Sweet prison: migrants in Spanish limbo

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Spain –  part II

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Ceuta and Melilla are no longer cities of passage; instead the enclaves imprison those who once slipped, inconspicuous, into Europe.

The purpose of the cities changed when the Spanish government published its’ November, 2009 immigration bill. Before the bill people seeking asylum or leave to remain could apply for a yellow card in Ceuta or Melilla, and use the card to travel to the peninsula. Once in mainland Spain migrants could work legally, boosting their chances of being granted residency.  In Spain if a migrant works for three years he is entitled to apply for a residency permit.

Under the new rules asylum seekers and migrants cannot travel to the peninsula until a decision has been made on their residency application. The yellow card is now a red card, a meaningless distinction which only adds to the bureaucratic nightmare integral to asylum and immigration in many European countries. Legally an asylum seeker or undocumented migrant can cross to Spain from Melilla or Ceuta – but only if they have a yellow card. Yet, the government does not issue yellow cards in either city, only red cards, which forbid travel to Spain.

I asked several people in Ceuta to clarify the system of red and yellow cards, and each time I was convinced I had misunderstood, but each explanation tallied with the others.

Alejandro Romero Aliaga, a lawyer for the Comision Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEARS), an NGO, says the whole process is, in fact, illegal.

Alejandro supports parts of the immigration bill. Better protection for homosexuals seeking protection, for example, and substantial subsidiary protection for people who fall outside the internationally recognized definition of a refugee. But, he is angry that by stopping asylum seekers crossing to the peninsula once they have made application,  the rules introduce one law for mainland Spain, and another for Melilla and Ceuta. “The law doesn’t distinguish between Spain and Ceuta,” he says. “Keeping people in Ceuta is against the law. The high court says the people have the freedom to move throughout Spain, the UNHCR say they have right to go to peninsula.

The government’s refusal to let people go to the peninsula is not a legal action. It is illegal. These are people who the government has accepted in the asylum process. It is absolutely disgraceful. The government has broken the law, it is forbidden in the Spanish constitution.

The only migrants in Ceuta allowed into Spain are the ones granted full refugee status, and people who have lived there for several years. On average asylum applications made in Ceuta take around six months to process, weak cases can take as long as a year. In 2010, out of 311 applications, just two people were granted refugee status, and one subsidiary protection.

The historic wall circling part of Ceuta, once a shield against invasion, is a stunning remnant of the city’s ancient battles between the Portuguese, the Berbers and the Spanish. Modern Ceuta is once more a fortress; a prison for migrants trapped in limbo.

“Sweet prison”, is how one group of migrants describe their life in Ceuta. Jesus, a charity worker I spoke to, explains: “The Indian people say it is the sweet prison because the government has organized a very good centre in CETI [immigration holding centre].

“People can eat, can sleep, learn Spanish. But the people are [stuck] here. Psychologically they suffer, it is not possible to finish their project of immigration.”

Rocky Gurdaspurya, pictured, is one of 20 Indians living in Ceuta. When the 22-year-old arrived from New Delhi via Morocco four years ago, his plan was to complete his education in the West – Canada, Australia, or Europe, anywhere he could get to. When Rocky left India he believed an international education would mean a better life; four years later, living on the periphery of Europe, his life has become intolerable. Indian migrant in Ceuta, Spain

“I was studying at university doing my bachelor of commerce studies [In India],” says Rocky. “I studied for two years. I wanted to finish my study abroad so that I could have a good future. But bad luck I am stuck here for four years.”

For two years Rocky was homeless; he lived with 56 other Indian migrants among the boulders and forest on the outskirts of Ceuta. Their wild camp was a protest against the Spanish government’s refusal to let them travel to the peninsula. “It was very difficult,” says Rocky. “We were protesting there that we don’t want to go back to India. We made huts like tents, with plastic. We talk with journalist and media. After two years they tell us they would send us to the mainland. They sent 34 Indians to mainland but we were 54. They didn’t complete their promise and we are here 20 still fighting. That was one year ago.”

Rocky is the epitome of the torment that afflicts irregular migrants across Europe. The perils of returning home for asylum seekers are clear, whether it is persecution, death or torture, and it is a sensible assumption that for ordinary migrants no such danger exists. Yet, for many who begin as labour migrants, the thought of return is equally incomprehensible, because of all that occurs after they leave home. The traumatic transit with the real, ever-present threat of death, the unsettling reliance on the kindness of smugglers, and all that befalls them because of their status as criminals, bestowed on them once they set foot in the European Union without documents.

Some refuse to return with nothing but harrowing memories. That is why, on their through Europe, when it becomes clear that the only route to a work permit is asylum, some lie about their circumstance.

One migrant from an African country, stuck in Ceuta after a grueling voyage across the continent, admitted as much. “You spend so much money to go through such hell and to get here and be deported? No. No way.”

Maite Perez runs a day centre where irregular immigrants and asylum seekers can learn Spanish and use the internet. “A lot of people don’t know anything,” she says, “but talking to their friends they know what countries make good asylum cases. They know if you come from this country it is possible to get asylum, or from this country it is not possible. In Morocco they are preparing for all this – it is normal, this is how they survive.”

Dying to get to Europe

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Spain – part I

The blackened, skeletal bodies of dead men scattered across the Sahara desert is a haunting image. Their empty eye sockets and stiff, scorched limbs belong to a horror film. One of the dead men is frozen in a prayer-like position, on his knees, torso horizontal, arms splayed in front of him, forehead touching the sand.

An asylum seeker who escaped this fate, captured the desperate scene on his mobile phone. The footage was eventually edited with harrowing, mournful music, almost as unbearable to listen to, as to watch. Yet, despite the visual evidence of such suffering, it is a story rarely told.

A teenage asylum seeker I met on the Spanish island of Ceuta showed me the footage. Abdoulaye Bah, a 19-year-old from the Republic of Guinea, saw many of his fellow travellers give in to the heat of Sahara. The dead bodies kept him going; he did not want to die that way.

“I am passing very hard travel but …I don’t have the words to explain to you,” he says. “You meet many different people who want to kill you. If you don’t have money to give them, they think you are lying. Some people will leave you in the desert. If they leave you there you have don’t have a chance. More than 4,000km – all you see is only desert.”

Abdoulaye’s mother was killed in the political violence that plagued the Republic of Guinea between 2009 and 2010. The fighting has stopped, he says, but he left anyway, partly because he belongs to the Fula tribe, which is a minority group in the village where he lived.

The Algerian Sahara, a popular route for migrants travelling to Europe from West Africa, has become an increasingly lawless place, where a person’s fate depends on having enough cash to bribe border guards and traffickers.

To survive the journey north to Morocco and then to Europe, most migrants on this route have to pass through Magnaia, a particular dangerous part of Algeria. They are incredibly vulnerable, with little or no protection from authorities. Migrants and aid workers say that often the ‘mafia’ buys the silence the Algerian guards patrolling popular migration routes.

Jesus Castro Gontales, a Spanish aid worker I spoke to, tries to explain the complexities of this world, where the protectors become tormentors, and victims, unable to escape, are forced to torment others that follow behind them. “Mafia is a difficult word. What is mafia? Mafia is the Algerian person, the police, the mafia is all the immigrant people that live one, two, three years here. They work in the mafia. It is a problem at the frontier.”

Abdoulaye had enough cash to pay Mali militiamen, who then helped him cross the desert in a four-wheel drive.  After a short distance on foot, he arrived at the border between Mali and Algeria, where he paid soldiers to let him pass. “Enter Morocco, then you pay to enter Rabat, then you pay to enter the bush [woodlands] near a town near Ceuta,” he says.

Two months later Abdoulaye arrived on Ceuta’s coast in an inflatable dinghy with three other people. “I was scared. It is very dangerous because many people lose their lives in the water.”

 ***

On a clear day you can see the hills of Ceuta across the Mediterranean from mainland Spain. Equally vivid to the hundreds of bedraggled African and Asian migrants stuck in Ceuta is the enticing Spanish coastline, and beyond that the promise of Europe.

The island, a duty free playground for rich Moroccans and Spaniards, is dotted with ports full of expensive yachts, bars and designer shops. Among the glitz and glamour, destitute migrants try to eke out a living, all while waiting for an opportunity to resume their journey to Europe.

Ceuta, and it’s neighbouring island Melilla, are gateways to Europe for many migrants, particularly those from West Africa. The peak period for travelling was 2005, where at one point 2,000 people were crowded into the immigration removal centre in Ceuta, where Abdoulaye is being held.

“Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish cities in Africa,” says Jesus Castro Gontales, whose charity, the Association of Elin, was set up in 2000 to deal with the large numbers of destitute Moroccan street children living in Ceuta. “The situation in Ceuta and Melilla has changed very much over time. Ten or more years ago, there was no frontier. It was possible to pass through Ceuta easily [from Morocco].”

A number of factors, which include pressure from the European Union, led to the Spanish government tightening its border with Morocco, making it more difficult for people to use Ceuta and Melilla as a passage to Spain.

The Spanish government also made various agreements with Morocco. As part of one such agreement, Moroccan politicians promised to deport tens of thousands of migrants, who at the time were sleeping rough in its cities close to Ceuta and Melilla, waiting for the opportunity to enter Spain via the islands.

The violent tactics of border police to keep this promise came to a head one day in September 2005. Reports differ but the consensus is that several hundred (some say 200, others 500) migrants tried to cross the six-mile long barbed wire fence from Morocco into Melilla at once, and were shot at by border police. Many were seriously injured in the crush and five people died. Spain blamed the Moroccan border police, saying its own guards fired only rubber bullets and used tear gas.

What followed was worse. Urged to resolve the situation by Spanish and European governments, the Moroccan police swept through the country rounding up around 500 black men, women and children waiting to cross the border into Europe, and dumped them, without food or water, in the Algerian desert. Jesus Castro Gontales says the Association of Elin followed the buses loaded with migrants and interviewed those stranded. Many died in the desert, while others picked themselves up and continued their journey out of the scorching African desert, and into Europe.