Spain's Next Challenge: Mediterranean Migrants

Spain's Next Challenge: Mediterranean Migrants

By Laura Secorun Palet


Because plugging one migrant path just makes another flourish.

By Laura Secorun Palet

Mori was euphoric as he stepped onto the small fishing boat. After a year of relentless travel, being forced to jump fences, sleep on the street and dodge police officers, the young Guinean man was finally going to reach Europe.

The sun was setting over the horizon when the motor started, and the boat slowly peeled away from the Moroccan shore. Mori stared at the cold, dark waves smashing against the side of the flimsy wooden ship, and a sudden realization dampened his mood: He didn’t know how to swim. 

Mori is among thousands of migrants who are increasingly picking what’s known as the Mediterranean’s western route to try to reach Europe, crossing from Morocco or Algeria to the south of Spain. While the migrant route from Libya to Italy continues to see the highest number of arrivals, this western alternative is picking up, and experts believe it could soon rival the eastern passage’s momentum.

Spain now is going through something like what Greece saw in the beginning of 2015, or Italy even earlier.

Joel Millman, spokesman, International Organization for Migration

According to the International Organization for Migration, the number of arrivals in Spain doubled in 2017. And the numbers show no sign of slowing down in 2018. So far into the new year, more than a thousand migrants have already attempted to breach the border fences along Spain’s African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. More than 200 have made it through.

“Spain now is going through something like what Greece saw in the beginning of 2015, or Italy even earlier,” says IOM spokesman Joel Millman, adding that if this pace continues, it could turn into “a big emergency.” Most migrants along this route come from Cameroon, Senegal, Guinea or Nigeria, and a growing percentage of them are children.

The emerging crisis has sparked tensions between Spain’s right-wing government and nonprofits trying to help the newcomers, with each blaming the other. These waves of migrants are also testing Spain’s preparedness to handle such an influx at a time it is already facing a series of challenges, from terrorism to Catalan separatism. The western route these migrants are taking itself isn’t new; sub-Saharan migrants have been crossing into Europe through Spain since the late ’80s. What’s new is its growing popularity. And unlike Greece or Italy, Spain has not significantly expanded or modernized its migration infrastructure in decades.


Once in Spain, migrants quickly find out that most shelters are full to the brim. A Human Rights Watch report called Spanish migrant detention facilities — in the enclaves and on the mainland — “substandard,” and inadequate for hosting vulnerable communities like minors, which the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates comprise up to 16 percent of travelers along the western route. Instead of being held in a dedicated center, many unaccompanied minors landing in Spain end up sharing rooms with adults or sleeping in improvised shelters. Last summer, 60 underage migrants were made to live on a camping site for lack of other options.

For those in Ceuta, it can be worse. The enclave has a temporary center for them that is part detention home, part refugee camp. But unlike in mainland Spain, where migrants cannot be legally detained for longer than 60 days before being released or repatriated, there is no such time limit in its two African enclaves. When the migrant center gets congested, the police set up military tents for the new arrivals in a nearby horse stable. Currently, an aleatory number of migrants gets sent to the mainland every six months or so — sooner if the center is crowded, slower if a migrant makes trouble.

Mori was fleeing for his life when he left Guinea. After the death of both his parents, he was taken into the care of a Christian pastor. But in his Muslim-majority town, many accused him of abandoning his faith. Suspicion turned into harassment, and, after several death threats, Mori says he decided to escape.

He succeeded in leaving Guinea, only to find himself in limbo again.

The Journey

Mori made it to Europe after a short, nerve-racking 30-minute ride. But he did not land exactly where he’d hoped. The vessel didn’t have enough engine power to make it across the nine-mile strait to the Spanish mainland, so instead, he and five fellow migrants disembarked on the shores of Ceuta.

From the beach, they were taken to the police station and then the center for migrants, which Mori jokingly calls “prison.” The 23-year-old has been living in this fenced compound for the past four months. The center was designed to host around 500 migrants, but often accommodates twice as many. It is located two miles outside the city, up a steep hill and next to the local dog pound.

Journalists are not allowed inside, but through its tall metal bars, the place looks like a highly secured refugee camp. In a corner, a group of Pakistani men kneel on their prayer mats while a Nigerian does laundry, hanging it to dry on the fence. Outside in the forest, a young man from Cameroon has set up an impromptu barbershop consisting of a big plastic chair with a view of the beach below. A few boys crack jokes and smoke while they wait to get their hair cut among the pine trees.

Working is not legal, but most migrants trapped in Spain’s enclaves try to earn a buck unloading trucks, carrying groceries or helping people park cars. Locals call it the dale, dale (Spanish for “go, go”). Mori, who holds a degree in biology, has been giving directions to cars seven days a week for the past three months. He holds a coveted “dale, dale” spot near the city’s port and next to a sports clothing shop. On a good day, he can earn upwards of $20 — on a bad day, nothing.

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Migrants and refugees wait to be rescued from their sinking rubber boat some eight nautical miles off Libya’s Mediterranean coastline on Oct. 12, 2016.


Locals appear compassionate toward the newcomers. “We really try to help them because it’s humbling to see the efforts they make to get here,” says Miguel, a 65-year-old retiree from Ceuta. “Can you imagine what they must have gone through?”

Indeed, trying to reach Spain is an awfully dangerous journey. In 2017, the western Mediterranean route saw five times more deaths than the Greek one. The Strait of Gibraltar waters are notoriously treacherous, as evidenced by the hundreds of unnamed graves along Spain’s southern coast. On the same week Mori landed in town, two men drowned trying to make the crossing using the latest smuggling fad: Jet Skis.  

Then there’s the fence. As boat smugglers raise their fees to match growing demand, the poorest migrants have no choice but to attempt a land crossing. That means jumping one of two highly surveyed, 20-foot-tall, razor-clad fences separating the Spanish enclaves from Morocco. The number of people who have attempted the jump has doubled over the past year, much to the alarm of local health workers.

“Jumping the fence is gruesome. The cuts, the torn clothes, the puddles of blood … it’s a Faustian scene,” says Jesús Nuñez Sánchez, director of emergency response for the Red Cross in Ceuta. Sánchez says migrants risk bleeding to death, often only to be handed over to the Moroccan police minutes after touching Spanish soil. This practice of sending migrants back across the border, known as “return while hot,” was outlawed by the European Court of Human Rights. But Sánchez says police practice it with impunity because the few meters around the land border are considered a “no-man’s-land.”

Still, the danger for migrants starts long before reaching Spain. Most travelers on the western Mediterranean route must cross four to five borders before ever reaching the sea. Each crossing brings with it a high risk of physical assault, rape, forced deportation, kidnapping and, for many, death.

And for those who make it to Spain, the uncertainty persists well after they get there.  

An Uncertain Future 

The “worst part” of Mori’s obstacle course to Ceuta was crossing from Mali to Algeria. The police, he says, kidnapped his group and demanded ransom from their families. They let him go after a week, because he’s an orphan with no one to call back home. Morocco was no picnic either. Local policemen go on daily raids to beat up sub-Saharan migrants hiding in their cities’ bushy outskirts, waiting for a chance to cross. “Sometimes they would come in a group of 20,” says Mori. “They kicked us really bad.”

Once in Spain, migrants face systematic discouragement of petitions for asylum by the Spanish police, allege HRW and the UNHCR. “The policemen said we were migrants and gave us all the same papers,” Mori says. “No one asked me why I came to Europe.” The 1951 Refugee Convention allows a person to ask for asylum if they are unwilling to return home “due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Mori could qualify, but he claims no one told him about it.

That’s because, “in Spain, if you are Black, you’re automatically considered an economic migrant,” says Sylvia Koniecki, coordinator of the nonprofit Granada Hosts, which provides shelter and legal support for migrants. “Our government is systematically failing its international duty to protect migrants and leaving us NGOs to pick up the work,” she says. 

The Spanish government insists it is doing fine and is blaming NGOs instead. The current minister of the interior, Juan Ignacio Zoido, did not reply to several requests for comment, but he did publicly say, “We have no responsibility over people who decide to leave their country,” adding: “We have to raise awareness among NGOs so that they stop encouraging irregular immigration.”

But experts caution the government against overconfidence, given Spain’s lack of preparedness for a rise in arrivals. The shift from the Libyan route to the Moroccan one is a “structural trend,” says Estrella Galán, secretary-general of the Spanish Commission for Refugees, adding that crossings “could triple in the next few years.”

Some professionals say there is no reason to panic. “We have gone through similar spikes in the past, so I think the numbers will go back down soon,” says Sánchez from the Red Cross. But what if they don’t? “Honestly, then I have no idea what we’ll do.”

None of the factors fueling the popularity of the western route appear to have an end in sight. The EU is still paying Turkey to block refugees headed for Greece while local reports describe conflict-torn Libya as a hell for migrants, who are routinely kidnapped, tortured and even sold in modern-day slave markets for a few hundred dollars a head.

 West Africa’s own struggles, including the Islamist insurgency in Mali and Boko Haram’s expansion from northeast Nigeria into Chad and Cameroon, could eventually prompt many to flee north. There’s also the troubling gap between rising education levels and stagnant employment prospects for young people in the region. 

One of Mori’s friends, Bouba, arrived from Mali three months ago and claims to be 18, although he looks younger. He says he wants to work in Europe because, “back home, even people with degrees can’t find jobs. And I have no degree. So I have to take this chance.” 

To kill time in Ceuta’s limbo, some migrants have started a football team; others prefer to drink cheap beer behind the local mall. Mori continues parking cars by the port, watching the ferries leave for the mainland, hoping soon he’ll be on one.

He wants to reach Belgium, where he dreams of becoming a computer developer. But Mori admits the journey is proving harder than he ever imagined. He feels safe now, yet lonely. “If I could talk to people back home, I would tell them not to come.” He shrugs. “No one wants us here.”