Melilla, Spain – The best moment of Edward’s life was when he stormed the triple fence surrounding Melilla, a tiny Spanish enclave on the North African coast.
“As soon as I touched the fence, I said to myself, ‘this is it, this is the chance I have been waiting for’, and I got the boost I needed to make it to the other side. It was the happiest day of my life.”
Edward, 27, was one of hundreds of African migrants who illegally breached the fence on February 28. Fleeing poverty and a family feud in his native Cameroon, it took Edward one year to travel to Morocco.
Once there, he lived among hundreds of other migrants in the Gourougou mountains in the north of the country, where he spent two years, scavenging for food and begging for other useful items such as clothing and medicine – mainly at night, the only time he felt safe enough to venture into nearby towns.
We couldn't walk around like normal people. The Moroccans would beat us if they caught us.
“I looked like an animal. My hair was long and I had a big beard. We couldn’t walk around like normal people. The Moroccans would beat us if they caught us walking around town.”
In Melilla, Edward cuts a smarter figure. With his fashionable haircut, ear piercings and trendy clothes, Edward’s description of his former life in Morocco is hard to imagine. But it is a reality that thousands of other Europe-bound migrants have lived as they wait for the chance to reach their El Dorado: Europe, the world’s richest continent.
In one of the largest infiltrations, the Moroccan government said 1,500 immigrants rushed through the fence at five different points in late May, ignoring warnings to stop and hurling stones at security forces.
The migrants who successfully enter Melilla stay at CETI, the temporary migrant detention centre, which was built to accommodate 480 residents but which currently has a population of more than 2,000.
To deal with the record numbers, authorities have resorted to erecting temporary tents to house new arrivals.
Surrounded by Moroccan land, the Spanish-held enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta are the only European cities that share land borders with Africa, making the territories a magnet for thousands of undocumented migrants whose only other route into Europe is across the Mediterranean Sea on rickety boats.
But that does not mean the journey into these enclaves comes without risk.
On February 6, at least 15 migrants drowned trying to enter Ceuta by sea, after they attempted to swim around an 80-metre breakwater separating Spanish and Moroccan waters.
The victims were part of a 250-strong group of sub-Saharan Africans who launched the coordinated assault under the cover of pre-dawn darkness.
|Hundreds of migrants storm into Spain|
Among the mass of people was 24-year-old Larry, from Gabon, who accuses the Spanish police of firing rubber bullets at his friends while they were in the water.
“The Guardia Civil [Civil Guards] tried to block us from swimming in. Some of my friends could not swim and drowned in the water,” he said.
Spain’s Interior Ministry released edited CCTV footage of the incident. The video shows dozens of people running towards the fence, past security guards and along the barrier wall, before it cuts to images of the migrants throwing rocks towards Spain.
Jose Palazon, a human rights activist in Melilla, accuses Spain’s Interior Ministry of concealing information about the tragedy.
“If you watch the video, you can see the migrants running towards the border but then suddenly the video cuts to them throwing rocks. We weren’t shown the video of the guards ejecting the migrants,” he said. Palazon, who runs the voluntary migrant rights group Prodein, said the video was edited to make the migrants “look like violent criminals”.
In the days following the incident, Madrid insisted that no rubber bullets had been fired at the migrants. But after amateur mobile footage emerged of Spain’s Civil Guards shooting in the direction of the people in the water, the country’s Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz admitted that the police did fire rubber bullets towards the migrants but “not at” them.
In March, Spain’s ruling conservative People’s Party also blocked an investigation into the incident, which would have examined the cause of the tragedy and whether rubber bullets contributed to the deaths.
Accounts of what took place on that tragic morning are vague, but international criticism of Spain’s heavy-handed actions has led to calls for clearer procedural guidelines on how to secure Europe’s “southern borders”.
Emilio Guerra, from the Union Progreso y Democracia political party, said there should be transparent and specific protocols in place, especially given the increasing number of assaults on the border.
|Workers repair the border fence after one of the biggest mass attempts at crossing into in Melilla in May [EPA]|
“It’s very important that we provide clear rules for the Civil Guards, because these breaches will continue. We are seeing more and more desperate and determined people risking their lives to get in,” he explained. “Securing Europe’s borders is an important responsibility, and we need to make sure we are doing it while meeting our human rights obligations.”
The border fence, made of razor wire and kitted out with video cameras and noise and movement sensors, is the only thing that separates the migrants from Europe.
Although the security wall is constantly monitored and patrolled, a significant number of undocumented migrants nevertheless manage to get through. About 4,200 migrants attempted to illegally cross into the enclaves in 2013, a 49 percent increase from 2012.
Collaborative Moroccan-Spanish efforts have, at times, resulted in violent and forced expulsions from the Spanish enclaves without due process, according to human rights organisations. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch presented claims that Spanish authorities routinely hand migrants over to the Moroccan authorities, who commonly beat and abuse them without determining whether they need international protection.
Yosef, 26, fled the Central African Republic to escape the crisis in his country. He said such expulsions are common. “I have entered Melilla four times. I was returned to Morocco three times and I succeeded on the fourth time. The guards all have keys for the doors along the fence.”
On a trip to the Gourougou forests in northern Morocco, Jose Alonso-Sanchez met a group of sub-Saharan Africans who showed him documents in Spanish that proved they had previously lived in the enclave.
“The Spanish guards removed them from Melilla and handed them over to the Moroccans without even checking to see if they had a right to be here,” the Melilla-based human rights lawyer said.
|Incarcerated migrants at the CETI holding centre [EPA]|
By arbitrarily returning migrants to Africa without the correct procedure, Alonso-Sanchez said “Spain’s Civil Guard is violating international human rights laws”, which include a right to seek asylum and protection.
It is estimated there are currently 30,000 migrants in Morocco waiting to enter Europe. Madrid has pledged to spend 1.5m euros ($2m) to strengthen the fence, while calling on Brussels to do more to help them deal with the migration pressure.
But some undocumented migrants are finding other ways of gaining entry. Syrian refugees told Al Jazeera they arrived in Melilla on stolen Moroccan passports. Moroccans are allowed to freely enter the enclaves, provided they live in bordering towns or villages.
Abdel Hadi, a father of three from Idlib, Syria, spent the past year-and-a-half travelling with his family across North Africa with the aim of seeking refuge in Europe. “We sold all our gold to get here. It cost me 1,500 euros ($2,000) for each child and 2,000 euros ($2,700) for each adult,” Abdel Hadi explained.
“In Morocco there are drug addicts and criminals who can find you a passport. If the border guards catch you, you go back, get another one and try again.”
Abdel Hadi will be able to claim refugee status once he arrives in mainland Spain, but the vast majority of residents in CETI will eventually be sent back to their country of origin after they have had their applications processed. Others, such as Edward from Cameroon, plan to simply disappear upon reaching the continent, where they will face a new set of challenges as undocumented migrants living on the margins of society.
“I can’t go back home empty-handed,” he said. “I have been through too much already.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ identity