due to Ramadan.

Other autonomous communities and provinces on the Spanish mainland, Ventura says, have refused to take in migrants, overwhelming the juvenile centers in the city. “It is unacceptable that there is no inter-territorial solidarity,” he says. ”They do not have a border fence, or the sea on the other hand. You cannot leave the responsibility to a community of four square miles.”  

According to a protocol published by three Spanish ministries in 2014 during the administration of former Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the nation’s policies “must be aimed at the return of the child to their country of origin.”

“In the end, the European migration agenda can be summarized in: do not let them arrive; that if they arrive, that they do not enter; and that if they enter, they leave,” says Pons of the Jesuit Migrant Service.

“The minors would be much better at home with their father and their mother. Moreover, they would be better in their country of origin.”

“The minors would be much better at home with their father and their mother. Moreover, they would be better in their country of origin.”

Defenders of this migration policy often cite the perils of the “pull effect,” says Catalina Perasso, head of childhood policies for the NGO Save The Children. That’s the idea that “if we reunify them with their families, that if we build more centers, that if we take care of them and respect their rights, more will come.”

Ventura says this principle is correct. “The minors would be much better at home with their father and their mother. Moreover, they would be better not only with their father and their mother, but in their country of origin,” he says. “If we started to build more centers here, right now, they would be filled in two minutes. They are incentivized [to cross the border] if they know that there is more space.”

But advocates for migrants dispute the idea. “The ‘pull effect’ does not exist,” says Verónica Barroso of Amnesty International. “The minors, the immigrants, will continue to arrive anyway, as long as the situations in their countries of origin do not improve. It’s survival.”  

Among Melilla residents, public opinion is strongly against the migrant children. That’s mixed with a more general strain of anti-Muslim feeling in this city, which tends to be politically conservative. (The military uprising that heralded the start of the Spanish Civil War and the regime of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco began in Melilla; a statue of Franco still stands in the city.) “To the people of Melilla, these minors are undesirable. They are the ones who steal. They represent crime. They are the ones who ‘rape our daughters.’” says Pons, from the Jesuit Migrant Service. Local crime statistics, according to law enforcement officials, don’t support this: No unaccompanied foreign minor, whether on the street or sheltered in a protection center, has committed murder or rape in Melilla.

In a sense, the situation in the city is a microcosm of the vast European immigration crisis, Pons says. “In the end, all this––the borders, the fence, the immigration routes, the minors, the immigrants––has been concentrated in a town of 4 square miles, with a provincial mentality, bucolic, very localized, and on the margins of the world,” he says. “And yet, it’s a key piece of Spain and Europe.”

Behind bars in La Purísima  

The heart of the migrant crisis in Melilla is far from the center of the city, perched on a remote hill near the border fence with Morocco. Between May and July of 2018, more than 270 children have entered La Purísima, the largest juvenile center in Melilla.

It’s a former military base that was adapted to shelter migrants in the 2000s. It was designed accommodate 130 minors; it now holds more than 600.  

A young migrant behind bars in La Purísima.

Melilla’s authorities didn’t permit reporters to enter the compound, which has been criticized by human rights advocates for overcrowding and unhealthy conditions. Touring the perimeter of the site offers a sense of why: At a first glance, La Purísima looks more like a prison than a shelter for children. The facility is surrounded by a barren field covered in mattresses and improvised shacks, where migrants sleep after being expelled from the center as they reached 18 years old. Human excrement is everywhere.  

“There is a worker who hits you, who breaks your head, breaks your arm,” says one unaccompanied minor sheltered inside, who speaks from behind some rusty bars leading to a corridor no more than a meter wide. “There are no cameras inside the center, only alarms. There are many of us who get sick, and they do not take us to the hospital—they take you when you are already dead.”

Near the facility, the smell of feces and urine is overwhelming; flies swarm among the arms and legs of these children. The windows are covered with bars and metal plates. In the room beyond, you can see mattresses on the floor beside four bunk beds of three beds each—fourteen beds inside one small room.  

A video shot by Harraga shows similar conditions:

Hacinamiento en el Centro de menores Purísima Melilla - harraga asociación

video-thumbnail Watch on YouTube

“When observers from the European Union came about six months ago, they cleaned everything up,” the same detainee says. “There were new mattresses, new blankets, everything new, and they put some kids on the street so they would not see that the center was full.”

Conditions at La Purísma have also drawn legal attention. Last July, a staffer was arrested by the Spanish Civil Guard and accused of stabbing one of the children, according to court files. The event took more than a month to come to light, according to El País. Similarly, two 17-year-olds from Guinea and Morocco died in December 2017 and January of this year in different centers of Melilla. Both deaths continue to be investigated by the Spanish National Police.

According to advocates for the minors, Melilla’s remote location has contributed to the lack of information about conditions inside the centers. “There is effectively no transparency about what happens in the centers,” says Barroso, from Amnesty International.

report published by Harraga documented a series of abuses at the facility, based on interviews with 91 minors sheltered there. Asked about these accusations, Ventura defends the performance of his ministry. “These complaints cannot be based on gossip. I do not make an order here saying, ‘Today, it’s time for them to sexually abuse children; today it’s time for them to mistreat them.’ That does not happen. And if a worker, whoever it is, commits a crime, the first one to denounce it will be me.”

Recalling his own passage through La Purísima, Ahmed looks down. He remains silent as he touches his knuckles. “I would love for many things to change. That they could make it easier for us to work. That they could stop mistreating us. That they respect us.”  

The sea: the final border  

The most marginalized migrant population of Melilla consists of those migrants who have escaped or been expelled from La Purísima. Faced with the impossibility of reaching Spain by legal means, these children and adolescents try, on almost a daily basis, to smuggle themselves inside the ferries and cargo ships that link the enclave with other Spanish ports in Europe.  

They use an English word to describe this practice—risky—and it is an apt one. Harraga’s Rosa García has seen four children die in the attempt. “It’s sneaking into the ship without letting the dogs sniffing at you, the police catching you, or the heartbeat detector finding you,” she says.

An unaccompanied minor displays his injured arm. Many youths are wounded while doing risky—trying to smuggle aboard boats headed for Spain.

Tonight, Ahmed and six other boys gather before dawn, between midnight and four in the morning, to climb the fence that divides the breakwater from the port. The fence, which was recently reinforced with barbed wire and watchtowers, is the last one they must cross to reach Europe. Once in the port, they can try to hide beneath trucks bound for ferries, or swim to departing boats. They know the departure times of all the ferries linking Melilla with Europe.  

Ahmed no longer remembers how many times he has attempted this escape; the open wounds on his arm and shoulder testify to the barbed wire and beatings he’s suffered after being caught by the Civil Guard or the National Police. If they’re caught, the police send them to shelters. Often, they escape to try again.

The kids all wear dark clothes. One of them does not even have shoes, only flip-flops. The seven stare at four boats in the harbor of the Old City, next to the fence that separates the boardwalk with the breakwater that leads to the port’s cargo area. One of the ships was already en route to Málaga.  

One by one, the boys climb the fence, avoiding the barbed wire at the top. They disappear into the dark horizon of the jetty. Ahmed continues to stare at one of the three remaining ferries, this one bound for Motril, a city an hour south of Granada.  

Inshallah,” he says in Arabic. “If God wills it.”  

Ahmed puts his hands on top of the boardwalk’s stone, takes a deep breath and says goodbye, hopefully, for the last time.