Sweet prison: migrants in Spanish limbo II

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

Spain –  part III

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CETI immigration centre, Ceuta, Spain

Mention CETI to a taxi driver anywhere in Ceuta and he will know what you mean. Everyone in Ceuta knows about the immigration removal centre perched upon a steep hill overlooking the sea.

The conditions are humane, even inviting, compared to similar immigrant-holding centres elsewhere in Europe. This is why the migrants call it a ‘sweet prison’. The open centre is home to around 500 people, most of whom are waiting to be deported. Inhabitants come and go as they please, though they cannot leave between 11pm and 7am without special permission. It is a bit like a children’s summer camp, except it is for adults and their stay is indefinite.

The centre has been open since 2000 and is run by the Spanish ministry for labour and immigration at a cost of around €8m a year. There is a hospital open 24-hours dealing with everything from tuberculosis to headaches to depression. Breakfast is served at 8am, dinner is at 7pm and snacks are provided at 5pm. There is a gym, outdoor courts for basketball, football and table tennis. However, it is not the gym or the sewing classes, but the presence of trained-staff from NGOs providing much-needed expert legal and health services that make life bearable for the migrants.

Compared to immigration holding centres across Europe, CETI is a five-star establishment. Turning up at CETI is a relief for irregular migrants after the traumas of their journey across the Sahara. There are showers, food, beds, computer access, a doctor and staff with a genuine interest in their wellbeing. What more could they want?

Across Europe the answers are the same: freedom from misgovernment, poverty and con­flict. One Nigerian, since deported from Spain, ex­plained that though he was a graduate it was nearly impossible for him to find work at home without connections and contacts. Afghans always speak passionately of their motherland; we have food, we have beautiful mountains, they say, but we also have ISAF, warlords and the Taliban.

What irregular migrants and asylum seek­ers want is access to education and work. Globalisation means they are well aware that these things are accessible in Europe and other western countries. But what happens to that drive and ambition in a place like CETI where all they can do is wait? Does it infantilize them?

The man in charge of CETI since May 2010 is adamant that it is a good place for immigrants. Car­los Bengoechea, 52, is a Spanish civil servant with experience working on EU immigration policy. “We have conceived this centre as an open centre so that immigrants can interact with the rest of the population of the city. There are no problems, it works quite well.

“When they arrive here, they have prob­ably made a long trip in which they have suf­fered a lot. They have been probably vic­tims of many violations of their rights. And probably the average period they use to arrive here in Ceuta is around a year and a half, two years. Then they get into the sea in very small dangerous boats and most of them before coming here to the centre have been saved from the sea in very difficult circumstanc­es and they have seen death very, very near.

“When they come here their psycho­logical state and condition is very weak and to recover their human dignity and their own estimation takes our psychological team a few months of work, it’s not easy, before enter­ing the rest of the integration programme.”

At CETI, the Red Cross and CEAR, a Spanish NGO for refugees, help prepare asylum applications and appeals. Sheila Mohammed Salah, 25, works at CETI as a social worker. “I love my work. I used to work in a high school teaching, but I like the humanitarian work.” As we wander around the centre, Sheila is at ease with CETI’s migrants, chatting, joking and providing moments of light relief.

The migrants living at CETI are packed into tiny dorms, each containing 10 beds and personal lockers. In one cramped room a Nigerian woman cradles her new-born baby, while discussing the possibil­ity of being transferred to the Spanish mainland. Modern Afro-francophone mu­sic reverberates from another room where a group men sit talking.

football game at CETI, immigration centre in Ceuta, Spain

“Ahora aqui muy bueno,” says one mi­grant, who is part Liberian and part Ivo­rian. He is studying a long-distance Spanish course and is keen to show-off. “Here we don’t have any problems,” he says, adding:

“Here in Ceuta we don’t know how long we stay here – some peo­ple stay for one, two years. We cannot call our family because we cannot work.

“We go to school and after we can’t do anything else. The problem is we can­not leave here. It is a big problem. I want to live in Spain to get the paper. To stay in Spain, two years you can get the paper and then you can go anywhere to get the work.”

Most of the inmates speak at least three languages, mostly Arabic, French and Eng­lish (as well as tribal tongues). All are keen to learn Spanish, a sign of their desire to settle rather than keep moving through Eu­rope. CETI provides Spanish classes as well Spanish cooking, creative art and IT lessons.

There is a palpable sense of frus­tration among the migrants; while CETI is a pleasant place, many have made long journeys to find work, and being delayed for months and years in Ceuta is difficult.

Even finding black market work is dif­ficult in Ceuta, mostly because Moroc­can migrants have the monopoly on poor­ly paid unregulated employment. “Ceuta is a small town, it is very difficult compared to the rest of Spain. In places like Ma­drid it is easier for foreign people to get a job with or without a work permit,” says CEARS lawyer Alejandro Romero Aliaga.  “For sub-Saharan people it is very difficult to get a job because in Ceu­ta people [only] work with Moroccan people.”

Moroccans from Tetouan, a city in northern Morocco, have the right to enter Ceuta during the day, but they must leave each night. It is against the law for them to work in Ceuta, and or travel to the Spanish penin­sula. Most Tetouans work on the black market selling fruit and other wares, or cleaning homes. For those in CETI, this leaves the most menial jobs, such as carry­ing people’s grocery shopping or parking cars. On a good day, they may make €4 or €5 from this work.

Rocky, though, is desperate for a nor­mal life, preferably in Europe. “I want to leave [Ceuta] legally. The only way to go from here is go on a truck, it is very dangerous and you can lose your life. People do that. People who have been here for a long period of time.

“There is no other option. But I am not going to do this because I want to live. We are hoping that the Spanish govern­ment will understand our feelings and let us go to the mainland and have a good future and the life we want to live, nothing else.”

CETI immigration holding centre in Ceuta

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.