With Ceuta’s border apparently under control after mass crossings of migrants and refugees from neighbouring Morocco this week, attention turned on Thursday to the plight of hundreds of unaccompanied children stranded in and outside the Spanish enclave.
Hundreds of unaccompanied children were crammed into charity-run warehouses for a 10-day compulsory quarantine under police watch in the North African territory, which has become the focal point of one of the biggest diplomatic spats between Madrid and Rabat in recent years.
Some climbed onto the buildings’ roofs to escape.
A 14-year-old boy who had left the poor conditions in the warehouse explained that his parents had agreed that he attempt to cross into Spain.
“They see that if I come here I can have a future,” the boy, who had travelled from Tetouan, a city 40km (25 miles) south of the Spanish border, told The Associated Press.
“You see your parents can’t work, the education system is very weak. What can I say? I cannot even tell you what people eat.”
A 15-year-old boy from Fnideq, the Moroccan town across the border, meanwhile told AP that he had crossed on Monday when Moroccan police announced that the border was open in a move widely interpreted as a response to Spain’s granting of medical assistance to the leader of a rebel group fighting for Western Saharan independence from Morocco.
“The Moroccans told us, ‘go-go, pass pass’, they let us cross. I was just swimming and I saw people crossing so I went too,” he said from inside a holding pen with other youngsters.
“They have us locked up as if we were in a prison. Morocco was a prison and Spain is now also a prison.”
The Spanish government has announced that 200 of the young migrants and refugees who were already in Ceuta before this week’s sudden surge in crossings would be transferred to the mainland in the coming days in order to leave space in the enclave’s government-run facilities.
Under Spain’s laws, children remain under the care of regional authorities until their relatives can be found or they reach adulthood.
Spain says that more than 8,000 people crossed into Ceuta within 48 hours earlier this week, at least 5,700 of whom have since been expelled in bulk pushbacks criticised by rights groups.
Many of those who crossed on Monday and Tuesday also returned voluntarily after finding no shelter in Ceuta or possibilities to continue onto the European mainland across the Strait of Gibraltar.
The mass crossings of mostly young men, but also some women and children, swam into Ceuta or scaled a border fence as neighbouring Moroccan forces looked the other way, quickly leaving the tiny territory overwhelmed.
Some of those who made the crossing shared harrowing details from their journeys.
Yasser El-Shada told Reuters news agency he and his best friend had joined crowds of others heading for the tiny pocket of European territory by swimming around the breakwater separating it from North Africa.
“There was a woman who had a one-month baby girl, she swam with the baby and entered with us. She put her in a plastic bag and swam. There was also a father with his wife and two little children, he did the same thing, everyone entered from here.”
El-Shada said he received a harsh welcome upon landing on Ceuta’s beach following the swim.
“The Spanish were very racist … We were very tired and they were beating us with big batons. If they saw us sitting down, they would beat us on our legs to stand up,” he said.
“We could not stand because of the pain and it was very cold so we decided to come back.”
Footage shared on social media appeared to show Spanish forces pushing people attempting to cross into Ceuta back into the surrounding Mediterranean Sea.
— Josep Goded (@josepgoded) May 18, 2021
However, a Spanish interior ministry source told Reuters security forces have not mistreated migrants.
“Under no circumstances do they use violence against them and, in the case of Ceuta … police have spent much of their time helping people who ended up in the sea needing help,” the source said.
The Moroccan government had previously warned Spain that it would face consequences over Madrid’s decision last month to provide COVID-19 treatment to the head of a rebel group fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara region annexed by Rabat.
Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front, flew into Spain in mid-April under a false identity on an Algerian passport.
Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles told Spain’s public radio on Thursday that the country will “not accept being blackmailed”.
“Spain’s integrity is not negotiable and is not at stake. We are going to use all necessary means to guarantee the territorial integrity and to keep vigilance on our frontiers.”
Madrid moved quickly this week to deploy soldiers and armoured vehicles to the border area in a bid to prevent further crossings.
But some of those forcibly returned to Morocco said they were determined to try and reach Ceuta again in the future due to limited opportunities in their own country.
Youth unemployment in Moroccan cities reached 40 percent last year, according to official figures, and many young people barely get by doing odd jobs.