Europe's Back Doors

Two sleepy Spanish enclaves on the coast of Morocco are suddenly of concern to both sides of the Mediterranean -- as entry points for Africans slipping illegally into the European Union
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T HE first time Michael Emeka heard mention of Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa, he was lying under a truck. The truck was parked alongside a road on the outskirts of Lagos, the capital of Nigeria; Emeka was with three other men, co-workers who had suddenly found themselves out of jobs when the warehouse where they were employed burned down. Taking advantage of the shade the truck offered, the young men were discussing their options: return to their homes in Lagos, or seek opportunity elsewhere?

The decision was not a difficult one to make: go elsewhere. After all, they were young men, confident of their own powers, unencumbered by responsibilities, and, given Nigeria's deep-seated poverty, doubtful about future opportunity at home. So, elsewhere. But where?

One of the men suggested a place called Ceuta; he recalled having read a magazine article about a Spanish city of that name on the northern edge of the continent, a city into which thousands of fellow Africans had already slipped, thus stepping into the embrace and privilege of the European Union.


Emeka's friend was not misinformed. Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish cities -- former penal colonies -- on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. During the 500 years they have been possessions of Spain, these unobtrusive enclaves have for the most part fallen outside the range of mainstream European affairs. But their peripheral status ended when Spain entered the European Union, which effectively moved the southern border of Europe into Africa and made Ceuta and Melilla funnels for clandestine immigration.

In the past immigrants -- at least those in search of economic opportunity, which means most of them -- would have had little reason to make their way to Spain. Spain is a nation from which people have traditionally emigrated, from the New World conquistadors to nineteenth-century settlers in Cuba and Argentina to manual laborers in postwar Germany. Even today Spain's emigrants outnumber its immigrants.

But in 1995 several nations in the European Union began to enact the Schengen Accords, by which internal EU borders were weakened and external borders were strengthened, and entry into Spain became a virtual guarantee of unimpeded passage to Germany, France, or nearly any other EU country -- a powerful temptation for a potential immigrant. And Spain has not been spared the shrinking labor pools and restructuring economies that have affected nearly all industrialized nations. Like its Northern European neighbors, Spain needs guest workers to harvest its crops, build its buildings, clean its houses, and labor in its factories.

Significant numbers of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa began appearing in Ceuta and Melilla in the mid-1990s, almost as soon as the accords started to go into effect, and nearly 12,000 have made their way there so far. At least 6,000 entered Ceuta illegally last year. Despite Spain's attempts at vigilance and prevention, perhaps twenty to twenty-five Africans reach Ceuta daily, and some 10,000 are said to be biding their time in nearby Moroccan cities such as Tangier and Tetouan, waiting their turn for experienced local smugglers to show them how, when, and where to cross the border.

These figures are not large in comparison with immigration figures for other EU nations, such as Germany and France, and tiny in comparison with the number of legal and illegal immigrants who enter the United States each year. But they are certain to grow. The Spanish Foreign Ministry estimates that Europe will see up to 25 million legal and illegal immigrants over the next ten years, with the bulk coming from Africa; if such predictions prove correct, the impact on Spain will be great.

"The figures are small, but the phenomenon itself is new,"says Hector Maravall, the director of Spain's National Immigration and Social Services Institute. "Today there are about ten thousand immigrants out of all Africa, including Morocco, into Spain each year. If you compare that with the immigration pressure on Germany or even Italy, it's nothing. But four or five years ago there were five hundred annually to Spain. You have to ask, What is going to be happening five years from now?"

The Schengen Accords foresaw some of the potential complications in Spain's insistence on maintaining the enclaves -- a position, like the United Kingdom's refusal to relinquish Gibraltar, rooted in both sentimental historical reasons and strategic military ones. However, when the accords were drafted, the primary concern was clandestine immigration out of Morocco, where, according to a recent Moroccan study, poverty, unemployment, and demographic distribution are such that up to 89 percent of young Moroccans aspire to emigrate to Europe someday.

An elaborate system of border controls was devised to coincide with implementation of the accords, in order to thwart a deluge of uncontrolled immigration from Morocco into the enclaves and not asphyxiate their economies, which are almost entirely dependent on trade (much of it clandestine) with the Moroccan hinterland. Moroccans living in the Rif, a poor, mountainous, and historically separatist region of Morocco in the immediate vicinity of Ceuta and Melilla, are free to enter the enclaves, but because of controls on outgoing aviation and maritime traffic, they cannot continue onward to the Spanish mainland.

Moroccans lacking permits who are detained in Ceuta and Melilla, or who are caught trying to pass from Ceuta and Melilla to the mainland -- most frequently under or inside trucks on ferries -- are dealt with straightforwardly: they are deported to Morocco. However, when non-Moroccan immigrants -- primarily from sub-Saharan Africa -- began showing up in Ceuta and Melilla, the issue became more complex.

When detained by the Spanish police, these immigrants routinely give false names and countries of origin, having previously destroyed or concealed their identification cards and passports. The purpose of the subterfuge -- common throughout Europe -- is to delay the repatriation process. Under Spanish law, if an undocumented immigrant has not been expelled from the country within forty days, he or she can be detained no longer. And even when an immigrant's country of origin is verifiable, the same bureaucratic loophole prevails, given the combination of clumsy EU norms and clumsier (and often uncooperative) bureaucracies in many African nations. As a frustrated police administrator working with African immigrants in Ceuta says, "You try calling Burundi. You try sending a fax to Sierra Leone. See how fast you get an answer."

Once an immigrant has set foot in Ceuta or Melilla, the onus of repatriation is on the Spanish government. This is not simple. Deporting undocumented illegal immigrants to Morocco -- whence, obviously, they must have crossed into the enclaves -- is in theory a legal alternative. A 1992 Spain-Morocco readmission treaty, similar to many treaties signed in recent years by Germany and its neighbors in Eastern Europe, calls for the return of undocumented immigrants who can be proved to have entered Spanish territory through Morocco.

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