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‘Even Animals Couldn’t Live Like This’: The People Seeking Asylum on Spain’s Militarised Border

People fleeing conflict and the climate crisis reach the Spanish border only to find a militarised, hostile environment where even children are forced to sleep in the open air. Conor Patrick Faulkner reports

Ceuta, Spain. Photo: Conor Patrick Faulkner

‘Even Animals Couldn’t Live Like This’The People Seeking Asylum on Spain’s Militarised Border

People fleeing conflict and the climate crisis reach the Spanish border only to find a militarised, hostile environment where even children are forced to sleep in the open air. Conor Patrick Faulkner reports

In August, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez welcomed Afghans at a refugee reception centre on the outskirts of Madrid. Standing on the runway of Torrejón de Ardoz air base, he said that Spain’s response to the Taliban takeover of Kabul represented “the best values ​​of the European Union”.

He was joined by European bigwigs including the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, who described how “in times of need, Spain has shown humanity,” and is an “example for the European soul at its best”. 

Less than a month later, and almost 700 km away in Ceuta – one of two Spanish territories in North Africa – Arif rubs his beard and stares out across the Strait of Gibraltar towards the mainland, a brown brushstroke through the low hanging haze. 

He sits atop a makeshift camp made among the concrete tide breakers where 50 or more people at various stages of the asylum seeking process shelter next to Ceuta’s port. Below him is a labyrinth of nooks and alcoves crammed full with washing lines and shopping trolleys, mattresses and rags protruding up through the rocks. 

Children sleep inches from pools of seawater that rise without warning, and the tide slaps in and out of the camp around them. “Look how we live,” Arif says. “We have no rights.”

Slowly, figures emerge from the crevices around him. They stretch, their eyes squint and adjust to daylight. Beyond Arif’s shoulder, eyes inch nervously above the rocks, concerned to hear Spanish spoken and paranoid about police. 

The crevices in the rocks where people seeking asylum sleep in Ceuta. Photo: Conor Patrick Faulkner

Just two days before, the camp was raided in the morning rain. “They said, ‘get out of here you rats’,” Arif recalls. The plastic coverings he had rigged to protect them from the weather were removed and what little cooking utensils the people had were thrown away. He takes a shallow drag of his cigarette. “They said ‘if you don’t like it here, go back to your country’.”

Arif, 37, is one of an estimated 9,000 migrants that crossed the border from Morocco to Ceuta over a two-day period in May at the height of diplomatic tensions between Rabat and Madrid. Most were quickly returned but as many as a thousand remain in Ceuta’s streets in camps like the one Arif stays in on the beach, or communities hidden in the hills that overlook the territory. Many were forced into ramshackle migrant centres in the mountains or housed in industrial warehouses on the coast, but most preferred to take their chances on the streets – fearful of both deportation and violence from the authorities.

This included hundreds of unaccompanied minors, women, and children. “I have a friend who came with his wife and little daughter of four months,” Arif says.

A Militarised Border

Arriving in Ceuta is like entering a military base. The chopping swooshes of helicopters fill the air, circling the port overhead, and police vans crawl along the beachfront below. 

Streams of police cars patrol the streets. Convoys of army vehicles pass by on their way up to the border at Benzú, and the distinctive dark green of the Guardia Civil appears and disappears down cobbled side streets. The cab driver slows and motions with his head towards an unmarked van waiting at the lights. “Guardia Civil,” he mouths in the rear-view mirror.

“There are more police than people in Ceuta,” quips one local sitting on a terrace. There’s a hotel down by the port just for the reinforcements rotated in from the mainland, adds another.

On the next table, a group of young men enjoy a few cañas. But they are not locals: the cropped haircuts and stiff shoulders give them away. The regimented gait and mainland accents, the arms lined with veins like copper wiring.

Many hundreds of police and Frontex guards, the EU’s own border force, have arrived in Ceuta from the mainland since the arrivals in May, bolstering efforts to militarise Europe’s external borders and quell political paranoia among member states about a migrant ‘crisis’.

Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s other African territory westward down the coast towards Algeria, are Europe’s only land borders with Africa and have long been points of entry for refugees and migrants. This humanitarian crisis was precipitated by a diplomatic one born from contested sovereignty of territory in the Western Sahara – annexed by Morocco in 1976 – after Spain treated Brahim Ghali, a Saharian sepretarist leader, in a Ceuta hospital.

Ceuta has historically been an entry point for migrants from sub-Saharan African countries, but since the Coronavirus pandemic border closure last year, many more Moroccans dependent on cross border commerce and employment have begun to enter by scaling the fence or swimming around the sea border.

“The economies of Ceuta and the northern Moroccan villages depend on each other,” Ricardo says, and the combination of the economic deprivation forcing people across the border, Moroccan diplomatic pressure, and its willingness to use its own people as pawns on the geopolitical chessboard, and Spain’s increasing militarisation of its borders is having a fatal effect.

Spain does not trust the Government in Rabat and feels that it allows its own citizens to risk their lives in order to apply diplomatic pressure over the territorial dispute. Madrid believes that Moroccan border guards left their posts in May and allowed people to enter as a crude negotiating tactic. Locals in Ceuta had heard the same. “There was an order: ‘let them pass’,” says local teacher Ricardo sitting on a terrace. He too believed events in May were political. “It was a measure of pressure to hurt Spain.”

In Ceuta, almost all of the migrants that spoke to Byline Times knew someone who had died trying to swim around the sea border. It is a notoriously dangerous route, described by Arif as “four hours swimming in the night”. 

“Someone dies every week… Just last week, someone died, and two the month before.” He shakes his head, falling silent for a moment. “People die,” he finally says, lighting another cigarette. “It’s a shame,” he adds, his voice trailing off. 

The United Nations’ migration agency reports that 250 people died on the route to the Spanish peninsula in the first half of 2021 alone, but Spanish migrant rights group Caminando Fronteras puts that number at more than 2,000

In the same week that Sanchez and Von der Layen were arm-in-arm on the air base, 52 people reportedly died in a single day trying to make the voyage to the Canary Islands. The militarisation of borders in Ceuta and Melilla has forced more asylum seekers and migrants to attempt the perilous voyage across the Atlantic to the Canaries. 

The militarised border at Ceuta. Photo: Conor Patrick Faulkner

This militarisation is largely EU funded, and Ceuta’s border architecture is extensive. An 8 km long, 20 ft high land border starts on Tarajal beach in the east and snakes its way through the mountains to Benzú, where it juts out into the sea, and the peaks and troughs of the mountain ridge quiver away into the distance like the lines of a heart monitor.

Those that scale the land border are faced with another 2 m barbed wire fence and then a 10 ft fence with specially installed deportation doors manned by Guardia Civil that separate Spanish soil from a contested ‘neutral zone’. 

Legally, there is no such thing as a neutral zone,” Hanaa Hakiki of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, who has challenged Spanish pushback policy at the European Court of Human Rights, told Byline Times.

A February 2020 ruling by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights made clear that “neither Spain nor Morocco can create space in which no law applies,” she says.

Yet, a recent report by the Border Violence Network details testimony from migrants who were assaulted in, and illegally deported from, this border zone. According to the report, Spanish authorities employ a number of tactics to deter fence jumpers, including tear gas bombs and shooting plastic bullets at the head and hands in order to destabilise those on the fence. Any that land on the Spanish side are beaten and immediately returned through the deportation doors, and on Tarajal beach the Spanish military was deployed to prevent people swimming around the border and held them in the water for hours before being pushed back to Morocco.

“Once you are on Spanish territory, you are under the jurisdiction of Spain and all of the obligations of the state apply,” Hakiki says. The Spanish state, like many other EU states with external borders, “is creating a zone of unaccountability” on its border with the political and financial impetus from Brussels, she says.

The Children Seeking Asylum

Two boys of no older than 15 climb from the rocks. “They don’t want to go [to the centres] because of the mistreatment,” Arif says, pointing towards them with his cigarette. He leans over to show a video he took of a security guard beating a migrant in one of the temporary stay centres. 

Hundreds of unaccompanied minors are housed in old warehouses where “they treat them like prisoners,” he says. “Like animals.” Not only are the boys fearful of the guards in the centres, and the squalid living conditions there, but also Spain’s collective pushback policy which deports groups of minors together – a practice already ruled illegal by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC). 

It is these collective deportations of minors that have caused the most outrage among human rights groups. Both Spain and the EU already know they are illegal, and were halted briefly by a Ceuta judge for 72 hours in late August. 

Collective deportations contravene Spain’s own immigration law passed in 2000, which requires individual assessments before the deportation of a minor can be made – a process bypassed entirely in group deportations. They also are in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Spain ratified in 1990.

The 2019 CRC case DD vs. Spain “made it very clear that, at borders, unaccompanied minors had to go through an initial procedure of identification – including age assessment – and protection needs assessment,” Hakiki says. “While this was going on they had to be provided for by the state, even when there are doubts as to them being minors. In any event, they could not be expelled without that happening individually.”

This, Hakiki says, “is what Spain is refusing to do”. The Ceuta Government says that it is impossible due to limited resources and is unwilling to move them to the mainland so “just want to make these bundled agreements for collective expulsions, with no individual assessment or guarantees”. 

A child migrant sleeps in the crevices in Ceuta’s rocks. Photo: Conor Patrick Faulkner

In mid-August, Rabat agreed to accept minors in groups of 20 until the estimated 700 held in Ceuta’s centres were returned, but this doesn’t include those living in the street. With diplomatic tensions fraught, and the Moroccan Government seemingly more cooperative, for now, Spain has a “political window”, Hakiki says, and is trying to take advantage of it. 

These collective pushbacks are not only illegal but rest on the underlying assumption that simply because a migrant or minor entered via Morocco that they are Moroccan. Spanish policy is, Hakiki says, effectively based on racial profiling. Plainly said, because “they look like Arabs,” these minors must go back to Morocco.

But, after viewing video evidence of minors crossing into Ceuta, she is certain that not all of “those accents are Moroccan”. She recognised Algerian dialects. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights also reported that Yemeni minors were amongst those immediately expelled. Spain is therefore returning unaccompanied minors to a country where they have no guardian and thus not fulfilling its legal obligation, “to take into consideration their best interest in any decision,” she explains.

Many of the minors deported are also considered by NGOs to be vulnerable and at risk. The organisation Save the Children Spain has interviewed many recent arrivals in Ceuta and collected testimony of work exploitation, physical and sexual violence, forced marriage, and human trafficking. 

“You have to know if they have family,” Hakiki says, “and the situation into which they are being returned. Yet there are reports of Moroccan forces mistreating minors who were expelled”.  This includes Spanish police hunting these children in the night and illegally deporting them in groups into potentially dangerous situations in a country that might not even be theirs.

‘The Only Way to Survive’

The situation in Ceuta’s temporary stay centres for adults is not much better. These centres, isolated in the mountains, mostly house sub-Saharan African migrants fleeing war.

At the Centro de Estancia Temporal de Inmigrantes, a constant stream of military vehicles pass on the way to a nearby base. There, many spoke of overcrowding, poor food, cramped living conditions, and the constant fear of fighting and violence. 

“We don’t sleep well,” said one 19-year-old man, who had travelled from Guinea through Mali, Algeria, and then crossed the border from Morocco in May. 

“Everybody here is from Guinea,” another 24-year-old man shouts through the bars. One 25-year-old, who is hoping to make it to France to reunite with family, explains that the majority fled because of the recent coup d’état.

In the area surrounding the centre, there is more evidence of people preferring to brave the elements than stay in state facilities: cardboard mattresses, pots and pans, sleeping bags and discarded clothes line the nearby ravines, wedged in the nooks and crannies of the mountain paths like impacted teeth.

Cooking equipment left by people seeking asylum Ceuta. Photo: Conor Patrick Faulkner

Later that evening, a group of boys cluster at the entrance of a supermarket. Their clothes are frayed, and faces gaunt. Many have open wounds. One boy, 16, pauses and looks up mid-conversation, mouth ajar, the neon blue of a police van in his eyes. 

It slows down and the boys begin to gather their bags, preparing to run, but the van pulls away and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. In this group are unaccompanied minors as young as 14, and one boy, 15, pulls some bread from a plastic bag and offers it among the group.

Volunteers from local NGO, No Name Kitchen, stop by, handing out water and medicine. “They share everything,” Francesca says. “They know it’s the only way to survive here.” 

Arif watches over the boys with fatherly concern. He nods. “We are together because if we don’t take care of ourselves nobody will take care of us.”

No Name Kitchen tries to fill the humanitarian gaps left by the state, but resources are limited and the team small. In early September, it had three volunteers who make ‘la ruta’ around Ceuta every night in their van, stopping off to check up on the boys. 

“The main reason we are here is to make a connection with them,” Francesca explains. “To show that there is someone in Ceuta who cares.”

Many of the boys have dreams of going to France or Belgium to be with family, or to London or Amsterdam and other cities with Moroccan communities. 

Waiting for nightfall, they enter the port and hide under trucks due on the morning ferry or try to stowaway on the ferry themselves. Arif recalls trying it as a boy in the late 1990s: “We hid under the trucks when they parked up for the night.”

This method is known as a ‘risky’, not only because it involves avoiding port authorities, but the dangers of the voyage itself. Samir, 20, pulls up his t-shirt to reveal scars across his stomach. He describes how he was crushed beneath a truck during boarding, and has lived on the streets of Ceuta for three years with “no clothes, no money, no food”.

Asked why the boys left Morocco for a life like this, Arif scrunches up his face. “In Morocco there is nothing. No work, no studies… nothing.” 

With the army on Ceuta’s streets, the border feels to be on a war footing. With teenage boys living in the same streets, sharing bread and bottles of water between them, one has to wonder who exactly this war is being fought against.

European border policy, as Hakiki puts it, is “to close its borders to vulnerable people including refugees”. While those within Europe enjoy freedom of movement, people fleeing destitution and war at its borders are denied human agency and legal rights, treated like cattle, and deported in groups. 

Moroccans entering Ceuta have far more in common and a far greater shared history and culture and economic interdependence with Spain than Swedes and Slovenians travelling freely to Alicante and Andalucía.

“One could say the EU’s current vision of migration is a new way of managing former colonial subjects” Hakiki says. “To be co-opted into European whiteness you need to have brutal racialised borders. The message from the EU seems to be: the more black and brown people you beat up at your borders, the more European you are.”

Back at the port, the sun sets over the Strait in streaks of pink and purple. The Spanish peninsula is visible; the European mainland is so close, yet so far. Arif removes his hat and ruffles his hair. “It’s so bad that even animals couldn’t live like this.”

In the ferry terminal, Guardia Civil agents sit at a table drinking beers. They pass around a bottle of whisky, and are red in the face, laughing and joking, slapping one another on the back. Their laughter fills the foyer and flutters towards the exit, where just a few hundred meters away Arif sits on top of the rocks staring across the Strait, not knowing what tomorrow will bring.

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